How a Tiger Woods design could transform Chicago's golf scene

Mark Rolfing began his quest with a rather depressing premise: "The core of Chicago golf is rotten. It's not an apple you can polish."

In some ways, Chicago is America's greatest golf destination with a bevy of historic and enticing options outside the city limits. Yet in other ways, it's an underachieving wasteland.

Think about it: We have PGA Tour-caliber courses to the north (Conway Farms), west (Medinah) and south (Olympia Fields) but nothing within 25 miles of the Loop. And while Chicago hosts a PGA Tour event every other year during football season, Wisconsin lands Ryder Cups and the 2017 U.S. Open.

A tourist staying on Michigan Avenue is more likely to beg to get on a private course than venture 17 miles south to play the links-style Harborside International.

Chicago Park District courses are an insane value for residents, but there's a reason for that.

Few golfers on the North Side know that South Shore, with its sparkling lakefront views and Frisbee-sized greens, even exists. Instead they flock to nine-hole Sydney R. Marovitz, which on weekends can be a three-hour slog.

And consider the Marovitz name. It's a marketer's nightmare. Who knows who Sydney Marovitz was? What does the name tell you about its location? Nothing.

What if, Rolfing wondered, Lake Michigan were part of the name? Or, considering Wrigley Field's proximity, the Cubs?

The two-deck Diversey Driving Range is well-located, but what if you could replace it with Topgolf, a 12-month-a-year indoor/outdoor operation that is part golf range, part sports bar, part high-tech bowling?

Yet for all of Rolfing's ideas to rejuvenate the game he loves in the city he worships, the NBC/Golf Channel analyst knew he had to raise the curtain with a showstopper — combining Jackson Park and South Shore into a world-class facility.

'A great promoter'

Rolfing's quest began four years ago. A Dekalb native with a home off the fifth hole at Kapalua in Maui, Rolfing had successfully unified Hawaii's golf and tourism entities under a single exotic-drink umbrella.

Now he's doing the same in Chicago, getting Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Park District, the Western Golf Association, the First Tee of Greater Chicago, the PGA Tour and course management firms Kemper Sports and Billy Casper Golf to work toward a common good. The nonprofit group Rolfing created is called the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance (CPGA).

He refused to be deterred by a diagnosis of Stage 4 salivary gland cancer in the summer of 2015. At 67, Rolfing has been deemed cancer-free.

Among those Rolfing has recruited to serve as advisers or board members is Mike Keiser, a legend in the industry for having the gall and foresight to create the Bandon Dunes Resort on the coast of Oregon. It flaunts four of America's top 16 public courses, according to Golf Digest.

As recently as June, Keiser gave the Jackson Park/South Shore project a one-in-100 chance of succeeding. Too much red tape, too many community concerns and potential environmental issues. When Keiser upped those odds to two-in-three in a September report in the Tribune, the golf community took note.

It was Keiser who got WGA President John Kaczkowski to believe. Given that the WGA runs the BMW Championship, Kaczkowski is Chicago's top link to the PGA Tour.

"Mark is a great promoter of the game of golf," Kaczkowski said of Rolfing. "Chicago holds a special place in his heart, and this project is something he views as important for the city — and for golfers in Chicago. It helps address a void that, quite honestly, needs to be filled."

Meet Tiger Woods

Chicago Park District Superintendent Michael Kelly calls himself an "avid hack golfer" who doesn't play enough to keep a handicap. Having caddied at Ridge Country Club in the Beverly neighborhood, the game is in his blood.

Not only that, his family is from South Shore. His father and uncles went to Mount Carmel, which used Jackson Park as its home course.

Kelly got to know Rolfing during the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay near Seattle.

"Mark was this one-man show preaching the power of golf in Chicago," Kelly said. "He has the charisma and celebrity thing going where people listen to him. He said, 'I want you to meet with someone from the PGA Tour.' And then the next thing you know, I'm talking to Tiger Woods."

What was that like?

"He was down to earth and humble," Kelly said. "What I enjoyed the most was us talking about how our moms would drop us off at the course and how the highlight was when you returned with more golf balls then you came with. That was our common denominator."

The result, first reported last week by the Tribune, is that Woods will be the lead course designer of a $30 million project with the potential to make the South Side a world-renowned destination, transforming Chicago's golf scene.

And creating a new core.

tgreenstein@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @TeddyGreenstein

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