Playing Chicago on the cheap

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

CHICAGO -- Golf is not about $150 greens fees, not about $1 million real estate lining private fairways, not about bag boys taking $500 bags from the trunks of BMWs, and it's not PGA Tour pros griping about greens that seem unbelievably perfect to you and me. The real soul of golf is the guy who plays nine holes after work with his buddies at his favorite golf course; the one that fits him and his game like a comfortably worn golf glove and doesn't require a home equity loan to tee it up.

There are lots of premier courses in and around America's biggest cities and Chicago certainly has some beauties. But there are few urban areas like the Windy City that also give you the choice of knocking it around for less than $20. How good is that?

Plus, Chicago has golf attitude. Chicagoans play in the wind, the rain, the snow, the cold, drink a beer during the round, and needle their buddies on every tee and at every green. It's golf for and by the masses. Yes, you can play cheap golf in Chicago, but the experience is rich.

Downtown Golf

Let's start with the city of Chicago. There are six golf courses scattered in the heart of the city, on the Southside and Northside. Five are nine holes. One is a full eighteen. All are cheap. To play 18 holes will cost you no more than $23 on a weekend and considerably less if you're a city resident, a senior or junior, play during the week or at twilight.

The centerpiece of the Chicago Park District courses is the 18-hole Jackson Park, which sits on the city's Southside not far from the Museum of Science and Industry. "The Jackie", as the locals call it, was the city's first public golf course. It was built in 1899 on top of the landfill holding waste and debris from the Chicago World's Fair. Jackson Park became America's busiest golf course hosting more than 250,000 rounds in 1925. Greens fee? Five cents.

But the heart and soul of Chicago city golf is the nine-hole course that hugs Lake Michigan in the city's trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood and gives you a zoom lens view of the city skyscrapers. The course, then called Waveland, opened in 1932 and it was so beautiful the city initially instituted a policy banning beginners. Park district officials were afraid hackers would wreck the place. This, of course, didn't go over very well with city residents and there were even protests at the course. The rule was changed.

Waveland is now named Sydney R. Marovitz Golf Course as a tribute to one of the city's civil rights activists. But nearly everyone still calls it Waveland and many believe it's the toughest of the city courses. It's certainly longer than the rest, coming in at 3240 yards for its nine holes. More of nature's elements also come into play since its fairways are so close to the raw Lake Michigan winds.

Cook County Golf

Golf in the county that holds the city of Chicago is rich and varied. There are 10 Cook County Forest Preserve courses with three of them in the city limits. Nine of them you can play for less than $30, two for less than $25, and the rest for $20 or less. George W. Dunne National Golf Course, named after a former county commissioner, is the most expensive of the bunch at $43. But that's a steal considering what a good layout it is.

George W. Dunne, once known as Forest Preserve National, was recognized by Golf Digest as one of the top 25 public courses in the country in the early 1990's. It sits inside beautifully wooded acres along with eight lakes, tree-lined fairways and lots of wildlife.

The county courses had suffered from neglect for a number of years, but there's a new deal with Billy Casper Golf to manage and maintain the forest preserve courses. All involved believe even better days are ahead for Cook County golf.

Suburban Golf

Just a few miles outside of the city, any adventurous golfer can find tremendous values. There are plenty of courses in Chicago's suburbs that will cost you only about $30 and still give you good conditions, friendly help and a solid challenge.

Orchard Hills in the northern suburb of Waukegan is an everyman golf course, with an everyman price. On the weekdays you can play 18 holes for $30, and that includes a cart. And on the weekends, Orchard Hills has one of the most popular fish fries around. By the way, Orchard Hills has no orchard and no hills. Go figure.

In the northwest suburb of Elk Grove, Fox Run Golf Links is the hot spot. For as little as $21 you can walk 18 holes during the week and play a course that's a shotmakers paradise.

A little farther out from the city is Red Tail Golf Club in Lakewood. This is a wonderfully conditioned golf course with bent grass tees, fairways and greens and two island greens. The course also has a country club feel to it, but no way close to country club money. You can walk Red Tail during the week for no more than $30.

In the town of Joliet, about 30 miles from Chicago, there's a NASCAR racetrack, a nearby casino and one of the best golf values anywhere. Wedgewood Golf Course is run by the municipality, but it's not your run-of-the-mill "muni." The conditions of this course are solid and the greens are pristine, run true and quick. The fairways are consistent and the layout is compact for walking but not overly tight. It sits at a busy intersection in the town of Joliet, but most of the course is free from life 's noises. It's just $28.

In Aurora, Illinois golf has had a renaissance. Phillips Park Golf Course was once a run-down, nearly forgotten 18 holes. But two years ago the Aurora Park District renovated the layout, produced new holes, added bent grass, a new range and a short course for juniors. It is now one of the better courses in Chicago's far west suburbs and it's one of the most inexpensive. Phillips Park is just $26.

Saving Some Bucks

There are other great values in and around Chicago, including some premier courses that offer great rates for off-peak tee times. Plus, be sure to alert the attendants in any of the pro shops that you're a senior, or have a discount card or coupon. Many of the courses will honor those special rates. Golf in and around Chicago is rich with history, top-ranked courses, and legendary private clubs. But there are few things in golf that are as satisfying as finding a great bargain in a big town. There's only one regret about sharing these little secrets with you, a tee time just might be harder to get.

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

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