Windy City Rejuvenation puts Forest Preserve back on the map

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

CHICAGO -- How bad was it? Bad. So bad, the tee boxes were made of concrete. No, seriously, they really were. For years, a golfer playing the Indian Boundary Golf Course, one of 10 Cook County Forest Preserve golf courses, had to tee off from cement squares sometimes topped with a tattered, rubber driving range mat. You wondered why the course needed a greens keeper on the staff when a masonry foreman might be the more practical hire.

Today, you can say goodbye to the concrete and say hello to Billy Casper Golf.

The county where Chicago sits is Cook County and for years the public golf courses in the forest preserve district were a $1.5 million drain on the budget. They lost money every year. That drain is no longer. In fact, the courses have been pulling in some serious cash -- $1.5 million since being privatized in 2002.

Believing that private industry could run the courses better, county officials hired The Billy Casper Golf Company to manage the facilities. Cook County still owns the courses. Casper rents them for $350,000 a year and a percentage of the profits, but the real winners here are the golfers.

The good word is spreading and making its way into the county offices by telephone, survey and comment card.

Tony has been a regular for three years at George Dunne National in the southern suburb of Oak Forest.

"The course has been getting better with every week," he says. "The greens are better cared for, not to mention the bunkers have become more playable since they put fresh sand in them."

Mark plays at Highland Woods in the northwest corner of the county.

"What a turnaround. I played this course last season and it was horrible but this year there is a big change. It makes you look forward to the new season."

The county courses had been a victim of neglect for over a decade, but the new deal with Casper's company is beginning to turn some heads.

Big changes

It sounds like a cliché, but it really is about the playability of the courses.

"We are doing what you simply have to do to maintain good course conditions." says Chuck Kohut, the Regional Director of Marketing for Billy Casper Golf. The former maintenance schedule included little more than cutting the grass.

"We are doing the basics -- fertilizing regularly, preparing the fairways to show a clear distinction between the fairway and the rough, rebuilding sand traps," adds Kohut.

And this is happening at all of the courses, not just one or two.

However, many a critical, anticipatory eye has been focused on George Dunne National. This is the county's big gun; it's the premier layout, the one flooded with accolades the year it opened. It was recognized by Golf Digest as one of the top 25 public courses in the country in the early 1990s. But Dunne (named after a local, prominent politician) was allowed to deteriorate through poor management and neglect. Today, Dunne is beginning to show signs of returning to former glory.

"There's been extensive landscaping at George Dunne and continuous work on bunkers, greens and fairways," say Kohut. Although Casper says it's giving all of the courses special attention, it's no secret George Dunne is a layout the management hopes to showcase once again.

The other premier course in the county's stable is Highland Woods in Hoffman Estates where the most extensive bunker work is being done.

"They are completely rebuilding the traps," says Kohut. It's true. Most regulars wouldn't recognize the place.

Highland is located on the highest point in the county and has more rolling hills than any of the nine others.

Indian Boundary Golf Course in Chicago, the county's most popular layout, also is seeing enormous changes. There's a complete irrigation system being installed, there's a new lake now in play, some holes are being lengthened, and those concrete tee boxes are coming out.

On the south side of the county, probably the most historic of the courses is also being pampered back to life. Joe Louis "The Champ" Golf Course in Riverdale was named for the former Heavyweight Champion who used to play its fairways on nearly a daily basis. Joe loved his golf. He would have hated to see those years of decay. Today, he'd be proud of his namesake.

Not all is perfect

It's clear; the most important steps are being taken to improve all 10 golf courses. But, the Billy Casper Golf Company admits it's going to take some time to get each of the facilities to the best level possible.

Meantime, there are other issues to consider.

One of the biggest complaints about the county courses has been pace of play. Players have been grumbling for years about tee time spacing and timid rangers who miss opportunities to move people along.

There's also been some belly-aching about the green fees. For the most part the fees are reasonable, but it's $43 to play George Dunne and few people say they believe the course's current conditioning matches its price. Yes, noticeable improvements have been made, but for some, not enough yet to justify $43.

Billy Casper Golf is keenly aware of these concerns and hopes to continue to address them.

Make a return

If it's been years since you've struggled through playing on one of the Cook County Forest Preserves courses, you ought to try it again. This time you will not struggle.

The courses in general are managed more professionally with good, friendly staffs, competent agronomists, and, all-in-all, great prices. You can walk most of the courses for less than $30, two of them for less than $25. Most are easy to get to from the city and a new online reservation system has simplified the tee-time process. At one time all the county courses were on a first-come, first-served basis.

The Cook County Forest Preserve courses once had been considered part of the minor leagues compared to the cream of courses offered in and around Chicago. But that's changing. There's light at the end of the tunnel and both the county and area golfers are beginning to see green again.

Did you know?

Besides Joe Louis "The Champ" Golf Course, the Cook County properties also include Chick Evans golf course, another course named after a Chicago area sports legend.

Chick Evans is probably a more appropriate name because Evans was the first amateur golfer to win both the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur. He also founded the Chick Evans Scholarship program for caddies.

The Cook County Forest Preserve courses are scattered in and outside the city of Chicago. The farthest course from the heart of the city is just a 30 minute drive.

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

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Chick Evans Golf Course

    Barb Gielow wrote on: Jul 7, 2005

    Actually 2 questions:
    Who was the architect of the Chick Evans golf course and what year was the course built?
    Barb Gielow