CHICAGO – Envision this, Chicago golf fans: A championship-caliber course on the lakefront. Discounted tee times for city residents. A caddie program that creates jobs and could yield college scholarships. A BMW Championship that lives here, rather than rotating among Conway Farms in Lake Forest, Medinah and cities such as Indianapolis and Philadelphia.
It's an idea that intrigues some of the top power brokers in Chicago golf.
"It's easy to envision the end result," said Lincoln Park resident Mike Keiser, the visionary behind the acclaimed Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Oregon. "But it's hard to envision all the ins and outs. It is fraught with political and cultural (challenges)."
Mark Rolfing, the NBC/Golf Channel analyst who grew up in DeKalb, Ill., is spearheading a plan that would combine the Jackson Park and South Shore courses to form one standout 18- or 27-hole facility.
Advocates see it as an engine for youth golf and economic development on the South Side.
"I'm dubbing this as the future of urban golf in America," Rolfing said. "We're not creating access for golfers who already have it (with a private club). This would be affordable for everyone. The PGA Tour and a major event would be the carrot at the end."
John Kaczkowski, CEO of the Western Golf Association, which runs the BMW Championship that's being played at Conway Farms this week, said having another potential option would be "really appealing."
"I've looked at the map, the aerials," Kaczkowski said. "There's certainly space enough to build an 18-hole facility and maybe another par-3 (course) or nine holes and have room for ancillary stuff for a tournament. And you can't beat those views.
"But it can be tough to build a golf course to test the best in the world that also would be playable for someone learning the game."
The north edge of South Shore is about a Bubba Watson 3-iron to Jackson Park's 10th tee at the southeast edge of the property. Dividing the properties is the intersection of 67th Street and East Marquette Drive, roughly 7 miles south of Soldier Field.
Combining the courses might require building out land on Lake Michigan, a pricey endeavor, but the resulting holes could be spectacular.
"There are so many hurdles," said KemperSports President Josh Lesnik, whose company manages courses such as the Glen Club in Glenview and Washington's Chambers Bay, which hosted the 2015 U.S. Open. "But could it be done? Absolutely it could.
"It has to make financial sense, where residents pay a favorable rate and tourists pay a big rate. And the project itself would be an enormous challenge, crossing roads and filling in the lake. But with a caddie program and college scholarships, it could be a phenomenal thing for that part of the city."
Rolfing's idea calls for private funding to support municipal golf. Keiser said he and Jerry Rich, who built Rich Harvest Farms in west suburban Sugar Grove, are among those who would offer financial support.
A charitable foundation in Atlanta in 1993 purchased and renovated East Lake Golf Club, Bobby Jones' home course that had fallen into disrepair, and it has become the permanent site of the Tour Championship, which will be played next week. East Lake proceeds benefit a nearby housing project, but the club is private.
An even better model is TPC Harding Park, the publicly owned course in San Francisco that was renovated in 2002 and has since hosted the 2009 Presidents Cup and was awarded the 2020 PGA Championship.
The nonprofit San Francisco Public Golf Alliance has championed that city's historic but neglected courses with a mission of "preserving affordable, eco-friendly golf."
The Chicago Park District owns the 18-hole Jackson Park and nine-hole South Shore courses and the land. General Superintendent Michael Kelly was not made available for an interview, but he said in a statement that the Park District is "constantly looking for ways to provide growth and expansion of our golf programming for residents and visitors alike."
Jackson Park and South Shore combine for about 40,000 rounds per year, according to an official at Billy Casper Golf, which manages the Park District's eight golf properties. That's decent, but the nine-hole Sydney R. Marovitz (formerly Waveland) course gets about 50,000 rounds alone.
When Jackson Park opened in 1899, it was the first public course west of the Alleghenies. South Shore prospered as a country club through the 1950s but was turned over to the Park District in 1974. The South Shore Cultural Center, located in the middle of the golf course, hosted Barack and Michelle Obama's wedding reception in 1992.
Washington Park and Jackson Park are vying for the $500 million Obama Presidential Library, with a decision due in early 2016. Advocates of the Jackson/South Shore plan would be undeterred either way, but as Keiser put it: "President Obama loves to play. What better place to have a championship course than out the back of the Obama library?"
Rolfing, a Northern Illinois alumnus and lifelong Cubs fan, has shorter-term ideas to help revitalize what he calls "arguably the greatest golf town in America – the fact that it is not marketed in any way, shape or form as a golf destination is almost beyond belief."
Rolfing hoped to take interested parties in town for the BMW Championship on a tour of South Shore. But he is in Houston getting radiation therapy after having a cancerous tumor removed from his left cheek.
He is undeterred by the challenges of cost, red tape and possible community reaction.
"The fact that the greatest golf town doesn't have a PGA Tour event on a regular basis pretty much says it all," he said. "If we don't have a compelling reason for the PGA Tour to be here, we're missing the boat."
This article was written by Teddy Greenstein from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.