Tiger’s Chicago Project: Quick Thoughts

News broke today that Tiger Woods, with the encouragement of President Barack Obama, has signed on to help transform Chicago’s Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a complex “that could host a premium PGA Tour event such as the BMW Championship.”

The whole affair savors of a well-planned rollout by Mayor Rahm Emanuel: ask the President to make a phone call, get the Big Cat on board, offer the scoop to a Tribune reporter, and watch the thing go viral. But the glittering names of Woods and Obama are a distraction here. The more important part of the story will play out over the next several months, as Emanuel and his allies try to sell Chicago on a $30-million plan to replace an affordable muni with an upscale championship track.

For a preview of that likely contentious process, as well as smart speculation on how Woods might route and build his lakeside course, read this deep dive by the fried egg.

As a former resident of the Chicago area, and as a proponent of accessible and affordable community golf, I will have more to say about this story going forward. The project has just been announced, and we don’t know much yet. But for now, here are a few quick thoughts:

  • In order to understand this story, you need to know something about Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago. The city is marked by deep and persistent inequalities of race and economic opportunity: whereas the North Side has thrived as a hub of business and tourism, the South Side has struggled to stave off urban blight, much less to sustain a viable economy. Many Chicagoans believe that Emanuel, a moderate Democrat with strong corporate ties, has exacerbated this North-South division. His education budget cuts and school closures have disproportionately affected African-American South Side residents, and his handling of police brutality cases has been widely condemned in the black community. Perhaps more directly relevant to the Jackson Park project, many have accused the mayor of pushing corporate-funded gentrification on the South Side. So in proposing to raise $30 million for a fancy golf course, Emanuel is serving up a huge slab of red meat to his critics.
  • Emanuel already has his main argument lined up: “Restoring these historic golf courses will create another economic and recreational asset for the South Side.” The new course, the mayor contends, will bring jobs to the South Side. In addition, there will probably be a caddie program, a short course for juniors, a partnership with First Tee, and a discounted green fee for residents. While I see the potential of these benefits, I wonder who will end up getting to enjoy them. Yes, Jackson Park is on the South Side, but more to the point, it is next to the neighborhood of Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago and to a population that looks a lot more North Side than Englewood. Jackson Park also borders Woodlawn, a historically black neighborhood that has begun to gentrify. Will Tiger’s golf course, along with Obama’s upcoming library, turn Woodlawn into a demographic extension of Hyde Park? Among the caddies of Jackson Park, how many will be kids whose schools Emanuel shut down?
  • Currently, Jackson Park Golf Course lists a weekday rate of $30 for 18 holes. According to the fried egg on Twitter, the fee used to be under $20. How much should Chicagoans expect the rates to increase?
  • Twenty miles north of Jackson Park, in Evanston, IL — where I lived for six years — a group of volunteers led by Jason Way has been working to transform the neglected Canal Shores Golf Course into a fun, thoughtfully designed, cheap, junior-friendly track. Canal Shores does not aspire to host a PGA Tour event. Rather, the course strives to be a source of pleasure and civic pride for local residents. That is how a community golf course should be built: from the ground up.
  • But who knows? The new Jackson Park-South Shore complex may turn out to be a boon for the South Side and for the game of golf. The site is a piece of magic. Still, it does not bode well that, to borrow the fried egg’s language, the “community” is currently one of the “obstacles” that the project must overcome. For community golf to succeed, the community itself must be the impetus, not the opposition.

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