Second To None A longtime Chicagoan takes stock of the local golf scene, and his own tortured history with the game

June 09, 2003

If Chicago's two best known celebrities, Michael Jordan and Al
Capone, both loved to play golf, why can't a mope like me?

The U.S. Open is coming back to our fair city for the first time
in 13 years, to souped-up Olympia Fields Country Club, and it
seems to me that, as a citizen of the region, I should perhaps
pick up the sticks of doom and begin hacking again. Olympia
Fields is a lovely old course, a place that had no less a
celebrity than Amos Alonzo Stagg, the legendary football coach,
as its first president. Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus have won
championships at Olympia Fields. One of Capone's understudies,
Machine Gun Jack McGurn, who shot golf as well as he shot tommy
guns, was once arrested on the course while playing in the
Western Open under his real name, Vince Gebhardi. Golf fanatic,
federal judge and former Olympia Fields president Richard Austin
once ordered the FBI to stop its surveillance of Mafia don Sam
Giancana because agents following the thug on the course had
committed the unpardonable sin of hitting into him while
Giancana was still on the green. So, you see, Chicago golf has
civility. Even if mine doesn't.

I can distinctly remember when I stopped playing. I don't know
the exact instant, but let's call it 2:36 PST on Friday, Jan. 23,
1998, at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, Calif., two days before Super
Bowl XXXII, and we won't be off by more than a few ticks. It
wasn't so much that after 35 years I still couldn't hit the ball
straight; or that one of my two playing partners, a lovely female
editor who had never played before, was doing about as well as I
was; or even that I had once played a round in Chicago with
Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, who was about to win the
approaching Super Bowl, and had been sickened to learn that, as
good and long as he was, he hadn't even started playing golf
until after college. No, it was just everything, from tees
jabbing me in my pockets to saddle shoes on old men to the very
word fore!--where the hell is that from?--that did me in. When I
approached the course marshal, who was haughtily following us in
his cart the way a vulture follows wounded prairie dogs, I said,
"Do you think I'm trying to hit the ball in the woods?" And that
was it. Nothing good was on the horizon. Take a deep breath. Walk
away. The clubs have remained in the garage since, corroding like
tineless rakes.

But here I see a vista of emerald and mist, down a silent avenue
arched with trees, and the sport beckons seductively once more. I
am looking at the tiny village of Golf, Ill., nestled in the
leafy northern suburbs of Chicago like a Titleist in a chipmunk's
nest. You thought Golf was only a game? Lord, you can live in it.
This half-mile-square slice of Oz includes the Glen View Club, a
quaint Metra railway stop and a small red-brick building that
houses the Western Golf Association headquarters, the offices of
the Evans Scholars Foundation and the post office.

The WGA was started in Chicago in 1899, and the Chick Evans
Caddie Scholarship program, which the WGA administers, was
founded in 1930. The town of Golf was established in 1928 and in
1955 became home to the WGA. There are, according to police chief
Lee Walat, the only cop on duty, 168 houses and 484 people in
Golf. Does he know them all? "Yes," Walat replies.

I don't see a single person in the leafy spring haze, only ghosts
of the old boys who got off the Milwaukee Road train 100 years
ago, at the edge of a pasture, the conductor yelling, "Golf
stop!" and walked to the Glen View Club. There are no schools,
stores, gas stations, restaurants, bars or churches in Golf.
(Unless you count the church of straightness.) There is no home
mail delivery. Villagers don't want it. They come to the tiny
post office in the WGA building to pick up their magazines and
bills and, one presumes, to find out if Opie is goin' fishing or
ball hunting. Golf is a dreamlike place.

How separate is Golf from the real world? As a suburban paper
stated in 1974, "There is no crime in Golf. There are no
delinquents. Nobody gets mugged." But my golf has been criminal,
so I ask Jim Moore, the stately educational director for the
Evans Scholars Foundation, if there is deeper meaning here, in
this hamlet, in this game.

"I'm not sure I understand," he replies.

I mention that I have problems with golf, that I have thrown
clubs, quit, done worse things still. Yet so many people revel in
and are uplifted by the sport's transcendent aura. I tell him I
can't, for instance, imagine a little town named Football.

"Golf is a means to an end," Moore says. "An ancient sport. And a
sport played for a lifetime. In four hours you can learn an awful
lot."

In an hour you can learn plenty from Da Coach, Mike Ditka. A golf
Yoda himself, after a fashion--his famous epistemological query,
"Who you crappin'?" has become the title for a popular Chicago
sports-talk radio segment--Ditka speaks mostly to the darker,
human side of the game. Here at Nite 'N Gale restaurant in
Highwood, just a handful of tee shots away from Da Coach's
favorite hangout, the all-male Bob O'Link Golf Club in Highland
Park, Ditka is at once reflective and apologetic. Even though he
has had both hips rebuilt, one even with "a redo," as he puts it,
and has numerous pinched nerves, arthritic joints and the like
from his days as a Hall of Fame tight end with the Bears, he
says, "I'm not going to quit. Golf is the only thing I enjoy."

His face is burned as red as his zip-up sweater from hours spent
on courses throughout Chicagoland. But it's red from impatience,
too. I can identify. I feel like a supplicant at Plato's knee.
"Got to play fast," says Ditka, who sports a six handicap. "My
game is go to the ball, hit it and hit it again. Play slow? Only
once will you do that. I'll leave." I've heard a number of tales
about a fuming Ditka packing it in when folks dillydally. "I
remember walking off at Fiddlesticks in Fort Myers [Fla.]. Just
left. Told the guy I was with I couldn't stand it."

The yearning and the dissatisfaction resonate in my troubled golf
soul. The owner of Nite 'N Gale, Marvin Fiocchi, slips Ditka some
ribs to gnaw on. Ditka and Marv are best buddies, but sometimes
stuff happens. "I missed this short putt when we were playing a
while ago, and you know, I was going to hit it out of there,"
says Da Coach. I nod. "Well, just as I threw the ball into the
air and swung my putter, Marv bends over to get his ball out of
the cup. Gee, I hit him in the forehead and took a bunch of skin
off him. He was on blood thinners at the time, so it was a heck
of a time getting him to stop bleeding."

That's golf, too. Things can't always be controlled. And here in
Chicago there are so many courses with so many quirks that
adventures like Ditka's and Marv's surely happen all the time. In
Tom Govedarica's Chicago Golf: The First 100 Years, the author
writes, "When J.M. McEvoy drove from the 3rd tee at the
Midlothian course in 1924, his ball ended up in a donkey's ear.
McEvoy took a one-shot penalty." A mistake followed by
appropriate penance. That's Chicago-style, too.

Phil Kosin, the publisher and editor of Chicagoland Golf, the
long-running biweekly paper with the slogan CHICAGO'S NUMBER ONE
GOLF PUBLICATION, says people don't know a fraction of the
historic and trivial things that have occurred in Chi-Town
through the ages. "Aw, you can't believe any of the stuff you
read in the books," he says with a dismissive wave of the hand in
his cluttered, smoke-shrouded office in Woodridge. "There aren't
any thorough ones on Chicago golf, anyway."

Big and mustachioed and gruff and intolerant of b.s., just like
Da Coach, Kosin is considered to be the Bible in these parts, and
each thing he says in response to a simple question leads to
another fact, another observation, down and down a veritable
fairway gopher hole of limitless depth. There is no official
count on the courses--big and tiny, public and private--in the
area, but Kosin has numbers in his head.

"O.K., the Chicago region has more public-access courses than
anywhere else in the world. Anywhere," he says. "The first golf
played in the country was here during the Civil War, at Camp
Douglas, a prisoner of war camp. In 1892 a guy built seven holes
around a mansion in Lake Forest--was that the first official
course? Anyway, there are 1.77 million golfers in the Chicago
market, and if you figure where they can easily drive, from the
Wisconsin border, west to the Rock River, Sterling, Dixon and all
that, down to Ottawa and Kankakee, and east through all of highly
populated northwest Indiana, and you're talking everything from
nine holes to 18 holes, par-3s on up to championship, I'm going
to say 135 private and probably, oh, 375 public courses."

That's more than 500 places to hack. Say each course is jammed
with 100 golfers. Hypothetical, sure. But you'd have 50,000
golfers, a small army of Chicagoans, all equipped with primitive
weapons and missiles on the battlefields of the sporting prairie.
Interesting.

"Now Joe Jemsek," says Kosin, "I knew him for more than 25 years.
He died last year at 89, but he was patriarch of all
public-course players. He built the Dubsdread course at Cog Hill,
which he owned, and he upgraded public courses to look like
members-only courses."

At any rate Jemsek was a 17-year-old head pro at Cog Hill in 1929
when he got a phone call one winter afternoon. "'Joe, it's Al
Capone, and I'm going to Miami on the train,'" says Kosin. "'Me
and my three buddies need some golf clubs.' Jemsek knew him as a
customer at Cog Hill. They were in a hurry, so Joe said, 'I'll
bring you some.' 'In Florida?' said Capone. 'No, when the train
stops in Kankakee.' So Joe hustled down and met Capone, gave him
the four sets of clubs, and Capone said, 'What do I owe you?' 'A
hundred and fifty a set.'

"'That's no deal,' said Capone.

"'Well,' said Joe, 'I put in some balls, and I even guessed at
your hand size and put in some gloves, too.'

"Capone laughed and gave him a $100 tip. The thing was, this was
Feb. 12, 1929, two days before the St. Valentine's Day Massacre,
and Capone was setting up his alibi by getting out of town."
Kosin chuckles. "Kind of a cute story."

But not as cute as another by Iron (Shaft) Mike Ditka. It seems
Ditka missed another gimme putt at Bob O'Link back around 1990,
when he was still coaching the Bears. "It was the 18th hole, and
instead of acting like a human being, I took the putter and bent
it behind my neck," he says. "Which was O.K." I nod. I
understand. "Trouble was, it snapped and the jagged end went in
behind my ear."

A bloody mess ensued. "A doctor in our group got it to stop
bleeding, but I had to go because I was giving a speech down on
the South Side. So I'm there talking, and people in the crowd
look horrified. I'm wondering what's wrong. You know how when you
start talking your adrenaline gets going and the blood flows?" I
nod. "Well, I was wearing a powder-blue sport coat, and I look
down and blood was running from behind my ear, onto my neck, over
my shirt and all over my coat. I stopped and found a towel, and I
said, 'If you don't mind, I'll hold a towel over this.' I
finished the speech and went to the hospital and got 40 stitches."

Chicago golf is about toughness, too, and like laborers building
an infinite array of minipyramids, there have always been golf's
toughest workers, the caddies. Chicago is home to the Evans
Scholars program for caddies, headquartered in the aforementioned
land of Golf. With the funds provided by, among others, the
Western Open under the guidelines of former amateur star Charles
(Chick) Evans Jr., the Evans Scholars Foundation gives college
scholarships to teenage guys and gals who are in need, have good
grades and have labored as bag carriers and ball searchers, if
not human doormats, for at least two years. There are now 23
universities involved in the program, but Northwestern was the
first to take the loopers, beginning in 1930.

I'm standing now at the Evans Scholars' house in the south quad
at Northwestern, and some of the brothers (there are sisters,
too) are chilling in the tidy front room, which differs wildly
from the dorm rooms upstairs. (Perhaps they're tired from all
that bunker raking and ball-mark fixing, one supposes.) Charles
Thornton, a 20-year-old sophomore from Villa Park, recalls the
downside of caddying for eight years at his course, Butterfield
Country Club in Oak Brook: "The worst thing is going and sitting
for eight hours in the caddie house because you can't get out."

"Yeah," says 22-year-old senior Mike Bulfin, who did his time at
Park Ridge Country Club. "Just sticking it out during the B-jock
years, when you first come in, that's tough, too. They pick on
the 13-year-olds. Tie 'em to telephone poles."

"Make them tie knots in towels and fight each other," adds
Thornton.

"Throw them in the pond and roll them in a trap," says Bulfin.

Javier Uriostegui, an 18-year-old freshman from Chicago who
worked at Evanston Country Club, recalls that sometimes the
hardest thing to do is to not buckle in hysterics. "A guy was
reading the green, backing up and backing up, and finally he fell
off the ledge into the sand," the young man says. "It was $100 a
bag, but I had to laugh."

The caddies agree that they aren't giant fans of the sport nor
are they great players. "Monday comes, caddies' day, and I didn't
even want to go near the course," says Thornton. "After six days
you're sick of it."

But the upside? "It makes us stronger kids, to work so young,"
says Thornton. "We don't get intimidated. I don't give a damn. I
mean, I got to tell the ex-CEO of McDonald's what to hit."

It's worth mentioning that Ed Murray, the oldest of Bill Murray's
five brothers, was an Evans Scholar at Northwestern, and that he
worked with his brother on the definitive golf movie, Caddyshack.
Wry and literate Chicago Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey
also was an Evans Scholar.

"It was a godsend," Morrissey says. "I was the youngest of seven
kids, and my dad died when I was three. My mom was a secretary at
a grade school. I've been trying to live up to it. Sometimes I
say, 'Why me?' It changed my life."

I'm beginning to feel so good about this game, I take a trip to
one of my old haunts, the Sydney R. Marovitz course a few blocks
from Wrigley Field. Formerly Waveland Golf Course, the nine-hole
track is stunning in its location on Lake Michigan landfill, hard
by busy Lake Shore Drive. I chuckle, recalling the time in the
late 1970s when I played with Cubs infielder Manny Trillo and he
scorched a slice that sailed south off the 8th tee, over the
fence and the trees, and bounded like a kangaroo down the
eight-lane roar of LSD.

I don't know if that ball hit a windshield, like Ernie Banks's
homers used to do on Waveland Avenue--Trillo had dropped to his
knees in chagrin, and I flinched, too--but the cashier at the
course, a friendly 19-year-old named Bob McCann, tells me there
have already been two car beanings this season. As for current
Cubs playing, "Juan Cruz came in," says McCann. "Michael Finley
was here after the Mavericks lost in the playoffs last year. The
Bulls' Jay Williams came in."

Other than that, things are quiet, if busy. Oh, there was that
stockbroker who hung himself from a tree near the 2nd hole a few
years back. "He'd had a bad year," says McCann, "and he said in
his suicide note this was the only place he was able to relax."

A funny paradox, that. Relaxation. Tension. Which will it be? Why
even is there so much golf here in Chicago? "An interesting
question," says renowned University of Chicago economist Allen
Sanderson. "These public courses may well not pay for themselves.
The fees are so low. My quick guess is that politicians must like
to play golf." Or maybe God has declared this is the way it
should be.

Here I am now at a driving range at the Twin Lakes Golf Course,
almost underneath the towering, sky-blue Palatine water tower. My
clubs are with me for the first time in more than five years.
They are pitted and dusty. No matter. I came here in a gesture of
forgiveness, to myself and the game. I remember Michael Jordan's
problem with golf. As Richard Esquinas wrote on page 2 of his
1993 book, Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction ... My Cry for
Help, "Two of us went at it like this, coast-to-coast,
mano-a-mano, for more than 2,000 holes of golf, most of it in
daily 36-hole chunks. Just me and Michael Jordan." Then on page
171: "Michael Jordan was down $1.252 million to me." (Jordan said
it was only a half-million.)

That's not my problem. Not even relevant. I just need to wrap my
arms around this thing again. Get golfy. And here we go. Imagine:
a driving range where you don't try to avoid the water, you hit
into it. With floating golf balls. Collected by net at day's end.
Oh, glorious switcheroo!

Three dollars a bucket. Stiff backing breeze. Bright sun.
Scattered clouds. What Pooh would call a blustery day.

"What are these balls?" I ask the kid at the shack.

"I don't know," he says. "They crack open, there's green stuff
inside."

"They go far?" He shakes his head no.

So I slice one with a three-wood 100 yards down and 150 yards to
the right, onto the grassy bank. Impossible. O.K. Take it easy. I
walk around. Why did I give my Kaboom, that massive, ugly club
with a head like a channel catfish, to my mom? I really was done,
wasn't I?

There are green, blue, red and yellow flags in the water. Yellow
is 200 yards away. Hello, yellow. I don't care about finesse,
anything. I have watched Tiger Woods's swing in slow motion. I
grab my dad's 40-year-old Dunlop Maxfli 24R10, the driver with a
sweet spot the size of a pinhead. Two balls in a row hook
frighteningly, skimming along the water like flying fish. Then I
bend my knees, rotate the hips and swing like a man.

"What's a golf course?" Phil Kosin had asked philosophically. "Is
it a field with a can in it? Chicago had the first nine-hole
course west of the Alleghenies and, I contend, the first 18-hole
course in America. At Belmont. People don't believe this. But I
talked to Herbert Warren Wind about it and he agreed, and I have
never found anyone anywhere who can refute it."

I certainly won't. Why bother? Not when a floating golf ball is
screaming toward a distant yellow flag, snapping like a welcome
sign.

COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG [T of C] CAN'T BEAR IT Mike Ditka reveals what really ticks him off on the course (page 24). B/W PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MELISSA DEVLIN; (CLOCKWISE FROM BOTTOM RIGHT): TODD ROSENBERG; ANDY LYONS; KELLY-MOONEY PHOTOGRAPHY/CORBIS (2); DAVID BALL/CORBIS; JOHN BIEVER (2); BETTMANN/CORBIS; JAY DICKMAN/CORBIS; NEAL PETERS COLLECTION; EDDIE ADAMS/AP; RICHARD CUMMINS/CORBIS; JOHN BIEVER B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD ROSENBERG WATER HAZARD On the range at Twin Lakes, golfers smack limited-flight floaters--$3 for a bucket of 36--into the drink. B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD ROSENBERG NICE CATCH On any given day, as many as 50,000 golfers might be found at Twin Lakes and the other 500-plus courses in the area. B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD ROSENBERG FULL RIDE Northwestern's (from left) Bulfin, Thornton and Uriostegui are among 820 Evans Scholars at 23 schools in the U.S. B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD ROSENBERG CITY GAME The Sydney R. Marovitz course, a nine-holer only a few blocks from Wrigley Field, was built on Lake Michigan landfill.

"My game is go to the ball and hit it," says Ditka. "Play slow?
Only once will you do that. I'll leave. I remember walking off
at Fiddlesticks. Just left. Told the guy I couldn't stand it."

"There are 1.77 million golfers in the Chicago market," says
Kosin. "If you figure where they can drive, I'm going to say 135
private and 375 public courses."

"It makes us stronger, to work so young," says Thornton. "We
don't get intimidated. I don't give a damn. I got to tell the
ex-CEO of McDonald's what to hit."

"These public courses may well not pay for themselves," says
Sanderson. "The fees are so low. My quick guess is that
politicians must like to play golf."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)