Urban Legend At Chicago's venerable Jackson Park, golfers take a brash approach to ruts, bare greens--and each other

June 09, 2003

They won't be hosting any U.S. Opens at Jackson Park. Even if the
course were long enough, tough enough and prestigious and
pristine enough, Chicago's oldest public golf facility--the
oldest west of the Alleghenies--wouldn't need a national
championship to prove its worth. A decade removed from rubber
mats on asphalt tee boxes, the only 18-hole track in the city's
municipal system has, for starters, a tradition that dates to
1899. But the short (5,538 yards from the tips) layout on the
South Side, not far from the University of Chicago campus, has
something else you won't find 28 miles to the southwest, at
Olympia Fields. Jackson Park has swagger.

There's a cashier named Crossbar, and the course ranger is called
Tex. The pro, Emanuel Worley, learned the game from a Socrates of
the street known as Bake the Cake, who mingled life tips with
golf tips at his academy beneath the elm trees beside the clubhouse.

"This was our country club," says Chuck Bailey Jr., 56, between
bites of an egg sandwich and moments before stepping to the 1st
tee on a crisp April morning. "Still is."

"It's where we grew up playing golf," says Bailey's friend James
Moore, 51, resplendent in a gray sweater, black slacks and
sunglasses wrapped around his orange cap.

"It's a friendly place to play, a safe place to play," says Mark
Lowry, 47, another longtime pal, his First Tee cap giving away
his job as that organization's director of business education.
"And if you're an African-American of a certain age, this was one
of the few courses in the city you could play."

So they keep returning, out of habit, out of loyalty, out of love
for the ruts in the fairways and the bald spots on the greens,
long after overt discrimination at public and private courses in
Chicago has gone the way of the stymie. They could play almost
anywhere--and on some days they do--but they always come back
here. Jackson Park and these guys have history.

It's a couple of minutes past 8 a.m., and an 8:04 tee time looms.
There's no hurry, though. Things are loose at Jackson Park in
April, especially for regulars like Bailey, Lowry and Moore. No
need to read the sign beside the starter's shack reminding them
that each player must have his own bag and at least five clubs.
They're golfers. Good golfers. Serious golfers. They know.

They form the nucleus of one of the oldest established permanent
floating golf games in the city, a group they've self-mockingly
dubbed Hackers Unlimited, Ltd., the abbreviation tacked on by
Moore--"He's our cruise director," Bailey says--for fun. On
weekend mornings from May to whenever, at least three or four
Hackers foursomes will congregate somewhere in Chicago to play.
Sometimes they play private courses. Sometimes they take road
trips. Still, Jackson Park remains the hub. Before they can tee
off, there's banking to be taken care of. Every player antes up
two Jacksons, a Hamilton and a pair of Washingtons--more than
twice the price of a greens fee--to cover the Nassaus, the
rabbits, the squirrels and whatever else. At Jackson Park the
color that counts is green.

Jackson Park has survived change. "It used to be in terrible
shape," says Bailey, as he walks down the fairway of the 5th
hole, a 465-yard par-5 that he's reached in two with a neatly
drawn three-wood. "Then it was good. Then terrible. Now it's good
again." He would know. He's been playing the course since he was
19, except for the time after college when he was in the Army. He
found ways to play golf even then, running the course at South
Carolina's Fort Jackson when he came back from Vietnam in 1968.

"His weapons of mass destruction were Titleists," says Lowry.

"They ran for their lives in Carolina when he teed it up," says
Moore.

Stockily built, Bailey runs a grammar school lunchroom when he's
not on the golf course, and he's on the course at least five days
a week. "I've got to keep practicing," he says. "I can't be chum
for these sharks." He has an easy smile and a self-taught swing
that collapses like a tent in a gale on his follow-through. It's
a good swing, though. It once earned him third place in the City
Amateur, held annually at Jackson Park.

Moore, the Hackers' longest hitter--"Oh, if I only had a short
game," he says--and Lowry continually give Bailey the business.
The executive director of a family-owned child-care company,
Moore is a needler and, from his perspective, Bailey has
deliciously thin skin. "Some of us are born with the gift to roll
out of bed and hit the ball superbly," Moore says. "Then we have
others," he points to Bailey, "who need to put in a lot of work."

Sheepishly, Bailey agrees, then puffs up to remind his tormentor
that when the two slipped in 18 holes the previous afternoon, it
was Bailey's wallet that went home bulging. "You were the man
yesterday," Moore concedes. "But overall, I...am...the...
man. The truth is, I wish I was in a group that forced me to play
better."

The truth is, that's a joke. He's playing pretty well with this
group. They all are. They push one another. At the turn they're
only two strokes apart, all on a pace to break 80. "We'll get
serious from here on," says Bailey. "We all want to be low man.
That brings bragging rights for a week."

No putts are conceded, and the golf they play is straight up. "A
$20 bill has no handicap with us," says Bailey. They make the
course play as long as possible--if they had their way, they'd
move the markers back to Wisconsin--by hitting from the yardage
post at the back of each tee box.

They play when it rains. They play when it's windy. They play
when it's hot. They play when it's cold. They play when there's
snow on the ground. "If we can see," says Moore, "we can play."
The things they've seen.

They remember how they came to golf and how the game grabbed
them, even though, back then in the 1960s and '70s, golf was not
the game of choice in the neighborhoods in which they grew up.
Bailey, the son of a Chicago cop, discovered golf when he was 14.
In search of pocket money, he began caddying at a county course
called Pipe O'Peace (since renamed Joe Louis "The Champ"), in
Riverdale. "That was the Augusta for black golfers in Chicago,"
Bailey says. He remembers looping for Lee Elder and Charlie
Sifford in high-stakes games, holding as much as $5,000 in each
pocket for them. Bailey caddied for Elder the day Elder bet that
he could win a match while wearing a full rain suit for 18
holes--on a humid 100° day. On one hole Bailey handed Elder the
wrong club and Elder overshot the green. Bailey was devastated.
Elder put his arm around the boy, told him not to worry and then
chipped in to win the hole. He handed Bailey $100 on the spot.

Lowry remembers his father, a schoolteacher, waking at 5 a.m. to
meet his friends at Jackson Park. "They called themselves the
First Flighters," he says. "It was one of the first black golfing
clubs in town." Sometimes Lowry would join them, but it wasn't
until he was in his late 20s that he began to take the game
seriously. "I'm competitive," he says. "I realized I was coming
to an age when we all weren't going to meet on the basketball
court anymore."

Moore began playing in his mid-20s. Reared by his grandfather, a
minister, Moore didn't have much time for games growing up; there
was church to attend every day. The first time he touched a club
was during an outing at Jackson Park with a group of friends who
worked as executives at Sears and Montgomery Ward. He shot 195.
"They were all laughing at me," Moore says, "and they couldn't
break 100. I vowed that by the end of the summer I'd break 100
and beat them." He did.

Bailey and Moore, friends even then, eventually learned that they
both played golf, so they began to play together. In 1980 Lowry
joined in. In time the Hackers were born.

Like Jackson Park, the Hackers have evolved over the years, their
ranks thinned by the three M's that rule men's lives: marriage,
mortgages and maturity. But in the glory days of the '80s, it was
nothing to fill six or seven foursomes every Saturday and Sunday,
with many of the players picking up another game or two during
the week. Sometimes they'd simply hang around the course after
playing and talk to men 20 or 30 years older--about life and
business and how to make it in the world beyond the fairways.

"We were more intense and crazy in the old days," says Moore,
trying to forget the double bogey on 16 that drops him into a tie
with Lowry.

"That was when we were more golf buddies than friends," says
Lowry, "and we gambled like that."

The stakes were high, as was the gamesmanship. The trash-talking
grew so severe that one Saturday in the early '90s, they all
arrived at the course with identical self-protection. "Every guy
showed up plugged in to a Walkman," says Lowry. "We're all
walking the fairways with headphones on, swinging to our own
music. Nobody's saying a word to anyone."

He pauses. "Really, though, we've never stopped speaking to each
other, in all our years of playing together," he says. "We party
together. We're together for weddings, funerals, graduations and
births."

Through it all has been Jackson Park. "It's like when you go away
to college," Bailey says. "Why do you come back home? You're
coming home to friends. The people at Jackson Park are the people
we grew up with. How many people can you say you've known for 25
or 30 years?"

The round is over now. Yesterday Bailey was the man. Today it is
Lowry. As the Hackers settle up in front of the clubhouse, they
make plans to meet again tomorrow.

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH THE CITY GAME After a warning about decorum (top), Jackson Park golfers tee off in front of the starter's shack (inset) and later must traverse Marquette Road to get to the 4th tee. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH PARK AND PUTT Moore, the Hackers' longest hitter and top trash-talker, is vulnerable to the vicissitudes of Jackson's greens. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH IN THE CHIPS Bailey's self-taught swing has allowed him to hold his own in take-no-prisoners matches against his old buddies Moore (far right) and Lowry.

"THE COURSE USED TO BE IN TERRIBLE SHAPE," SAYS BAILEY. "THEN IT
WAS GOOD. THEN TERRIBLE. NOW IT'S GOOD AGAIN."

NO PUTTS ARE CONCEDED, AND THE GOLF THEY PLAY IS STRAIGHT UP. "A
$20 BILL HAS NO HANDICAP WITH US," SAYS BAILEY.

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)