The state of golf: A look at how courses are doing in the golfing Mecca of the South Suburbs

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The state of golf: A look at how courses are doing in the golfing Mecca of the South Suburbs

July 18, 2021 - 18:58
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A golfer tees off at Calumet Country Club in April, shortly after the course opened for what could be its last season. If it closes for good, it won’t be the first local course to be lost. Dixmoor Country Club was developed in 1921 across 175th Street from Calumet on land that is now the Governors Park residential area. The club only lasted about five years, according to local historian Jim Wright. (Chronicle file photo)

Introduction

Golf has been an important part of the Homewood-Flossmoor community for more than 120 years. Flossmoor owes its existence to the sport. But golf has had its ups and downs over the years. In 2019, the owners of Calumet Country Club entered into a contract to sell the historic golf course to an Arizona real estate developer who plans to replace the course with a trucking hub/fulfillment center. 

The impending loss of the course brought home the importance to the community of these green spaces. Community members and village officials have opposed the development.

The Chronicle has started an occasional series that will look at the state of golf in the Homewood-Flossmoor area. This first story is taken from interviews with representatives of Ravisloe Golf Club, Coyote Run Golf Course and Olympia Fields Country Club. We are working to arrange interviews with representatives of Flossmoor Golf Club, Calumet Country Club  and Idlewild Country Club.

This and future installments will tell more of the story about how the sport has affected our history, present and future. 



Samhra Hoz prepares to hit a practice drive on June 19 at Coyote Run Golf Course in Flossmoor. She was one of two women on the driving range at the time. There were also a number of men, white and Black, illustrating what local golf officials say are trends that give them hope fror the future of the sport. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

On a recent Saturday morning, Samhar Hoz of Homewood was on the driving range at Coyote Run Golf Course, navigating a gusty breeze to get in some practice before an upcoming professional conference. 

In fact, the engineer started golfing about three years ago specifically to participate in golf outings at professional meetings. 

“At a lot of engineering conferences, the last day is pure golf, so I had to play,” she said. “It was good, because then it was a really good sport to play during the week for practice.”

Hoz might represent both the old and new faces of golf. Country clubs during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were mainly the province of white men, often wealthy white men, who built courses and used them for recreation — and to conduct business. 

According to local historian Jim Wright, that was how courses developed along the former Illinois Central rail line from 1899 to 1921. Industry titans from Chicago drove the development of seven golf courses within five miles along the rail line, from Calumet Country Club on the north to Olympia Fields Country Club on the south. And they had the clout to persuade the IC to add three train stations to serve their recreational needs, including Olympia Fields, Flossmoor and Calumet.  

The heyday
Golf thrived in the area during the first half of the 20th century. 

Wright notes that not only did courses proliferate, they also spurred other economic activity. Much of Flossmoor’s fine architecture was created when wealthy golfers had summer homes built in the community. In Homewood, two golf club manufacturers thrived in the 1920s. 

The courses also provided jobs for local residents and a market for other local businesses.

Steve Dell, director of golf at Ravisloe Golf Club, said the heyday extended nationally into the 1980s and 1990s when real estate developers discovered that building courses as part of residential subdivisions was a winning combination. 

But that led to a boom that became a glut. Nationwide, developers were building courses at a furious pace, as much as a course per day, Dell said. 
 


Golfers play Ravisloe on May 1, 2020, as the first state-mandated pandemic shutdown began to ease. Local golf officials credit the pandemic with a boost of interest in the sport because it offers opportunities for socializing and exercise with the kind of physical distance that helped slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus. (Chronicle file photo)

Hard times
After the turn of the 21st century, the sport fortunes began to wane, and the effect was felt locally. With arguably too many golf courses available, the sport was vulnerable to economic downturns. 

Tom Denklau, general manager of Coyote Run, said two traumatic events, the recession following the 9/11 terrorist attack in 2001 and the Great Recession of 2008, hit the sport hard.

Although numbers of golfers and rounds played had picked up some in recent years, he said the sports seemed to be “idling.”

Dell has only been at Ravisloe for a couple of years, but he has 35 years experience in the industry and has watched the trends. 

He said when economic times changed, the course-building trend reversed, and courses began closing down almost as fast as they had opened.

“I don’t like to see courses that can’t make it, but it’s a fact of life,” he said. “It helps the industry as a whole.”

Pandemic turning point
In March 2020 a wave of COVID-19 infections indicated the deadly virus had reached Illinois, and the state responded by closing schools and putting significant restrictions on businesses and social activities. 

The measures designed to slow the spread of the airborne virus were devastating to many industries, but not to all. 

“When COVID-19 hit, obviously it was devastating to the world. Everybody’s life was affected by it,” Dell said. “We weren’t sure how we would be affected.”

The sport was halted during the initial shutdown, but on May 1, 2020, it was one of the first activities allowed to resume, though with some remaining precautions. 

Golfers showed up immediately, including many who were new to the game. 

Golf got a much needed boost.
“Being outdoors was one thing you could do,” Dell said. “Golf was kind of like the place to go. You were spaced out. We sanitized our carts. We did everything we could. The golf industry took off.”
Brian Morrison, director of golf at Olympia Fields Country Club, also saw the surge of new golfers.

“I have four guys out on a 158-acre property to play golf, and they are all hitting their golf balls all over the place,” he said. “We didn’t have to worry about getting too close to each other.”

Widespread vaccination since December has given large portions of the population protection against the virus, and case numbers have fallen to record lows in recent weeks. 

Illinois entered Phase 5 of the Restore Illinois Plan on June 11, essentially reopening the state for business and social activity. 

Golf will again have to compete with other activities for attention.
 


Avid golfers know no season. On a warm day in January 2019 Coyote Run saw a boomlet in rounds. (Chronicle file photo)

Changing demographics and renewed hope
As a young professional woman, Hoz also represents new trends in the sport that local course managers say gives them confidence in the future. 

“We’re getting more and more diverse, especially with ladies,” Denklau said of the Coyote Run golfing community. 

Women have been golfing for hundreds of years — Mary, Queen of Scots is credited by some with being the first woman golfer in the mid-16th century — but the sport has long been dominated by men. 

Denklau is not alone in noticing a new surge of interest among women. Morrison said Olympia Fields has also seen that trend.

The course officials also said the number of young people is on the rise, from kids to young professionals like Hoz. 

Jim Lund, a nearly life-long member of Flossmoor Golf Club (formerly Flossmoor Country Club), said he is seeing more people in their 20s and 30s, and they come from diverse backgrounds.

“Racially, it’s much more diverse than it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he said. “I see a lot of young single men playing, guys from the city. They’re young, they’re making a  few bucks, they have time.”

Ravisloe owner Claude Gendreau also noted an increase in the racial diversity at his course. That’s a trend he applauds. 

The course is one of two in the H-F area that was created as an answer to the lack of diversity in the earliest country clubs. Ravisloe and Idlewild Country Club were started by Jewish businessmen. 

“Jews weren’t allowed in some of these clubs,” Wright said. “Neither were Catholics. Blacks certainly weren’t.  Today, that thankfully is different.”

Morrison noted the same changes at Olympia Fields, which started as perhaps the acme of the elite country club type. As times have changed, so has the club, he said.

“It’s not a cliquey club,” he said of the club that started in 1915. “We’re there for golf. People of all backgrounds are attracted to the game.”

The game, and the club, seem more family oriented now, he said, and with more children getting involved, the sport might have a solid foundation for the future if enough of those kids become loyal golfers. 
Denklau said he sees the evidence at Coyote Run. 

“There’s been a huge uptick in the amount of lesson inquiries,” he said. 

The clinics the course offers to people learning the game are increasingly in demand.

“In years past, we’ve been 75% to 80% sold out,” he said. “Now we have wait lists. We’re actually creating new clinics.”

Gendreau also supports the democratization of golf. 

When he bought Ravisloe in 2009, when it had gone into foreclosure and was at risk of being redeveloped. 

One motivation was to preserve the beautiful land and the historic course and clubhouse and — make it less exclusive. One of his first steps as owner was to make Ravisloe a public course.

“It’s an oasis in an urban community. It’s almost like Central Park in New York,” he said. “Something this special should be accessible to everyone, not just the very privileged people.” 

History as asset
The pandemic boost did not come in time to save Calumet Country Club, nor did its history protect it from losing money for years. But history does help some of the remaining courses in the area.

Ravisloe, like Calumet, was designed by famed golf course architect Donald Ross, and the heritage attracts some out-of-town golfers, according to General Manager Bob Carpenter. 

“Being a classic course is a big draw to a lot of golfers,” he said. He said the history seems most attractive to younger golfers. “They want that piece of history, to tee off where Harry Vardon did in 1913.”

Vardon was one of golf’s early heroes. His record six British Open titles still stands, and he won the U.S. Open in 1900 at the Chicago Golf Club. 

He is one of a long list of top golfers who have played the Southland courses. Morrison said one of the measures he uses to judge the success of Olympia Fields is the quality of the champions who win tournaments there.

The list of legends who have won at OFCC includes Sam Snead, Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus. 

One of Lund’s most cherished memories is meeting Arnold Palmer at Flossmoor Country Club in 1986, when the legendary golfer presented the Professional of the Year Award to  longtime Flossmoor golf pro Dave Ogilvie.  

The courses and their players are not the only historic aspects of local golf establishments.

Ravisloe’s clubhouse, a Spanish mission style structure that was built in 1917 and was designed by the same architect, George Nimmons, who designed the Olympia Fields clubhouse. 

The Olympia Fields clubhouse is on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2016 the Olympia Fields Country Club Historic Landmark Foundation was created. Part of the organization’s mission is to support the club’s historic properties, including the clubhouse. 

Gendreau said Ravisloe also is in the process of developing an application to the National Register.