Chicago is probably not the first city that comes to your mind when you think of the meccas of the golf world.
Sitting far behind obvious international locations like Melbourne (Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath) or any number of locations in Scotland (St Andrews, Royal Troon, Aberdeen, etc.), Chicago doesn’t even cut the mustard on a domestic level. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone planning a buddies’ trip to Chicago over Monterey, or Scottsdale, or Jacksonville, or Bandon.
Even its Midwestern little brother to the north claims a more big-name friendly rota of courses, with Erin Hills (US Open host), Blackwolf Run (US Open Women’s Open host), Whistling Straits (PGA Championship and Ryder Cup host), and Sand Valley (back-to-back winner of the best new course in America) just up the road.
But as the second city welcomed in the PGA Tour’s best as the BMW Championship returned to Olympia Fields — and as the course more than held its own against the world’s best — it’s high time to reconsider Chicago’s stance in the greater golf world and to think about why it’s so consistently skipped over.
The Chicago area has hosted 13 US Opens, but other than Olympia Fields and Medinah, you probably couldn’t name one of those courses. Only the sickest of golf fans could tell you about the good old days of the early 1900s when Midlothian and Onwentsia Club would host majors.
Chicago is home to some of the most historic, challenging, and striking golf courses in the nation. They’re just all kept behind lock and key.
Chicago Golf Club’s trifecta of architects, CB Macdonald (who initially built the course in 1894), Seth Raynor (who retouched the course in 1923), and Tom Doak (who renovated the course in 2002), stands up to any group who’s ever touched a course. It’s a glittering example of golf perfection that you can only play if you are or know closely a sitting United States senator.
Lots of those in the know have touted Butler National as a potential US Open venue. Its stubborn and embarrassing refusal to allow women members have kept it out of consideration and rightly so.
Shoreacres is one of Seth Raynor’s best projects.
Old Elm is a quirky but phenomenal course that has some of the most diabolical sets of greens anywhere. You’re probably aware of architect Harry Colt’s only other US course: Pine Valley.
Other clubs to provide incredible tests to those lucky enough to be amongst the members who can see them: Skokie, Beverly, Conway Farms, Rich Harvest, Merit Club, the list goes on.
The private golf club may not be a strictly American enterprise, but the US of A has certainly leaned harder into the practice than anywhere else in the world. In the UK, the best courses in the country are universally open for you, a regular Joe, to go and play for the right price. Even Muirfield (the real one, not the new one in Ohio), which may host the stodgiest membership in any club in the world, opens a few tee times to the common rabble every day.
The semiprivate model embraced across the pond is wonderful. It makes the game more accessible while still providing members the exclusivity and benefits they’d rightfully expect. The greatest problem facing golf isn’t an aging Tiger Woods or an ascendant Bryson Dechambeau. It’s a culture that’s hostile to outsiders. Keeping the game open to as many people as possible is a step towards fixing that.
Few cities suffer more from the cult of private membership than Chicago.
If places like CGC and Butler opened up even a couple of slots for exorbitant prices, there’d be an audience ready and willing to meet the requirements. After all, Pebble Beach stacks its tee times 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every single day, and the greens fees are a cool half a grand over there.
If places half down the totem pole embraced a model that would let out-of-towners experience some of the most innovative golf design in the country without needing to explore back channels and friends of friends of friends to find a way on the course, Chicago could match any place in the country as a destination.
Instead, we’re stuck looking from outside the ropes or through television sets when the PGA Tour makes its annual stop to the Chicago suburbs. The BMW is always a good show. It will probably go down as the best non-major played this year.
It would just be nice to get a chance to experience what the pros do.
Ben Goren is a contributing writer for Stick and Hack and has been addicted to the game of golf for the past 15 years and isn’t interested in finding a cure. He’s also offering one kidney in exchange for a Cypress Point tee time (serious inquiries only).
More Stick and Hack Content
Stick and Hack Club Membership
Start Connecting With Stick and Hacks All Over the World