THE BLOG
04/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The One Thing in the City That's Actually Getting Better

The economy started going bad just as we felt the first fall nips in Chicago, and for many consecutive months our troubles have multiplied with the potholes.

So it came to me as a pleasant surprise that Wednesday was the first official day of the golf season at the Chicago Park District.

And here's an even more pleasant surprise for urban golfers ready to come out of hibernation: This summer the Park District courses will finally get the long-needed "shave and a haircut" I called for here back in October.

Once improved but then long left unkempt by Kemper Sports, "all of the courses will be in much better shape this year," promises Bill Rehanek, senior vice president for Billy Casper Golf, the management company that outbid Kemper for a 15-year deal to run the six courses and other golf facilities.

Casper will invest $5.5 million and provide "agro minds and bodies" to make the courses better, according to Rehanek. (The deal's basic terms: Casper gets an annual fee of $875,000 annually to manage the courses, and collects five percent of the courses' gross revenues when those revenues exceed $2.5 million.)

Rehanek warns us not to expect miracles immediately: "Our guests on day one will not find completely remodeled clubhouses and acres of [new] sod, but they will immediately be struck by an overwhelming sense of caring."

Sorry, Bill, but to Park District regulars, that's a miracle.

The bidding rivalry between Kemper and Casper was quietly cantankerous, and Rehanek and vice president of Midwest operations Jered Wieland know they're under "a lot of microscopes," as Rehanek puts it. Wieland says he's working ungodly hours getting familiar with each Park District course and ascertaining most urgent needs of each.

He's having facilities cleaned, he's ordering new equipment and he's hiring new staff to replace the entrenched Park District greens keepers and clubhouse workers. "The staff were all Kemper employees so when Kemper did not win the contract the staff lost their positions at the CPD facilities," Wieland says, snuffing out the notion that incumbents will get favored status. "We accept applications from anyone who wishes to apply with us and we give everyone consideration when they apply."

Those of us who have seen what Casper has accomplished with Cook County's Forest Preserve courses--before Casper took them over six years ago they were as scruffy as the Park District courses are today--don't doubt that we will indeed see major improvements at the Park District courses: the snarly trees will be trimmed, the weedy fairways will be seeded and watered and mown and the bumpy greens will be smooth. The service will be enthusiastic and friendly ("our guests," indeed!) and the whole operation will be much better organized.

Of course, we also struggle to imagine a South Shore where golfers stuck behind a slow group won't walk willy-nilly across the course to find an open hole. We worry that we'll miss the homeless guy fishing balls out of the pond at Jackson Park and selling them to golfers playing through. We feel prematurely nostalgic for Waveland in the winter, with the broken branches for flagsticks. We look forward to telling our grandchildren about Columbus Park, where large families would play golf together, as a traveling picnic.

The price of progress, I suppose.

In any case: I plan to supervise these golf courses very closely this summer. Like, starting tomorrow morning.