By Ed Sherman

August 3, 2017

Jerry Levy serves as one of the nature stewards for Jackson Park. He helps recruit other volunteers to work on maintaining and enhancing natural areas within the park. He has been part of a five-year project with the Army Corps of Engineers for Jackson Park’s Wooded Island that included restoring more native plants.

Vibrant restored plantings in Jackson Park

However, Levy says there hasn’t been any work done on the golf course in Jackson Park. As a result, there aren’t any of the native plants within the confines of the current layout.

That’s why Levy, chairman of the Jackson Park Advisory Council Golf Course Committee, is excited about the potential impact to the environment from the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance’s proposed improvements for the Jackson Park and South Shore Golf Courses. A primary goal of Tiger Woods’ TGR Design is to make the new 18-hole layout become more harmonious with nature. It will look to restore natural grasses, which will attract more birds and wildlife habitat.

“It would be very beneficial,” Levy said. “There are many plants that are native to the area that you don’t see on the golf course. It would be fantastic to see some of them around the tees, areas in the rough, behind the greens. It would be terrific for attracting birds. The way it is now, it clearly is not attracting many birds. I think the birders would be thrilled to see it restored.”

Ecology not only is front and center with this South Side golf restoration, it is a main focus for all golf course architects, according to Greg Martin. The Batavia-based designer is a past president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. He is being lauded for his renovation of The Preserve at Oak Meadows in Addison, Illinois which is debuting this month. The project emphasized improving stormwater management, greater water quality in Salt Creek, and an enhanced habitat for fish and other aquatic species. 

15th & 16th Holes at DuPage County Forest Preserve’s Oak Meadows

“When I approach a project, I’m looking at a net gain across the board,” Martin said. “The course needs to be integrated in a way so that not only golf can thrive, but the environment also can benefit.”

As a voice for the architects, Martin has addressed what he feels are misconceptions that golf courses have a negative impact on the environment. He maintains the exact opposite is the case.

“There are people who think that if golf hadn’t been invented, that the open space would be beautiful,” Martin said. “Well, how do you take care of that open space? Without some vehicle to help maintain the environment, it won’t thrive. There are many open spaces that wouldn’t exist if not for golf.”

Jeff Noel, the president of Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Mich., contends golf course architects see themselves as stewards of the entire property.

“If you make a living using natural green space, you have a natural appreciation of what you need to do to protect it,” Noel said. “Private and residential developments are nowhere near as environmentally friendly as people who oversee golf.”

Each year, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America hands out Environmental Leader Awards. In Illinois, TPC at Deere Run in Silvis, site of the John Deere Classic, was honored as the top national public course in 2016. Alex Stuedemann, Deere Run’s director of course maintenance operations, says a premium has been placed on being proactive with native area management.  

Harbor Shores previously has been recognized for excellence in the areas of resource conservation, water quality management, and wildlife/habitat management. It is a remarkable story. The course was built on an environmentally distressed property on the shores of Lake Michigan. More than 140,000 square yards of contamination had to be removed from what once had been a dump site.

The dramatic transformation now features a scenic 18-hole course designed by Jack Nicklaus. It incorporates lakefront holes and winds through spectacular wetlands. But it goes beyond golf, Noel says.

Kayakers in Paw Paw River at Harbor Shores 15th Hole

“Where there was once a dump site, people are hiking, kayaking and putting a line in the water to catch a fish,” Noel said. “For every golfer we get, we probably get two or three people using the amenities who never golf. The course has had a big impact on our community.”

Martin already has seen tangible signs at Oak Meadows. Earlier this summer, a bald eagle was spotted on the property.

“They don’t just show up anywhere,” Martin said. “They show up where habitat is thriving. Where there are insects, animals and birds. The better the diversity, the better the habitat.”

Martin believes the layout of golf courses lend themselves to enhancing the environment. It’s all about the edges, he says.

“The majority of habitat resides on the edge of something. For instance, the edge of a wetland,” Martin said. “A golf course can provide a lot of edge treatment to improve that habitat. When done well, the seams of the edges aren’t even noticeable. You just see this swaths of green.”

Martin and Noel have been following the reports on the South Shore and Jackson Park Golf Courses. They are confident TGR Design will be able to enhance the environment across the parks and lakefront. Shelley Seale of Texas Lifestyle Magazine complimented Tiger Woods’ design work at Bluejack National, his first U.S. course, set in the rolling countryside of the Piney Woods north of Houston. According to Seale, “Woods accentuates the beauty and drama of Bluejack’s natural terrain, using his vision and vast experience as a professional player.”

Lakes and hiking trails are integral features at Bluejack National

“You can have a similar situation in Chicago,” Noel said. “A lot of junk gets built up over generations. It needs to be addressed. When you restore a golf course and then maintain it, the environment will thrive.”

The environmental potential is why Levy is involved with the project. He says Jackson Park is one of the premier birding spots in the U.S. He is confident it will only get better with the golf course improvements.

“The natural areas of the park attract these birds,” Levy said. “They’re right next to the golf course. There’s every reason to believe the spillover will occur there. When you think about the ecology of the golf course to attract those birds and insects, it all starts with putting in the right type of plants. That’s something we can do with the restoration.”