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Local Color: The Best Golf Around

The Forest Preserve National golf course is so good, and so cheap, that players begin lining up in the middle of the night.

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In Japan, I learned later, they line up like this to play. By two or three in the morning, at public courses, they're out there by the dozens, sipping coffee and swinging their "air" clubs, waiting for the gates to open and the sun to rise. They shell out plenty of yen for a tee-off time around noon, if they're lucky, and I imagine they dream of someday joining Koganei, or Kawana, or some other ritzy private club where they can play 18 holes after having spent the night in bed instead of in line.

Golfers line up in south suburban Oak Forest in the middle of the night too, but at least they're in their cars. If they're dreaming, it's because they're asleep. Usually around midnight, on weekends anyway, the first bleary-eyed golfer pulls onto the shoulder of Central Avenue, sets the parking brake, adjusts the seat, and shuts his bleary eyes. By sunrise, another 50 or 60 cars, trucks, and vans--plenty of roomy, comfortable vans--will line up behind him. Across the street glisten the dewy fairways of Forest Preserve National.

It's one of the nation's best municipal golf courses, and arguably the world's best golf bargain. A championship-caliber course carved out of thick woodland in a major urban area, Forest Preserve could easily demand a greens fee of $50 or $60. At that price, the fairways would be filled with golfers from sunrise to sunset on every nice day from April through October, and they'd never grudge a dime. But the fee is just $10--a dollar more on weekends.

Saturday, 4:30 AM: Beautiful dry weather is forecast for this weekend, and Chicago golfers will be out in force. I got up at two, left home at three, and hit Oak Forest at four. Southbound on Central, the line of cars looked like somebody was having a party. Except there were no houses, no lights, and no music. Just 27 cars in the moonlight. I took my place at the end of the line.

"I didn't get here first," protests the fellow whose car is first in line. His name is Ayoto. He's 40, from Schaumburg. He's Japanese.

"I was second, but the line was going north, and a guy came and said we had to make a line going south. After we moved, I ended up first," he says, seeming a little embarrassed.

He got here at 12:30 AM. "I had business downtown, and I had nothing to do so I decided to come here and make a line. I have a foursome coming. I'll call them and tell them what time."

Ayoto comes to Forest Preserve for one reason: "Challenging," he says.

Playing, or getting a tee time?

He smiles.

Other courses are challenging, too. The Chicago area has about 160 public golf courses. Four of them, including Forest Preserve, have appeared in Golf Digest's biennial listing of America's 75 best public courses. The others are Cog Hill, in Lemont; Pine Meadow, in Mundelein; and Kemper Lakes, in Hawthorne Woods. Kemper Lakes hosted the prestigious National PGA Championship in 1989. "Public golf in Chicago is some of the best in the country," says Lorin Anderson, a former Chicagoan who writes for Golf Digest. "It's a working-class kind of town with a lot of very good courses."

But at golf courses other than Forest Preserve, nobody's waiting overnight to get in. The reason, in part, is the way reservations are handled there. Most privately owned courses take tee-time reservations in advance. If you want to play next Tuesday, phone first. For the six courses owned by the city of Chicago, tee times are sold through Ticketron. Of the ten Cook County Forest Preserve District courses, all but one--Forest Preserve--refuse tee-time reservations altogether. Golfers must simply show up, pay their fees, and get in line. But at Forest Preserve, reservations are sold on a same-day basis. Show up in the morning, and you can reserve any tee time that day. That system, combined with the bargain greens fee (subsidized by taxpayers) and a great course, accounts for the weekend lines of cars on Central Avenue.

"It's a good course, and people want to play good courses, so you put up with these inconveniences," explains Al Young, 68, a retired banker and real-estate appraiser. His car, a late-model Oldsmobile, is 23rd. Unlike most people in line, he's awake.

"My son-in-law's in town, so I said 'I'll take you to a course that's good.' I get here at a quarter to four, and you got a line like this," he chuckles.

But it's not his first time in line; he knows the ropes. "I'd like to play about 7:30, but I don't think I'll get that unless a lot of these guys want afternoon times," he says.

Why is everybody playing golf these days?

"TV has a lot to do with it," says Young. "People see it on the tube and they think, well, that must be an easy game--the ball's just sitting there. Baseball, you have to synchronize your bat and hit it; tennis is the same thing. In golf, the ball's waiting for you. So they think it's easy.

"Problem is, the pros wait and line up putts from three different angles. People see that, and they go out and do the same thing. They wait for that par-five green to clear before they hit their second shot. Then they hit it 30 yards. It really slows down the game."

Slow play is the bane of golfers everywhere. Most public courses jam golfers onto the grounds as densely as possible. Every seven minutes or so, another foursome goes off from the first tee. Every minute they spend rooting around in the woods for lost balls or chatting rather than putting affects the people behind them. It delays everybody, as a slow or inattentive driver on the Dan Ryan would. At some courses, things have slowed to a snail's pace just an hour or two into the morning. Playing 18 holes, which should take a proficient foursome little more than four hours, can stretch into five-and-a-half or six agonizing hours.

At Forest Preserve, tee times are a full 12 minutes apart. This interval, which is more like what you'd find at a private country club, is an unexpected luxury. And like most courses, Forest Preserve employs rangers to rove the grounds in golf carts, prodding the slowpokes and deterring horseplay.

Pat Wehr, 23, of Chicago Heights, is number two in line. He is also a veteran of the scene on Central Avenue. Like Ayoto, he's been here since about 12:30. "All I want is a tee time around ten, but I figured I had to get here early. It's a crapshoot. If I got here at four, I'd be way back there," he says, pointing to the end of the line.

"I'm not a real avid golfer. I play three or four times a year. Today I'll get my time, then go home and get three hours of sleep. You don't get a good restful sleep sitting in a car all night."

Is it ever a party scene out here?

"No, it's quiet. The only noise is kids driving up and down the road blowing their horns, trying to wake people up. Really, everybody just pulls up and goes to sleep," says Wehr.

Other veterans have different stories. Tinley Park resident Bill Tokarz is 33rd in line. "They used to have the line running north into the residential area. People complained about kids in line drinking beer and urinating on houses. Then they moved it south, going into the forest preserve. I don't think it's cut down on the number of kids drinking beer, but it's a lot less of a problem for the home owners," he says.

In past years, according to Tokarz, people would often show up at 5 or 6 PM on the day before they wanted to play, park their cars in line, and leave them. Twelve hours later, they'd come back to get a tee time. County police responded with tow trucks. They also posted a sign banning anyone from parking a car--occupied or not--before 4 AM.

By all accounts, however, police have enforced the 4 AM rule only occasionally. When they have, the result has been a worse problem: cars circulating through the neighborhood as if they were playing musical chairs--until exactly 4 AM, when they'd all descend on Central Avenue at once.

Forest Preserve, which opened in 1982, is a "companion course" to the older Kemper Lakes: golf-course architects Ken Killian and Dick Nugent cooperated in the design of both. (Killian and Nugent have since split up, establishing separate golf-architecture firms in the northwest suburbs.) Forest Preserve and Kemper share such design features as hole routings, particularly on the 17th and 18th--strong finishing holes over water on both courses. Greens on both courses are large, undulating, downward-sloping affairs that accommodate long approach shots. But the devilish placement of hazards, especially fairway bunkers, punishes poor play. At courses of this caliber, a good round leaves a golfer glowing with satisfaction.

Even so, for a lot of people the prospect of playing Forest Preserve isn't worth spending half the night in their cars. Entrepreneurial teenagers in the Oak Forest area have responded by starting proxy wait-in-line businesses. One person even advertised his services in a local newspaper. For a fee, he'd have one of his young "employees" park and wait in line for you. The fees varied.

This year, I heard of a kid who was asking $75 per tee-time reservation, due in advance. For a foursome, that would raise the cost of playing Forest Preserve on a weekend from $44 to $119, or about $30 per person. That's still a very competitive price, even if a kid in Oak Forest is getting 60 percent of the take.

I called the kid. His mother said he was in the shower. He got on the phone a minute later. "I'm standing here soaking wet," he admitted. He quoted his fee, and assured me he could almost always secure a tee time within a half-hour of the time I desired, assuming it's 9 AM or later. I told him I was interested in playing on an upcoming holiday weekend. "That's a bad one," he said. "I've got an outing." That day, his entire army of suburban kids with cars--apparently half a dozen or more of them--was booked.

The number of people willing to wait in line for a fee--teenagers, college students, and even some housewives--was growing larger this year until a disgruntled golfer wrote a letter of complaint to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. The board prevailed on Forest Preserve's management to counteract reservationists for hire. The course started stamping the hand of everyone purchasing a tee-time ticket. Every foursome was then checked to see that at least one member had a hand stamp. This way, a kid couldn't just sell all four tickets. He could sell three, theoretically, but he'd have to return to the course himself with a set of clubs at the appointed tee time, ready to play golf.

No sooner did the hand-stamp system take effect than a countermeasure scam popped up. On the morning I was there, at 5:35, just 10 minutes before the gates were to open, I saw a woman pull up in a late-model Audi with vanity plates. She parked across the street from the car line. Dressed in stylish golf garb, she strolled over to a kid in an old Chevy that was third in line. After carefully dusting off the seat, the golf lady got behind the wheel of the Chevy. When the gates opened, she wheeled into the parking lot and accepted a numbered ticket, then got her hand stamped, just like the masses who had spent the night.

The management later got wise to this practice, and again took action: they started to vary the time they opened the gates. Some days it was as early as 4 AM. Other days it was not until 7. So the lady in the Audi might have pulled up at 5:35 and found the gates already open and 50 or 60 people inside, or perhaps the course would have been already booked for the day.

When the gates do open, a slow, orderly procession of cars moves from Central Avenue into the golf-course parking lot. As each vehicle passes through the gate, the driver accepts a numbered ticket--the kind used in raffle drawings--from a course worker badly in need of a shave. The golfers park their cars and line up at a small booth at the clubhouse. Inside, a surly guy with a microphone asks if anybody wants to go straight out--the 6 AM tee time. Somebody says yes, and in five minutes his group is watching their drives sail over the first fairway. Meanwhile, the guy in the booth barks out numbers sequentially, and people step up to request specific tee times.

"Something around seven-thirty?"

"Seven-twenty-four or seven-thirty-six."

"Seven-twenty-four."

"Forty-four dollars."

The holders of higher ticket numbers--people 40th or 50th in line--can't be picky. Requesting a 2 PM tee time might get them a choice between 1:12 and 3:48. The latest arrivals might be closed out altogether, or forced to pick from the remaining single- or two-player time slots.

The course itself is vast and beautiful, carpeted with lush bent grass and surrounded by forest. It's more reminiscent of northern Wisconsin than of south suburban Chicago. Few courses have Forest Preserve's intangible quality of serenity, which is partly due to the widely spaced fairways. Eight lakes, all man-made, come into play on 11 holes. Four separate sets of tees are available, so that the length of the course ranges from 5,535 yards to 7,170 yards.

Is it worth the wait? "People go and camp out in damn cold weather to get tickets to the Bears, too," says one man reclining in the front seat of his car. "Here's a sport that you participate in, and maybe you get more out of it. So it's no mystery to me why people are willing to do this."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.

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