The Best Of Golf Digest
April 17, 2020

Mike Royko: Golf, Chicago-style

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Editor’s note: This series on the 70th anniversary of Golf Digest commemorates the best literature we’ve ever published. Each entry includes an introduction that celebrates the author or puts in context the story. Catch up on earlier installments.

Mike Royko was Mr. Chicago. Studs Terkel once wrote of him: "If somebody says, 'What was Chicago like in the last half of the 20th century?' you'd say, ‘Read Royko.’ He captured the city like no one else has ever captured a city, and Chicago was his metaphor for the rest of the country.”

Back when I was going to journalism school at Northwestern, he was the only reason to pick up the Chicago Daily News, which otherwise had shrunk to the size of a church pamphlet. In class we read his iconic book, Boss, about Mayor Richard J. Daley’s machine politics. Royko’s columns were textbook lessons in storytelling. My favorite was about a thief who swung open the passenger door of his father’s truck and mugged the old man at gunpoint. Royko’s dad handed over his money, but then kicked the robber in the face and ran him over dead with the truck as he tried to escape. That tells you everything you need to know about Chicago the town. But the point was that Mike had just been mugged, and he was disappointed in himself for not being his father. That was everything you need to know about Royko the writer. He liked to say you have to pay a “victim tax” to live in the big city.

So when the U.S. Open went to Medinah’s No. 3 Course in 1990, Golf Digest naturally asked Royko to set the scene. Chicagoland was known as the best public-course town in America, and it had a rich heritage of gangsters and politicos who played the game. Curtis Strange was going for three Opens in a row, but Hale Irwin would prevail. This preview appeared in the June 1990 issue. Born in Chicago, Royko died in Chicago in 1997 at age 64.—Jerry Tarde

Late one night the drowsing pro got a phone call at home. “I play real bad today,” said one of his regular pupils. “Hookin’ everything. Gotta game tomorrah. Need a lesson fast.”

The pro was eager to please. You’d be, too, since his student was a ranking member of the Outfit, as the old Capone mob is known in Chicago. A golf ball is probably the only thing he ever hit that didn’t moan.

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“I’ll move you to the top of my list in the morning,” the pro said. “What time can you be there?”

“Now,” the mobster said.

“Now? It’s after 10 o’clock.”

“Meet me at the course in a half hour. G’by.”

The pro rushed to the course. The pupil, waiting in a sleek, long car equipped with a fur-clad blonde, said: “Get in.”

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They drove around the clubhouse to the first tee, aimed the car’s brights down the fairway, hauled the clubs out of the car, and the mug said to the blonde: “Keep it running. I don’t want the battery goin’ dead.”

Maybe it was the word “dead” that inspired him. But as the pro later recalled: “When I cured that hook, I think I knew how Hogan felt.”

Yes, that’s part of Chicago’s golf lore. Mobsters are avid players of the grand old game, and some are quite good considering the unique hazards they confront.

One fine day in 1981, a labor-gambling boss named Al Pilotto was addressing his ball when a man in a jumpsuit, presumably a business rival, emerged from a nearby bush and blazed away with a pistol and shotgun. But Pilotto was wounded only in the arms and recovered. Apparently the inept gunman hadn’t allowed for a crosswind.

Then there’s the chronic problem of crowded play. The late Sam Giancana, top boss of the Chicago mob, once asked a Federal judge to forbid the FBI from always planting a foursome behind him.

Bill Roemer, a retired agent, was in charge of the 24-hour surveillance, which included following Giancana and monitoring him with listening devices from a nearby farmhouse. “We went everywhere but in his home,” Roemer says. “At the golf course, I’d follow him to the men’s room and stand next to him. He had shy kidneys, so when I was there he couldn’t go.

“Sam was about a 14, although he cheated a lot. Kicked the balls out of the rough. Good short game, but he wasn’t long. So when he’d get ready to hit his second shot, I’d drive past him and yell, ‘Fore!’ Then when he was putting, I’d hit to the green and yell, ‘Fore!’ Kind of threw off his game.

“So he went to the court with a camera and showed movies of us, and the judge ruled that we had to keep a foursome between us and him, even though I told the judge that I never once hit Sam with the ball.”

Later, though, a houseguest hit Sam in the head with a .22 slug while he was frying a sausage in his kitchen. It’s not known if the hit man yelled, “Fore!”

So much for that obligatory part of this sprawling city’s image. There’s far more to Chicago golf than a handful of mobsters. Besides, the mugs play as many rounds at their winter retreats in the Palm Springs area, but you don’t hear the TV guys talk about it during Bob Hope’s desert shindig.

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In discussing Chicago golf, one might mention our little secret: No other metropolitan area has as many good to great courses—public or private—as we do. At last count, there were 250. Three private clubs are reachable by city subway and bus. And daily-fee players can walk to several municipal courses.

In Golf Digest’s 1989 ranking of America’s 100 Greatest Golf Courses, we placed five. Disappointing, actually. Most years, we’ve had at least seven. If the list were stretched to 200, we’d surely land another dozen.

And not all the great or near-great courses are private. Last year’s PGA Championship was played at Kemper Lakes, open to anyone with $85. Cog Hill’s famed Dubsdread Course, as tough as any U.S. Open layout, can be played for $52. And the best bargain in the country could be the $11 fee at Forest Preserve National, a county-operated masterpiece designed by Ken Killian and Dick Nugent, who did Kemper Lakes.

Golf Digest’s choice at the nation’s best new daily-fee course from 1989 was our Cantigny. In 1987, it was Pine Meadow. Both are the equal of the finest private layouts, but you’ll get change from a $50 bill in the golf shop.

Chicago could justifiably lay claim to the widely used title of Golf Capital of America. But why brag? It might attract Japanese buyers.

Of course, we are deprived in some ways. In this era of designer-label courses, we don’t have even one Pete Dye layout and only recently got our first Jack Nicklaus creation. But no one complains. In this town, we use railroad ties to lay track, and stepladders are for cleaning rain spouts, not climbing out of bunkers.

Chicago has always been architecturally daring and pioneering in its buildings. This is where William Le Baron Jenney invented the skyscraper. It’s where architects come from around the world to gaze at the works of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and others. The John Hancock Center passed the Empire State Building, only to be one-upped by the Sears Tower.

But in golf architecture, we’re as traditional, timeless and classic as a Brooks Brothers suit. Seventy-five percent of our existing courses were built before World War II. Our designer labels include seven courses by Donald Ross, the master of subtlety and understatement. Others were the works or refinements of Alister MacKenzie, Willie Park Jr., C.B. Macdonald, A.W. Tillinghast, Harry S. Colt, Charles H. Alison, Dick Wilson and other legends. If their names don’t ring a bell, maybe a few of their non-Chicago courses will: Augusta National, Pine Valley, Cypress Point, Winged Foot, Seminole, Pinehurst, The Greenbrier. Luck and timing figure in our wealth of courses. When the first golf boom occurred—between the 1890s and 1930—Chicago was still young, and nearby land was available and cheap. In contrast, New York and other older Eastern cities were already overflowing, and courses had to be built in the boonies. What is now the thriving Sun Belt awaited the invention of air-conditioning to make it habitable.

The Great Depression folded some courses. Others were gobbled up by the postwar housing boom, especially those within the city or along the borders. There was a time when a blue-collar golfer who lived in what is now called the “inner city” could hop a streetcar and ride to several good daily-fees or practice ranges.

But most of the best, public and private, survived: Medinah, North Shore, Olympia Fields, Skokie, Midlothian, Chicago Golf, Glen View (all past U.S. Open sites), Beverly, Sunset Ridge and others that wouldn’t need more than a fast trim to handle a PGA Tour event. And dozens of others have been established, the most notable being the Fazio-designed Butler National, home of the Western Open and shrinker of tour egos.

Speaking of the Western, until 1987 it nurtured one of golf’s finest traditions. It was the only tour stop requiring the use of local caddies. Chicago’s clubs, which have the country’s biggest caddie programs, sent their top honor caddies to tote bags for the week. It was a chance for high school and college kids to make a buck. More important, it was recognition, a thrill, a chance to be part of something big. Look, Mom and Dad, my guy’s still got a shot at it and we’re walking up the 18th on network TV. Wow!

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But some of the preening pros whimpered that they needed their own caddies. Sure, all the sprinkler heads are distance-marked, and they have maps of pin placements. But goodness, who will soothe their nerves, spot a wind-fluttered leaf, and know, without being told, the mint flavor they prefer? One international star even groused that his strange caddie arranged his sticks perfectly. He preferred rummaging through the bag for a club. Nobody had the guts to point out that Snead, Nelson, Mangrum and Hogan managed to shoot lights-out with their bags across the backs of Red or Jake, the town winos. So ended the local caddie tradition.

One puzzling gap in our golf tradition is the lack of outstanding Chicago players. Although we have a few pros on tour, our best-known golfers include Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, who can be seen terrorizing worms at most of the bigger celebrity pro-ams; Bears coach Mike Ditka, scowling through charity events; his former quarterback Jim McMahon, beering and belching his way through fundraisers, and Bulls superstar Michael Jordan, pursuing his impossible dream of being the tall Ben Hogan. But on anyone’s long or short list of the greatest stars of today or the past, you won’t find one Chicagoan. The closest might be Chick Evans, but he won his Open in the days of hickory shafts.

The long, cold winter is usually given as the reason, and it’s surely a factor. Our season is about seven months. But Arnold Palmer is from Pennsylvania, and Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf came out of Ohio, states where there are no palm trees. Andy North, with two Open titles, grew up in Madison, Wis., where it’s even colder. If we can produce a Dick Butkus and dozens of other renowned maulers and slam-dunkers, you’d think we could manage a Tom Kite. Well, maybe the rules could be changed to permit tackling and elbowing. Not on the greens, of course. We’re not uncouth.

However, we’ve more than made up for our lack of homegrown pros by producing some of the nation’s outstanding hustlers. If there were a Hustlers Hall of Fame, Chicagoans would have their own wing.

Unfortunately, this cannot be documented, since the secret of being a successful hustler is not being found out. To be a star hustler means being obscure. To be a Superstar Hustler is to have a swing that causes hysterical laughter. Until the foursome’s net worth is adjusted.

But we’ve had them, and still do. As a former pro put it: “If I bet with the 20-handicappers at my club, I’d be bankrupt by July.”

The most prominent of the hustlers was The Fat Man, who played out of Tam O’Shanter, which gave the tour its first $100,000 purse and provided an FBI-free haven for many of Chicago’s golfing gangsters. Tam O’Shanter is gone, and The Fat Man has retired, but in his day he is said to have been one of golf’s top money-winners. Unofficial earnings, of course, but just as spendable. Wouldn’t you happily accept a press or two from a pudgy fellow who squatted and gripped his wedge just above the hosel when his chipped? Or who almost fell over when he swung? Sure you would. Until you became one of the undeserving poor.

Little John is still around, with his pre-swing waggle from head to toe. Some still talk about the time he waded into a Florida pond to take a rip at a ball that was on a lily pad. His 18-handicap swing nipped it close enough for a tap-in bird and the price of a hefty annuity.

Not long ago, a Chicago team played in a national club event. With the players’ inflationary handicaps, they won by so huge a margin that one of them later said: “We almost needed a helicopter to get us out of there safely when the scores were posted.”

So if you visit Chicago, enjoy the many great courses, the Midwestern friendliness and the city’s other amenities. But if a stranger with a goofy swings wants to play for more than loose change, take a pass. It’s a long walk back to your hotel in bare feet.

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