CHICAGO – It’s nothing exotic, just a shaggy, meandering sliver of green at the eastern edge of a black neighborhood. But to the kids who first glimpsed Jackson Park Golf Course through a chain-link fence, it might as well have been the surface of the moon.
“I’d walk past on my way to see a girlfriend who lived nearby. Back then,” Tyrone Banks recalled the other day, “I’d just stand there for a while watching and wonder what the point of it all was.”
Nearly five decades later that kid has grown up, served in the military, climbed the corporate ladder, retired and returned to Jackson Park, this time as general manager. This 5,463-yard, par-70 muni on the city’s South Side is ground zero in the landscape of Chicago public golf, but perhaps even moreso for black public golf across America. If there was ever a place to rebuild the foundation and revitalize the game before handing it over to the next generation, this is it.
Jackson Park was built in 1899 and first played by blacks at the turn of the last century, though another 50 years passed before they were really welcome, especially at tournament time. One of the first to take advantage and show up for the City Amateur was Joe Louis, who became an icon with his fists but loved few things more than wrapping them around a golf club.
A day after he finished birdie-birdie-par to lock up a three-peat in the 1993 U.S. Junior Amateur, 17-year-old phenom Tiger Woods flew halfway across the country to put on a clinic at the threadbare driving range. Then he came back on his way to the Western Open four years later, already a global phenomenon, and did another.
A half-dozen years ago, nobody thought to make a fuss whenever state senator and University of Chicago law professor Barack Obama showed up at the starter’s shed with a set of left-handed clubs in tow, looking to fill out a foursome. The next time he does, somebody probably will.
“I played with Barack ’round about 2004,” Banks said. “I’m one of those people who believes just one round of golf allows you to know somebody well. You could see that he had class just by the way he played.”
For all that, Jackson Park’s most distinguished alumnus might be a soft-spoken teaching pro named Emmanuel Worley, who came to the game late and never quite made up enough ground to reach the PGA Tour. He got as far as the second round of U.S. Open qualifying once, played the mini-tours in Florida for a few months, and cobbled together enough sponsorship money to take two cracks at the tour’s Q-school in the mid-1990s.
But Worley also surrendered a chance or two to slip into a tournament field as an alternate because he couldn’t stick around to find out if all the regulars showed up.
“I had a job to come back to,” he said.
At the time, he was in the middle of a 15-year stint as the general manager at Jackson Park. Now 48, Worley is gearing up for one last run at the pros, this time against the 50-and-over crowd on the Champions Tour.
A lot of good golfers have that same dream every night. But every morning Worley rises before 5 a.m., hits 300-400 balls, then works the cash register and gives lessons at another park district driving range on the north side of town. He gets home around 8 p.m., then heads over to the gym for a two-hour workout.
“I’m more devoted now, better rounded, more confident and a lot more relaxed. Hungrier, too,” Worley said. “And the wonderful thing about golf is if I shoot the numbers, what can stop me?”
He didn’t wait for an answer.
“But my first responsibility,” he added, “is to take care of my family.”
Like more than a few “graduates” of Jackson Park, Worley learned not to take his eyes off that prize. He’s made a living and helped raise two kids working at something he loved. He’s done more for other people’s kids than some of them will know. And he knows if the chance to test himself against the best never comes, well, it might for his son Joshua — a 19-year-old sophomore on the golf team at Chicago State University — or one of the two dozen youngsters who pass through the junior program he runs during the year. But that’s almost beside the point.
Finding even one kid good enough to become a tour pro would be a miracle, let alone someone like Woods.
Besides, that wasn’t the aim when a few tough-minded women from the neighborhood stood up to the same golf organizations that had excluded them for years and started a program for juniors. They just wanted their kids to have the chance to play. That was 1954. There were dozens, maybe a hundred such programs already up and running in suburbs around the country, but not even one in a black community. Worley runs that same Bob-O-Links program at Jackson Park today. The mission hasn’t changed.
“Golf will teach you how to keep an open mind, and how to make choices. How to be patient. How to endure,” Worley said. “A lot of the things you need to know are already in there.”
Worley had nothing that lofty in mind when he cut across the third fairway on his way home one summer afternoon. He was 11 and had just finished caddying when Hayes Thornton, a Jackson Park regular who worked for the board of education, called him over.
“He talked me into picking up a club and playing.” The memory still pains him. “The first time around, I shot 100.”
By his late 20s, Worley was good enough to win back-to-back City Amateur titles. He was sitting on a bench at the driving range not long after, when some golfers who saw him play asked about lessons.
“That’s pretty much when I figured it out,” Worley said. “Trade iron (trophies) for cash.”
Golf hasn’t made him rich, but it helped make him a better man. Scratch the memory of just about any old-timer at Jackson Park and you’ll hear similar stories about kids who became caddies and went to college on scholarships, or else used the course management skills they learned there to carve out livelihoods as teachers, cops, postmen or local business owners. Ultimately, that might be the point.
“Tiger made playing golf cool for black kids, and if I’m being honest, I’ll admit that by now, I thought there would be more lot blacks on the tour,” said Banks, Jackson Park’s general manager.
“But you know what? Golf is difficult. It can get expensive. You can’t teach yourself how to play, because then you spend the rest of your life unlearning bad habits you gave yourself in the first place,” he added, his voice rising. “Every single golfer on the PGA Tour takes lessons — even Tiger and Phil (Mickelson).”
Banks ticks off another handful of reasons why an already daunting game seems less accessible than ever to the kids still living within a few par-5s of the course. Then he remembers what it game did for him, and like a golfer on the tee, he begins plotting a route around or between every hazard:
•Revive the caddie program;
•Restore the outreach effort that sent volunteer golf instructors into the local public elementary and high schools a few days each month;
•Recapture the buzz surrounding Tiger’s 1997 Masters win.
Over Banks’ left shoulder, a maintenance crew is grooming some bushes alongside the starter’s shed. Over his right, a lone player tees off on No. 1. Banks wants the course in top shape by the time Chicago’s unpredictable weather smooths out, though no one has any idea when that will be.
He looks down the first fairway, out toward the sprawling lawn that once puzzled him so, and slides his hands deeper into his pockets. Banks’ to-do list is getting longer by the moment.
“Somehow,” he sighed, “we’re going to get it all done.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.