Jackson Park a training ground for black golfers

By Associated PressApril 1, 2009, 4:00 pm
CHICAGO ' Its 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.
Id walk past on my way to see a girlfriend who lived nearby. Back then, Tyrone Banks recalled the other day, Id 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 citys 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 starters 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. Im 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 Parks 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 tours 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 couldnt 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.
Im 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 didnt 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. Hes made a living and helped raise two kids working at something he loved. Hes done more for other peoples 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 thats 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 wasnt 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 hasnt 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.
Thats pretty much when I figured it out, Worley said. Trade iron (trophies) for cash.
Golf hasnt made him rich, but it helped make him a better man. Scratch the memory of just about any old-timer at Jackson Park and youll 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 Im being honest, Ill admit that by now, I thought there would be more lot blacks on the tour, said Banks, Jackson Parks general manager.
But you know what? Golf is difficult. It can get expensive. You cant 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 Tigers 1997 Masters win.
    Over Banks left shoulder, a maintenance crew is grooming some bushes alongside the starters shed. Over his right, a lone player tees off on No. 1. Banks wants the course in top shape by the time Chicagos 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, were going to get it all done.
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    This week’s RSM Classic is Cook’s fourth start on Tour, and rounds of 66-62 secured his fourth made cut of the young season. More importantly, his 14-under total moved him into the lead at Sea Island Resort.

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    Cook has been perfect this week at the RSM Classic and moved into contention with four consecutive birdies starting at No. 13 (he began his round on the 10th hole of the Seaside course). A 6-footer for birdie at the last moved him one stroke clear of Brian Gay.

    In fact, Cook hasn’t come close to making a bogey this week thanks to an equally flawless ball-striking round that moved him to first in the field in strokes gained: tee to green.

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    “He’s got a great golf brain,” Henley said. “That’s the most flawless round of golf I’ve ever seen.”

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    The plan has paid off this week at the RSM Classic, where Watson is tied for 12th place after a second-round 64 on the Seaside course moved him to 7 under par.

    Watson, who tied for 51st two weeks ago in Las Vegas, got off to a quick start on Day 2, playing the opening nine in 29. Despite a miscue at the 14th hole, when his tee shot wedged into a tree, he was solid coming in for his best individual round this year.

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    Park kept right on attacking.

    The 24-year-old from South Korea added a 30-foot eagle putt late in her second round and finished with a 7-under 65, giving her a three-shot lead going into the weekend at Tiburon Golf Club.

    Nothing seems to bother her, even the chance to cap off an amazing rookie season by sweeping all the big awards on the LPGA Tour.

    ''To be honest, I don't feel quite as nervous as I thought I would,'' Park said through an interpreter. ''After the first shot, after the first hole, I felt a lot more comfortable. I'm not feeling as nervous as I thought I might be going into today.''

    Leave that to the players chasing her.

    Even with a three-putt bogey on the final hole, Park was at 12-under 132 and was three shots clear of Caroline Masson (66) and Sarah Jane Smith (69).

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    More importantly, none of the other players in the chase for the $1 million Race to the CME Globe bonus or any other big award was within five shots of Park, who is trying to become the first rookie since Nancy Lopez in 1978 to win LPGA player of the year.

    Lexi Thompson, who leads the Race to the CME Globe and the Vare Trophy for lowest adjusted scoring average, shot a 67 and wound up losing ground. She was six shots behind and must stay within 10 shots of Park to win the Vare.

    So Yeon Ryu, who leads the points-based award for player of the year, managed a 71 with her sore right shoulder but was 11 shots back.

    The other two players who need to win the tournament to collect the $1 million bonus also had their work cut out for them. Brooke Henderson had another 70 and was eight shots behind, while world No. 1 Shanshan Feng shot 73 and was 11 shots behind.

    Park was in control, only she didn't see it that way.

    ''I don't think it's quite that far of a lead,'' Park said. ''Two, three shots of a lead can change at any moment. We will have to see what's in store for this weekend.''

    Park began her big run with an 18-foot birdie on No. 5, got up-and-down for birdie from just off the green at the par-5 sixth, holed a 25-foot birdie putt on No. 7, and then closed out the front nine with birdie putts from 8 feet and 15 feet.

    ''I actually didn't know that I was going five birdies in a row,'' Park said. ''Come hole No. 10, I realized that I hadn't been jotting down my scores as diligently, and so I realized it a little bit later on. And it felt great.''

    That gave her the lead by one shot over Suzann Pettersen, except that Pettersen faded badly on the back nine.

    Pettersen dropped four shots in a three-hole stretch by getting out of position off the tee and she shot 39 on the back nine for a 70 to fall five shots behind.

    ''I feel like I'm playing good,'' Pettersen said. ''Three bad drives on the back nine cost me four shots. That should not be possible on this course, where the fairways are about 100 yards wide.''

    Park was honored at an awards banquet Thursday night as the LPGA rookie of the year. Now, she has more awards in her sights. A victory would give her the award for player of the year. She would capture the money title, which she leads over Ryu. And depending on how the weekend goes, she might be able to surpass Thompson in the race for the Vare Trophy.

    Thompson did well to recover from two bogeys on her opening three holes.

    ''I hit a few really erratic shots in the beginning. It wasn't a good start to the round,'' Thompson said. ''Just tried to stay positive and find something that could work for the last 14, 15 holes.''

    Lydia Ko fell six shots behind in her bid to avoid a winless season. She was one shot behind going into the second round but managed only three birdies in her round of 71.

    Park, meanwhile, had everything going her way. Even when she pulled her drive on the par-5 14th into a sandy area with a root next to her ball, she picked it clear and sent it through a goal post of trees back to the fairway. Three holes later, she blasted a drive and had only a 7-iron into the green at the par-5 17th, which she hit to 30 feet and made the long putt.

    Does anything make her nervous?

    ''I hate spiders,'' she said. ''But in terms of golf, I always get nervous to this day on the first tee. I can feel my heart pounding.''

    It's a feeling that doesn't appear to last very long.