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A Club With Broad Shoulders

Whether it’s battling overgrown vegetation or city politics, a group of concerned citizens keeps Canal Shores alive

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Central Station is the penultimate stop on Chicago’s Purple Line train. If you’re riding from downtown, you’ve traveled about 45 minutes north, passing by Wrigley Field and Northwestern University on your way through Evanston. And when you step onto the platform, still very much a part of Chicago’s leafy northern sprawl, you’ll see the first tee of Canal Shores. You shouldn’t, because it probably shouldn’t exist, but there it is anyway. 

When a course like Canal Shores overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it’s tempting to label its survival as miraculous. But calling it a miracle misplaces the credit and undersells the people who have given their time, money and sweat, year after year, to ensure Canal Shores not only stays open, but evolves to meet the needs of the community with which it’s been intertwined for nearly a century.

Opened in 1919 and operating under a variety of names (though locals called it Canal Shores long before the moniker became official), the course sits along both banks of the North Shore Channel, a canal completed in 1910 to connect Lake Michigan to the north branch of the Chicago River. It’s a curious property: Laid out as an 18-hole, par-60 short course that plays 3,900 yards from the back tees, the course is bisected by the canal and further divided by five city streets. Players will also spend time in two entirely different Chicago suburbs, Evanston and Wilmette, as the 67 acres span the official border between the two. 

On a sunny, cool and typically breezy late-September weekday, the course was bustling. A shotgun outing benefiting The First Tee of Greater Chicago was about to start, and the 40 or so players taking part were in carts, lined up in the standard pack formation you see in these settings—say, prior to a golf scramble, or right before the green flag drops at the Indy 500. A few disappointed singles were waiting around for permission to tee off, having arrived unaware of the outing. In the American Legion hall above the pro shop, a former Marine turned University of Illinois-Chicago grad student poured drinks for a group of veterans. 

In this setting, it’s difficult to imagine such a community asset would be under threat, but not that long ago the course nearly went under.

“Five years ago, we owed $100,000 in water bills,” Dan Bulf tells me. Bulf is the business manager at Canal Shores. He came on board as the course began to turn around and claims he’s not a “typical golf person,” despite pouring in a few lengthy putts from off the green. But his connections to the course run deep. As we cross Central Street on our way to the third tee, he points out the hospital that borders the hole and tells me that both of his daughters were born there. Bulf works as one of the course’s three full-time, year-round employees; he spent the day greeting every course regular we ran across by name.

In 2012, along with massive financial woes, a saga featuring multiple lawsuits and accusations of mismanagement among various board members nearly sunk Canal Shores. But the surrounding community rallied to save it from immediate closure and the board was reconstituted with new faces.

At this point it’s important to note that Canal Shores is not a municipal course. Bulf and board member Steve Neumann go out of their way to emphasize that—not out of any sense of elitism, but because the course is a nonprofit organization. That distinction has helped raise vital funding, and they believe that if local residents think they’re already supporting the course via tax dollars, they’re much less likely to donate or get involved. And Canal Shores needs all the support it can get. 

“We currently have a significant net operating gap that needs to be closed,” Bulf tells me. A large portion of the course’s annual revenue doesn’t even come from selling memberships or raising funds; instead, it’s from charging people to park on the grounds during Northwestern football games at Ryan Field, which is just a few blocks away. In an ideal world they’d move on from that practice, but for now Canal Shores can’t afford to. 

“We’re fortunate as a nonprofit that we can fundraise,” Bulf says. “I don’t know how other courses make it.”

It’s also hard to imagine how other courses do without people like Jason Way, who is another newfound champion of the course. Way didn’t initially seem like someone who would factor into the future of Canal Shores.

“I was out there using the place as a practice facility,” Way says. “It was a total dump; it was clear nobody cared about it. The greens were unputtable…I brought my shag bag and worked in the shoulder seasons on hitting 5-irons into the green. 

“And I was confronted for doing that,” he recalls, laughing. “A guy said, ‘Give me $10!’ And I didn’t have $10, and he said, ‘Then get out of here!’ So the next day I went back to the maintenance area, gave him $10 and he said, ‘Go have a blast.’ 

“He probably put that $10 in his pocket, but the point was someone there cared. I thought, ‘I’m not that much of an asshole; if they’re going to care, I’ll care.’ And once I started paying to be there, I decided to go all in and get a season pass. Once I did that, I wanted to see if I could help, because they were obviously bootstrapping it.”

Way was elected to the Canal Shores Grounds Committee in 2014 and has since spearheaded a massive rejuvenation of the golf course. He has recruited an army of local residents and members of Chicago’s tight-knit golf community to get their hands in the dirt. He chronicles the course’s progress on his website, Geeked on Golf, and the effort has brought results on and off the course. Golf Channel and other media have come out to see the progress.

It’s impossible to talk about how far the course has come, much less where it might go next, without his name coming up. Bulf and Neumann preface their answers to questions with, “When you talk to Jason about that, he’ll probably say…” They also affectionately use adjectives like “indomitable” and “infamous” to describe him. 

It’s easy to see why. 

“I’m just not good at politics,” Way says about the challenges of implementing changes he and others think the course needs. “It’s been a shock how far at the other end of the spectrum modifying a community asset can be. Just the gridlock that happens when everybody must be consulted, and there’s a large group of people who are voting; it’s mind-boggling at times that anything gets done. And if I’m hard on the people involved, it’s because I’m action oriented and have a picture in my head of what’s possible, and in my mind if you can do something great, you should.”

Way has a point: Canal Shores is already fun to play, with obvious potential for more. Much of it has yet to be completely renovated or changed, but the green complexes are challenging and varied, with nearly all of them in tremendous shape despite enduring a September of record heat and low rainfall. The holes that Way and his band of workers have rebuilt show what’s possible. 

On No. 14, a new bunker sits left of the green, accented by railroad ties; since the course is nestled between two busy rail lines, the ties are a natural aesthetic touch. Built by volunteers earlier this year, the bunkers are well shaped, and their grass surrounds have a natural shagginess to them that works not only visually, but as a way to reduce mowing costs. 

The 15th now features an homage to the Old Course’s Principal’s Nose bunker down the left side of the fairway, while the right side was expanded via a massive volunteer effort to clear buckthorn and other invasive plants to the banks of the canal. A greenside bunker was added right of the green. All that work changed what had been a short, flat, bombs-away par 4 into a hole with new variety and added risk-reward elements, fun and challenging for players of various skill levels. 

The 16th is one of two par 3s to play across the canal. With the Metra tracks on the right side of the hole, and some invasive vegetation having been cleared away recently, there’s a sweeping view of the green as well as the graffiti-spattered railroad bridge that only enhances the city feel. In a point of pride certainly unique to Canal Shores, Bulf bragged about the lack of obscenity in the graffiti.

The benefits of community assistance on these holes are obvious. It’s a recurring theme at Canal Shores, and what makes the vibe so special: a collective will resulting in the donation of sweat equity, legal services, marketing expertise and more. But Way claims the job is nowhere near done.

“It’s one thing to be resistant and afraid of change, and it’s another thing to be complacent because you think it’s good enough,” Way says. “The latter worries me more. I just hope we don’t become victims of our own progress, where everybody says, ‘Wow, we’ve made it so far!’ and takes their chips off the table. For me it’s just the beginning. We’ll see if I’m in the minority or not.”

The other hole spanning the canal, the ninth, shows the work still ahead. The vegetation is thick and high, blocking any view of the green. The top of the flag is visible only when found through a proper chute of leaves. The tee sits adjacent to a snack shack that once employed a young Bill Murray, who grew up down the street. With that kind of history and potential, it should be the garden spot of the property, the place everyone wants to take an Instagram selfie. Bulf, Neumann and Way know this, but on a limited budget with plenty of projects on tap, progress takes time. 

Many of the tee boxes were worn down to bare dirt after a summer’s use, and Way pointed out how some of the creative changes he’d like the course to make would also help prevent issues like that from popping up. 

“I had [the grounds crew] mow the entire 11th hole months ago, at the beginning of the summer,” he says. “We mowed the entire damn thing. And I just said, ‘Start putting the tees everywhere.’ There’s all sorts of interesting angles into this green; you can change the distances. But the grounds crew wouldn’t move the tees off the tee boxes!”

Way laughs about that now, but he’s acutely aware that opening minds to different ways of thinking isn’t easy in any context, especially in golf. 

Those forces have been made apparent in several ways. In early 2016, after consulting with Pat Goss, director of golf at Northwestern University, Way’s committee presented to the board a master plan that would see the course transition from an 18-hole short course to four distinct courses. A 12-hole executive course would occupy the north end of the property. A five-hole “Kids’ Links” would sit near the clubhouse, offering a short course designed specifically for children. Finally, it included an 18-hole putting course for all ages and a six-hole short course that could double as a full practice facility. 

It was a plan that Way, Neumann and others envisioned as a way to distinguish Canal Shores from other public facilities in Chicago, offering variants of the game designed to appeal to every class of golfer. But they quickly discovered not everyone was so willing to evolve.

“[The concept] freaked everyone out,” Neumann says. “People were asking, ‘What’s it mean to my backyard?’ and ‘What are you doing?’ and, of course, ‘But golf’s 18 holes!’” The board didn’t vote it down outright, instead choosing to move slowly with the project. Way described the proposal as “shelved for now.”

In response, Neumann came up with a neighborhood-captain plan to help bring more people into the process. The captains for different areas of the course help get the word out for various projects and volunteer opportunities. The course does literally function as a backyard for dozens of homes, and though there’s a push and pull involved with engendering support, the results have been encouraging. 

“We can’t make everyone happy, but we need their buy-in,” Neumann says. “We need their ideas. And we need their money, too, because we’re a nonprofit. They feel like they’re being listened to, they feel like they’re participating with the process, they feel like they’re being informed. We can show them some great things we’re doing—the improvement of the greens, the new fence on Central Street. We’re getting their trust, too.” 

Trust is important when you’re trying to take a golf course into uncharted territory. But that’s perhaps where courses like Canal Shores should go, and credit to people like Way, Neumann and Bulf (among many others involved) for realizing it. Shifting to a layout that plays to the strengths of the property makes more sense than attempting to sell a round at Canal Shores as a traditional 18-hole experience.

“If we had a 7,000-yard, 18-hole, championship layout, then we’d have a tougher decision to make,” says Neumann. “But that’s not what we have.”

What they have is the potential to complete a blueprint that could help other similarly challenged courses stay relevant, or even move ahead of the curve, simply by leaning into the quirks of the course. After all, golf didn’t start as an 18-hole game. Why should it continue as such, at least exclusively?

“People in this country don’t actually understand what the traditions of golf are,” Way says. “They have taken America’s bastardization of this gloriously fun and challenging and joyous game and turned it into a standardized death march. It’s just wrongheaded, and all those chickens are coming home to roost as people quit the game because it’s either too hard or they don’t have time or they don’t see the recreational value proposition as worth it, relative to other options.”

So while plenty of golf progressives are involved with the project, it still requires a leap for many to envision how a 12-hole course could attract league play, or groups looking to host outings, or avoid turning off the regular players who have pumped steady money into the course. But other businesses are springing up (think Topgolf) that take advantage of the quick, social, fun aspects of the sport without requiring a massive time commitment or an active handicap. The logic is clear to the Canal Shores brain trust: Rather than try to force people to pay for the kinds of golf they aren’t used to playing, why not offer them the chance to pay for the quicker varieties they already prefer?

In true Canal Shores fashion, they’re already trying. The course currently books tee times for both five- and 10-hole loops, referred to as the Metra and the El, respectively, on account of their relative proximities to those rail lines. Those routings offer faster golf for discounted rates; fees range between $8 and $15. Players can finish the Metra loop in under an hour, perfect for a quick stop on the way home from work or to start a child on the game without overwhelming his or her stamina and attention span.

Progress toward their goals hasn’t been linear, but progress rarely is. Though the pace of these changes and the intermittent resistance to a grander overhaul can be frustrating for people like Way, Neumann and Bulf, it’s also important to remember how far Canal Shores has come in a relatively short amount of time.

“If you were a gambling person five years ago, you would have been nuts to bet on Canal Shores surviving,” Way says. “In part because the place has a long history of struggle, so a turnaround seemed unlikely. And in part because the people who are still on the board who actually turned it around are just folks who lived next door. It’s not like we had a golf management company that came in and did this. It was just neighbors of the place who thought, ‘We have to try and do something,’ and they did.…They deserve an enormous amount of credit and respect for that.”

It’s hard not to fall for the place. If you grew up playing scruffier, low-cost public courses, you’ll recognize those familiar charms at Canal Shores. But warm-and-fuzzies aren’t enough to save a golf course, especially in today’s economic climate. What rescued Canal Shores was a dedicated group of people coming together and caring enough to try. That’s rarer than it should be, and the people involved seem to understand the chance they’ve been given, even if it’s not always easy.

“Everything about it is so improbable.…And yet things get done,” Way says. “Maybe on some level that’s an example of people’s ability to ultimately bring out their best selves. But the place has a stickiness to it. There have been so many times where I want to say, ‘Screw this.’ But…if I do that and it implodes, how am I going to feel seeing them close the doors? Then I just squandered an opportunity of a lifetime.”