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The golf course operated by the Evanston Wilmette Golf Course Association may be celebrating its centennial in 2019 with newly designed greens and fairways and thriving in the welcoming atmosphere fostered by the Association over the past several years.

Canal Shores – once a slightly snide term for the 18-hole public course that meanders alongside the North Shore Channel – is finding new respect and gathering fans from across the country. The name is now trademarked, said Jay Ryan, who chairs the Canal Shores 100 committee, which is planning for the golf course’s centennial. He is also an elected member of the Association Board.

“It’s playful,” said Jason Way, a volunteer member of the Canal Shores Grounds Committee and a self-described golf geek, who has been instrumental in shining the light on the potential of Canal Shores.

Far from being a sheltered course in an exclusive country club, Canal Shores – previously known as the Frank Govern Golf Course, and before that, the Peter Jans –  offers golfers a chance to pay a modest fee to play 18 holes on narrow fairways and comparatively small greens – with the added challenge of navigating across five different sections of public streets.

At various times, Canal Shores’ youth program uses the holes in front of the clubhouse for clinics and training. During those times, golfers are asked to begin at the third hole and end their rounds on the clinic holes.

The natural setting and the relaxed atmosphere that welcomes golfers of all ages and abilities also attracts dog-walkers and urban wildlife such as coyotes, deer, rabbits, and raccoons.

Tom Tully, superintendent and supervisor of the golf course, said Canal Shores is a “community asset, the second-largest open space – after the lakefront – in Evanston.” Some holes in the 18-hole course are “friendly, and some are pretty darn hard. Four of the par 3 holes are 200 yards,” he said. At 1.25 acres in total, the greens are “pretty small for an 18-hole golf course.” 

Though the golf course fell on difficult times a few years ago, it has regained vitality, and members of the association’s Board have been discussing how to improve the course, retain the wildlife and expand the Audubon certification, and maintain the grounds for those non-golfers who enjoy the area.

A grant from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and a free evaluation of the course itself from the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the American Society of Golf Course Architects (USGCA) will help in planning for the next decades – if not century – of this beloved golf course.

As the golf course association was honing its local plans, the USGCA and the ASGCA formed a partnership to “help public courses improve their design and maintenance and ultimately deliver a better experience for users.”

Posts in Mr. Way’s blog, geekedongolf, which described Canal Shores as entwined with the neighborhood and accommodating different activities, attracted the attention of Pat Goss, director of golf and player development at Northwestern University. Together the two were able to raise national awareness of the project, which ultimately led to the selection of Canal Shores as the first Site Evaluation Program grant winner. That evaluation is now in the hands of lead architect David Zinkand, design consultants Drew Rogers and Luke Donald and project manager Todd Quitno. (See concept map below.) Mr. Donald, a professional golfer, is an Evanston resident and Northwestern University alum.

The proposed redesign is for four courses: the 12-hole Jans course; the Kids Links; the Rolling Green; and the Back Lot. In combination, there can be 41 holes to play, Mr. Way said. “The new design allows players to choose the number and types of holes they want to play, based on how much time they have. Eighteen-hole options for play will be available every day,” he said.

Greening the Greens

The IDNR grant will help the association create a framework to enhance the natural setting. At present, the wooded environs are becoming crowded with buckthorn and honeysuckle, invasive and aggressive species that choke out grass and smaller plants in their shade. Volunteers have cleaned out some of these invaders and planted native plants and grasses.

“We’ve been pretty aggressive on two or three holes,” Mr. Tully said. Given the expanse of the course and the density of the invaders, the Association decided it was time for some professional help as well, he said. The IDNR grant is to develop a plan for tackling some of the other areas, the biggest of which are the canal banks, where  buckthorn chokes  the growth underneath, leaving  the banks bare and contributing to erosion.

Steve Neumann, another member of the planning committee and lead for the ecological component of the Master Plan, said the grant from Coastal Management of IDNR fits well with the timing of the overall new design.

Canal Shores will ultimately hire a landscape architect to create pocket parks, plant communities and buffer zones and to manage stormwater, he said. 

The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) owns the land, which the golf course association subleases from the City of Evanston under a master lease that runs through May 31, 2032.

Debra Shore, MWRD Commissioner for this area, told the RoundTable she had met with representatives of Canal Shores and “certainly encouraged them to work with District staff on measures that may employ best practices in stormwater management (such as green infrastructure techniques) and urged them to see if they might use some of the District’s high-quality biosolids in the remediation that may take place. … Given the location along the North Shore Channel, the District wants to reduce harmful runoff and enhance habitat and water quality.” 

New Design for Historical Uses

In announcing that Canal Shores would receive the free evaluation from USGA and ASGCA, John Powers, president of the Evanston Wilmette Golf Course Association, said, “Canal Shores is honored to be selected by the USGA and the ASGCA to help it realize its goal of developing and implementing a Master Plan for the course. This is … a first step in what we expect will be a long-term project to improve Canal Shores. As we celebrate our nearly 100-­year history, we are committed to a great future for the course and the game of golf, and to implementing much needed improvements that will benefit future generations mindful of our responsibility for our special place in the community.”

“Things have ruined golf in this country: It’s too expensive, too hard, too time-consuming and too exclusive. People don’t like those things. We are trying to capture the spirit of what made the game great – and incorporate sustainability,” Mr. Way said.

Mr. Zinkand said similarly, “Golfers are beginning to realize shorter courses with many options of how to play the holes are simply more fun and allow all skill-levels a way to play in a reasonable amount of time.”

Canal Shores is integrated into the community as [many are] in Scotland and the United Kingdom,” said Mr. Way. He also said the new design, and the impetus for it, is to acknowledge and enhance what is already going on at Canal Shores in addition to playing golf: meeting with neighbors, walking dogs, holding bike races and kids’ camps, and walking for pleasure.

“With this redesign, we’re going along with the tenets of the Board – we didn’t want the game to die. The principles of the Board are youth, community and families. We want the course to be accessible for any activity you can think of. The golf course was the place people came to meet, a centerpiece for the community to meet and be neighborly.

In his Jan. 11 post to his blog, geekedongolf.com, Mr. Way wrote, “First, to be clear, we are not proposing replacing the existing 18-hole course with a 12-hole course plus practice areas.  What we are proposing is a transformation of the facility into 4 courses totaling 41 holes where players of all ages and skill levels can learn and enjoy the game through playing the game. … By changing from 1 course to 4, we believe that Canal Shores will be better structured to handle these groups while still providing an enjoyable venue for daily players.”

Golf course architect Mr. Zinkand, who crafted the redesign, said, “A golf designer is always seeking unique properties and Canal Shores fits the bill. The site has many limitations, given the block-by-block sections further dissected by the canal. However, these are not as challenging for Canal Shores, as we intend to provide as playable a venue as possible. … [T]here will be plenty of strategy and interesting contours to challenge players of all skill-levels. Ensuring playability with such a dominant ‘water hazard’ down the middle will be something I strive to accommodate all of the way through the construction process.”

New Greens Require More Green

To keep Canal Shores in operation, even absent a new design, the association needs more money.

“What we are doing now is not sustainable,” Mr. Ryan said, adding, “We had about 500 kids in camp last summer, 100 of them on scholarship. … Equipment and machines – their state is pitiful. It’s amazing what Mr. Tully can do with 1980s equipment.

“At some point the Board decided we had to think about our future.  The plan is to bring back the Scottish spirit of the golf course as the town recreation center.”

Members of the Ricketts family, known for their sports holdings, have contributed “generously” to Canal Shores, and are likely to continue to do so, said Mr. Way, Mr. Ryan and Mr. Neumann. The three also said the Board relies on multiple sources of income or donations.

“Canal Shores has been brought back from the brink through the support of the community,” said Mr. Ryan, who also expressed his hope for even greater community participation in “the effort to improve Canal Shores so that it is a beautiful enjoyable and sustainable space for recreation for generations to come.”

They said they hope the association will form a partnership with First Tee Association, an organization that teaches life skills through the game of golf.

“Pat Goss of Northwestern University and Mr. Donald are involved with First Tee. The organization has an inclusive principle, and they help youth in American grow up,” Mr. Ryan said.

Mr. Ryan said Canal Shores plans to “continue to work with our neighbor, Northwestern University, as much as possible, including continuing to rent the University two holes on the golf course, at this time, for tailgating during football season. Outside of golf revenue and in-kind donations, the parking revenue is a significant part of our operating budget.”

 He also said that with the new B&Bs in town and the other attractions of Evanston – the lakefront, the arts and culture – the redesigned Canal Shores will offer visitors another option in Evanston: They can play golf.

Next Steps

“The Board has approved a study of the current concept but no plan has been approved,” Mr. Tully said. “The Board agrees that the course is a community asset, and they have no desire to change this in any way,” he added.

Ms. Shore said, “Any ‘improvements’ on land leased by the District must be submitted for approval by District staff. … The District does have a comprehensive land-use policy that seeks to promote the use of green infrastructure through a variety of mechanisms.”

In the meantime, said Mr. Ryan, “We are open to listening. We really believe that with our experts – USGCA and MWRD and the City engineers – this probably is going to be the best option that we have. … Now we need the money to pay for it.”

While the reconfiguration and upgrades may increase the price of a round at Canal Shores, “We’re already the cheapest course in the neighborhood and expect to be that, going forward,” Mr. Tully said. “We still want to be a community asset. There is still going to be a lot of value. Our goal is to still be accommodating to the community at large.”

Mr. Way said the Canal Shores Association has received some support and some skepticism. He also said, though, “We believe it’s the best option for sustainability and leave a legacy for our children.”

Mr. Neumann, Mr. Ryan and Mr. Way said they believe the redesign proposed by architect Zinkand is the best and most sustainable one for Canal Shores, both in terms of stewardship of the land and in creating a legacy for future generations. They said the focus on youth will remain, and “we hope that existing partnerships with Family Focus, Youth & Opportunity United (Y.O.U.), Northwestern University and Evanston Township High School will continue.”

ETHS Athletic Director Chris Livatino said the girls’ junior varsity and varsity golf teams play and practice at Canal Shores, though the boys’ teams practice and play at Wilmette. He said he has not seen the most recent plans for the golf course, but said he is confident that “whatever they decide will be for the better of the course.”

“There is no way anyone will be worse off by this plan – regardless of what stakeholder you are,” said Mr. Way.

During any redesign, the plan is to keep the course open. “If accepted, the plan will be implemented in phases,” said Mr. Ryan. “Ideally we will have a 100th anniversary with the new design.”

At Canal Shores, it seems, the plan is that there will always be golf.

The map of the proposed concept for redesigning Canal Shores Golf Course shows four separate courses. The Board of the Evanston Wilmette Golf Course Association, which operates Canal Shores, has not held a vote on the proposed redesign.

Architect David Zinkand told the RoundTable, “We want everyone to enjoy Canal Shores. We especially want to meet the needs of the surrounding communities, so families are the real target audience. We intend to enable beginners to get around fairly easily. This includes youngsters learning on the Youth Links, where the obstacles are fairly gentle. It also includes ‘graduates’ of the Youth Links and adults heading to the Jans, where completing the challenges will still be within reach. Here is where the terrain we will create is so important to the project’s success. Slopes, rolls and ridges provide features everyone can tackle. We will shape provocative contours that provide a compelling test for all skill-levels.

In his blog geekedongolf, Jason Way, a volunteer member of the Canal Shores Grounds Committee, described the four courses. The following information is excepted, with permission, from his Jan. 11 post:

The Jans Course (“12 Hole Course”), which will occupy the area north of Central Street, is designed for players of moderate to advanced skill, and will be laid out in a clockwise loop.  It also includes inner loops that allow for flexible play.  

The Kids Links (“Youth Links & Practice Facility”), between Central and Lincoln streets, will include a 5-hole short course as well as a driving range, putting and chipping greens designed specifically for kids.  

The 18-hole Rolling Green putting course, south of Lincoln Street, next to Leahy Park, will cover 25,000 square feet and include exciting contours and mounds to navigate.  This is not intended to be used as a putting green for practice. It is intended to be played by players of all skill levels and ages.

The Back Lot (“6-Hole Multi-directional Play & Practice Area”), south of the Rolling Green, will be a 6-hole par-3 course for the public.  It will also serve at times as a highly dynamic and challenging practice course for advanced players.

Mr. Zinkand said, “The shorter window of time required to play Canal Shores should draw a larger audience to its convenient location. Improvements in the facilities and maintenance capabilities will enhance the outdoor experience even for non-golfers. Combine these benefits with instilling classic golf strategies and concepts found on private clubs around Chicago, as well as in Britain, and I expect golfers will find the new venue enticing.”