Scotland is known as the birthplace of golf because it is believed the sport was first played there in 1774. However, the game was not introduced to North America until the late 19th century. In fact, one might be surprised to learn the nation’s first 18-hole golf course was built in Downers Grove, Ill.
The legendary Chicago Golf Club was established in 1892 by a group of businessmen on the site of the current Downers Grove Golf Club.
The founding father of the Chicago Golf Club was Charles Blair Macdonald, who has also been credited with having great influence in establishing the United States Golf Association, and developing golf-course architecture in the U.S.
Early in 1892, Macdonald—motivated by England’s Sir Henry Wood, Commissioner General to the Chicago World’s Fair—persuaded 30 of his Chicago Club colleagues to contribute $10 each to design and construct a 9-hole golf course.
The site chosen was a 60-acre stock farm owned by A. Haddow Smith—a Lanarkshire golfer who had immigrated in 1890 to the U.S. from Musselburg, Scotland. When Smith heard of Macdonald’s plan, he enthusiastically offered his land as the location for the new course.
Build It Bigger
The golf course was completed and ready for play in late spring of 1892. When the inaugural season ended, Macdonald convinced the club’s members to add nine more holes to the course. So, in 1893, it became the first 18-hole golf course in the U.S.
By 1895, Chicago Golf Club members had become so taken with the sport that they decided to build a new 18-hole course on 200 acres located near Wheaton, Ill. The Chicago Golf Club was then moved, and is still in existence there today.
Between 1895 and 1968, the site of the Downers Grove Golf Club (which eventually reverted to 9 holes) was owned by several individuals, and known as the Illinois Golf Club in the late 1890s, and then operated under the name of Belmont Country Club. In 1968, the course was purchased by the Downers Grove Park District for $750,000 and renamed the Downers Grove Golf Club.
Both the original and second clubhouses were destroyed by fire, the first in the 1920s and the second in 1976. The current clubhouse is its fourth, constructed in 1996.
Major renovations and upgrades to the course were made throughout the 1990s, including the addition of a driving range, rebuilt greens, and new tees and fairways. This year marks the 120th season on the course.
Not only is Downers Grove rich in history, but also in its ground soil. Golf Club Superintendent Jeff Pozen says one of the greatest advantages of having such an old course to maintain is the high quality of soil available to grow turf grass.
Because the course was relatively undisturbed when being constructed with a horse and plow, the soil is very black, light in weight, and averages a 2- to 3-foot depth throughout the course. Modern golf courses (built in the last 40 to 50 years) were built with heavy bulldozers, and much of the black topsoil was sold by owners, leaving a compacted 6- to 8-inch depth over the top of the clay subsurface.
The quality of the soil becomes evident in the spring and fall when thousands of earthworms do their magic and naturally aerate the soil, which controls any thatch that occurs in the top inch of the soil. Subsequently, it is unnecessary to core aerate fairways, which is a labor-intensive operation that also significantly disrupts golfers.
The course also drains exceptionally well because of the depth and “lightness” of the soil, which provides better turf-grass conditions and allows golf carts to be used on the course quickly after a rainstorm, thus providing a better customer experience and increased revenue.
Pozen advises, “Build up the biological activity in the soils by using organic fertilizers and products with beneficial bacteria in them.”
Last Tree Standing
Planting trees and establishing native prairie areas throughout the course also has been successful due to the richness of the soil. Five years ago, several oak trees were planted, and have quickly adapted to their new home. They now have a vigorous canopy and average 2 to 3 feet of growth each year.
Establishing native prairie areas can prove disappointing on many courses due to the tendency of weeds overtaking the plants after seeding. Downers Grove, however, has had good germination, and areas that are 3 years old are flourishing and providing valuable habitat for coyotes, deer, turtles, and hawks.
The club has kept an original Scotch pine believed to have been planted during the development of the course in 1892. It is the last of five Scotch pines planted there, unfortunately dying in 2009 from the Pine Wilt Fungus. The club effectively named the tree the “Last Man Standing,” located on the left side of the ninth fairway as golfers approach the clubhouse.
If this tree could talk, imagine the stories it could tell. Rumor has it Al Capone and “company” played the course several times.
For more information, visit www.dgparks.org.
MacDonald, C.B. Scotland’s Gift GOLF. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928.
Sonnefeldt, Paul. Golf course traces past, faces future. 1994.
USGA Journal & Turf Management, September, 1956.
Brandi Beckley is the Public Information Supervisor for the Downers Grove Park District. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org