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Canal Shores fights the good fight

Canal Shores Golf Course has held up well for being nearly 100 years old. The par-60 course in Evanston, Ill., is nothing fancy, just a solid blue-collar layout that certainly meets the fun requirement. [Photo: Canal Shores Golf Course]

When a $20,000 water bill is not paid, bad things tend to happen, especially if the guilty party is a public golf course

EVANSTON, Ill. — When a $20,000 water bill is not paid, bad things tend to happen, especially if the guilty party is a public golf course.

Soon, people who barely knew the course existed start paying attention — the kind of unwanted attention it has been able to avoid for the last, oh, 90 years. 

The uncut grass, dirt patches on the greens, overgrown bushes and trees suddenly become important to the arched-eyebrow set that populate local government committees. And, of course, the bills. All of it had been going on for years, but then you get the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back moment and … well, it’s not good.

This is the story of Canal Shores Golf Course (formerly known as Peter Jans Golf Course), a delightful 18-hole, par-60 track seamlessly integrated into an early 20th century residential neighborhood just down the street from Northwestern University’s football stadium.  

The course traverses the border of Evanston and Wilmette, two lovely, old-line, tree-canopied North Shore suburbs located on the other side of the Chicago city line. It was designed by the prolific Tom Bendelow, original architect of Medinah Country Club’s 54-holes, including course No. 3, which hosted the 2012 Ryder Cup and numerous majors. 

Canal Shores’ near-death experience in 2012 resulted in the golf community galvanizing to save it. 

Fun Meter: Canal Shores Golf Course

Mission statements were drafted. A new private board of directors was formed that included Chicago Cubs co-owner and national Republican Finance chairman Todd Ricketts, who along with brother Tom, Cubs chairman, live nearby. 

A non-profit group took over running the course. Soon, philanthropists pumped $250,000 into the course, paying off the water bill to the towns of Evanston and Wilmette, and providing working capital to address serious maintenance and equipment issues.

Junior golf became a priority. A new greens superintendent came in from one of the area’s top private clubs. The USGA got involved along with the American Society of Golf Course Architects. Golf Channel sent a crew. The Wall Street Journal did a story.

People started talking about “economic self-sufficiency,” “environmental stewardship,” and the “need to preserve greenspace.” Joggers and dog walkers were welcome. People made the point that golf is for everyoneand that golfers, too, love the environment.

Founded in 1919, Canal Shores will mark its 100th birthday next year. 

The course is good news for golf, because Canal Shores is fun, unique, and oozing with history and character. Like so many other courses on the North Shore, it’s another one of the inspirational stomping grounds of Caddyshack co-creators Bill and Brian Doyle Murray and their brothers, who grew up in Wilmette and worked at the course, slinging burgers.

The layout isn’t intimidating yet is plenty challenging. Course conditions are decent, although definitely not good enough for those who might be offended by bluegrass tee boxes.

Despite having 12 par 3s and six par 4s, Canal Shores isn’t easy. Seven of the par 3s measure between 165 to 220 yards. The greens are small, quick and tilted — to assist with drainage, as were all putting surfaces of that era. Miss the green and a difficult up-and-down awaits courtesy of the recently-planted high fescue grass.

Canal Shores hosted a mini-tour event, which boasted a first prize of $15,000, in 1994. Tim “Lumpy” Herron, making his pro debut, won the inaugural event and would go on to win more than $19 million on the PGA Tour. Jim Estes, another PGA Tour player, won the following year.


Much of Canal Shores' charm is its location, which straddles the Evanston and Wilmette line, and features the familiar El train running over a tunneled path from the 11th green to the 12th tee. [Photo: Canal Shores Golf Course]

Canal Shores lies a few steps from the Central Street station of the Chicago Transit Authority’s famous Elevated tracks. The rumbling suburban Metra train line runs on tracks 30 feet above ground bordering the course.

The roar of metal-on-metal finds golfers waiting to hit their shots until the clatter of rail wheels on tracks fades. After a round in the spring or summer, golfers can hop the El to a Cubs game and be at Wrigley Field in 30 minutes.

Standing across Central Street from the first tee and adjacent the third is an Evanston Fire station. Every so often, the giant garage door rises, a hook-and-ladder or ambulance emerges, sirens blare, and golfers back off. Augusta National this is not. It has much more of a community feel, similar to St. Andrews in Scotland.

During their walks from green to tee, golfers cross a total of six narrow suburban streets, a couple of them cobblestone, which enhances the charm by a factor of 10. Architecturally interesting homes from a bygone era lie adjacent to fairways and greens. Folks in their backyards barbecue with friends as you hit your approach shot.

Midway through the front nine rises the graceful dome of the landmark Bahai Temple. A site on the National Register of Historic Places, the Bahai is one of the more recognizable buildings on the North Shore — so beautiful on the outside it might make one curious about what’s going on inside.

As golfers walk narrow bridges between holes, few realize they’re encountering yet another site on the National Register of Historic Places: the civil engineering miracle known as the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Built around 1900, the Canal reversed the direction of the Chicago River so that sewage wouldn’t flow into Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for city residents. Instead, the Canal diverted sewage through a 200-mile network of westbound waterways after it had been treated, emptying into the Mississippi River. The course is bisected by the North Shore Canal, a part of the larger waterway.

The tee shots on the par-3 10th and 16th holes require a carry over the Canal. A narrow tunnel under the El tracks connects the 11th green to the 12th tee.  

No one is precisely sure what’s next for Canal Shores. 

A local real estate developer is trying to get permission to build a 60-feet-by-300-feet road down the 10th fairway in order to access his property, where four homes would be built. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which has been leasing the property to the local municipalities for decades, is scheduled to vote on it this week.

If Canal Shores clears this latest hurdle, optimism abounds. And, if the non-profit board can raise the money from non-taxpayer sources, then course renovations would make sense.

Then again, it’s golf. Nothing’s easy. But those with a passion for the game often prevail.

And at Canal Shores, passion abounds.

Canal Shores Golf Club
Evanston, Ill.
Phone: 847.475.9173
Website: www.canalshores.org
Facebook: @CanalShores
Instagram: @canalshores
Twitter: @canalshores

Barry Cronin, a former golf writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, has been media director of the John Deere Classic for two decades and has worked to promote other tournaments, events, courses and products. Cronin resides in Park Ridge, Ill.

Email: bcronin@cronincommunications.com
Twitter: @barrycronin