It is 11:45 on a sunny Friday morning as accountants Harry Argires, Jeff Miceli and Todd Schneider amble out of their downtown Chicago office building dressed in khakis, golf shirts and baseball caps. The three are on their way to play golf, but they won't be away for long. In two hours they will be back in their charcoal pinstripes, sitting around a table discussing amortization while dreaming about that blown birdie putt on number 3, the bogey on the sixth hole and the chip-in from the fringe on 8.
Argires, Miceli and Schneider are on their way to Illinois Center Golf, a lush nine-hole course and driving range a mere 50 yards from their office. Billed as "the country's first-ever urban golf course," ICG features a 1,000-yard par-27 layout with bunkers and an island green, a 92-stall driving range, full-time instructors, a pro shop with locker rooms, free parking and a restaurant—all within walking distance of Michigan Avenue shops and skyscrapers.
"We think this is a one-of-a-kind facility," says ICG director of golf Scott Szybowicz. "Where else can you play a challenging round of golf at lunch, with a spectacular view of the city skyline, then walk back to the office for a two o'clock meeting?"
While urban golf is nothing new in Japan, ICG is the first downtown course in a major United States city. Because the course's holes range in length from 57 to 145 yards, a spin around the ICG nine takes less than an hour and a half. That's perfect for the busy business duffer looking to get a fix on his lunch break. "You don't have to take an entire day off work to play," says Argires as he, Miceli and Schneider stroll up to the 1st tee. "We have a meeting in a few hours, but we'll have no problem making it."
The idea for ICG arose a few years ago, when an office-space glut in the Loop derailed plans for a complex of buildings on the site of the course. The co-owners of the land were unable to sell the parcel, which at the time contained an abandoned railroad yard, so they contacted Vintage Group USA, a Denver golf-course developer. Vintage Group got a 15-year lease on the property and a chance to create a U.S. golf novelty.
"We couldn't afford to buy the land ourselves," says Charles Tourtellotte, the president of Vintage Group. "It's worth about $100 million. So this is a win-win situation for everybody involved. The landowners make a little money from the lease. The city gets a park with green grass. And we make a lot of money from the course, we hope."
At $22 per round, and with full memberships beginning at $1,000, ICG has seen plenty of the green stuff. Golfers have been walking and driving to the facility in steady numbers since its opening a year ago. Though the entrance is a little hard for first-timers to find because it is located 60 feet below street level on Lower Columbus Drive, the rookies are undaunted. Billy Casper Golf Management Inc., which oversees the operation, says more than 12,000 people have toured the course. Most find the Dye Designs layout to be an amusing series of short yet tricky holes, with hilly fairways, hidden sand traps and manicured greens complemented by breathtaking vistas of such Chicago landmarks as the Sears Tower and the John Hancock Building.
"The view is incredible," says Mary Lou Newbold, a national account manager for a hotel chain, who recently took a group of 50 women to ICG for the first time. "We play a different course every month, but at the other courses you don't turn around and see the skyline of Chicago."
If you don't notice the skyline at ICG, there is a good chance that you'll see some larger-than-life Chicago figures. Michael Jordan, who occasionally works out at a nearby health club, stopped by the day after Christmas to hit some balls off the covered, heated practice tees. And Ernie Banks, "Mr. Cub" himself, is one of ICG's 325 full-time members. At ICG Banks can say, "Let's play two" and still get back to Wrigley Field in time to see the first pitch.
In creating the layout, ICG took a wide range of golfers into consideration. "Because of our location and clientele, we wanted to try to get not only the recreational golfer but also the good golfer," says ICG designer Perry Dye, whose father is famed course designer Pete Dye. "A par-3 course is not traditionally known for attracting good golfers. But we tried to create a par-3 that required all different shots, figuring that the good golfer would recognize that and play the course."