Jason Way, not to be confused with Jason Day, is a Chicago-land guy with a deep interest in golf course architecture. He is a good photographer and a better visionary. Way currently tackles a project that many golfers often dream of: how to revitalize a local municipal course, bringing it into the 21st century in a viable way to contribute to golf’s growth and to the youth of today and tomorrow. We asked him to answer a our menu of questions and he obliged. For those of you that know Delaware Park in Buffalo, pay attention!
1. Tell us about yourself and how you got involved in golf.

I am a regular guy – a dad, a husband, a businessman, a gardener, and a massive golf geek.  My father and grandfather introduced me to the game when I was quite young.  They sawed off a few old clubs for me and took me along when they played at the Fort Sheridan golf course in the north suburbs of Chicago.  The game got a hold of me quickly and it wasn’t long before I was competing in junior tournaments, while also caddying at the Old Elm Club.  I played competitively up until I went to college.  After an unsuccessful attempt to walk on to the University of Illinois team, I quit playing for 20 years.  Thankfully, I got back to golf 5 years ago, and love it more than ever.

2. Folks just don’t up and decide to undertake a project like the one you will highlight later without knowing about golf course architecture. Are you an enthusiast and if so, how did that come about?

Yes, I am indeed an enthusiast.  When I was away from the game, I got quite into gardening.  Working with my hands, trying to co-create something beautiful with nature is a fascinating and rewarding challenge to me.  Once I started playing golf again, I quickly realized that it was not competition that I loved about the game.  It was the playing fields.  That realization led me to start  studying the subject of golf course architecture through books, GolfClubAtlas, and other sources.  It also led me to ratchet up my golf adventuring to experience more great courses.

My blog, GeekedOnGolf.com, was started with the intent of chronicling my return to the game.  The focus quickly changed though from my game to golf course architecture and history.  That shift, as well as participation on Twitter and Instagram, resulted in connection to other kindred spirits, and interaction with architects and greenkeepers.  Those folks have been very generous with the time and knowledge, including doing interviews.

The more people I meet, the more adventures I have, and the more I learn about the subject of how golf courses are created and maintained, the more geeked out on it I become.

3. Tell us a bit about the Canal Shores golf course and its unique history, including the “Reverse Jans” tradition.

The course that is now known as Canal Shores was originally founded by Peter Jans and several members of the Evanston business community around 1919.  The Evanston Golf Club, which is private, was moving to a new location, and the group led by Jans pulled off a minor coup to secure part of the vacated land with the intention of giving the public a place to play the game.  At that time, golf was largely a private affair in Chicagoland.  My understanding is that Tom Bendelow participated in laying out the first nine holes of the course, and 9 more holes were added around 1923.

The current layout runs along the man-made north channel of the Chicago River from the Ladd Arboretum in Evanston at the south end to the Baha’i Temple and Gilson Park in Wilmette at the north end.  It winds through neighborhoods, crosses streets and bridges, and is intimate with its surroundings in a way that not many golf courses are anymore.  Canal Shores is also much more than a golf course.  It is a multi-use green space and wildlife habitat that is prized by seekers of outdoor recreation.

Over the decades, the course has had its ups and downs, but it has held a special place in the hearts of many in the area including the Murray Brothers, Luke Donald, Pat Goss, and the members of the Honourable Company of Reverse Jans Golfers.  The Reverse Jans was a wintertime “guerrilla” golf outing started by a small group of locals years ago during which they played the course backwards, including playing over the train tracks and streets.  Their exploits were memorialized in a GolfClubAtlas thread.  This past December, Pat Goss and I reformed the HCRJG with help from Dave Schmidt, and revived the outing as a fundraiser to support the development of a new Master Plan for the course.

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Currently, a Master Plan is being developed that addresses both the golf and ecological components of the facility.  As the 100 year anniversary of the course approaches, we want to make sure that Canal Shores is set up to be sustainable as an asset for golfers and the community at large for the next 100 years.  Our design team on the golf component is Dave Zinkand, Drew Rogers, Todd Quitno and Luke Donald.  Drew Rogers guided Pat Goss and me in the development of our 4-Course Concept.  Dave Zinkand and Todd Quitno have taken our concept and created a preliminary design and renovation cost estimate.

On the ecological component, we are working with a firm called Planning Resources Inc., which has expertise in habitat restoration, tree management, stormwater management, and landscape architecture.  The plan components are being developed somewhat independently during this preliminary phase, but we will begin integrating them as we move toward final review and approval by the Board and our landlords.

We have been awarded grants by the ASGCA/USGA and Illinois Department of Natural Resources that support the development of the Master Plan.  The public comment period is open and fundraising is now underway.  It is hectic, exciting, and challenging, especially given that Canal Shores is run almost entirely by volunteers.

Leading up to formalizing this Master Planning process, there have been a group of volunteers who have come together to test out pilot projects around the course that have been a ton of fun.  We have battled buckthorn, removed and reworked bunkers, and improved turf conditions.  I am continuously shocked and humbled by the support of our volunteers.

Circling back to the bigger picture though, in order to make the course sustainable financially, operationally, and ecologically for the next century, we need to address significant infrastructural issues through this renovation and find a more reliable financial model.  Otherwise, the facility will continue to teeter on the brink of failure.  I hope that the community and our leadership can come together to capitalize on the opportunity that lays before us.

5. What motivated you to commit time and energy to this project?

I was a bystander during the turnaround phase from 2012-2014.  I was using the course for practice and I could see that it was receiving better care.  At the end of 2014, I inquired through a friend if they needed any more volunteers and was drafted onto the Grounds Committee.  After showing up and asking how I could help, the rest of the story has unfolded on its own.

What motivates me is two-fold:  First, I am service-minded and I want to make a contribution to this community that I love.  Second, I am the father of two boys and nothing would make me happier than to be playing golf with them on a cool course in our neighborhood for decades to come.  In my mind, if there is an opportunity to do something great, why not give it a shot?

6. Tell us about the funding that your group received from the USGA and how valuable it was?

We were the first grant recipient of the ASGCA/USGA Site Evaluation Program, and we are grateful for their support.  Their contribution helped us produce the preliminary design and cost estimate that has allowed us to get the public conversation going in earnest.  Up until that point, we were stuck with the 4-Course Concept that Pat and I developed as just that – a concept.  That grant lent credibility to our direction, and it moved the process forward considerably.

7. Who will benefit from this project? Break down the entities that will have special access.

First and foremost, our regular players and members of the community will benefit.  Canal Shores will provide a much better golf experience for our players, and a more beautiful and ecologically sound venue for seekers of other forms of outdoor recreation.  And of course, those who have homes bordering the course will benefit through improved aesthetics, and presumably a positive impact on property values.

The Canal Shores Board is firmly committed to youth golf, and so everything we are working on prioritizes making the game more accessible and fun for kids.  By extension, newcomers to the game will also find a welcoming environment where they can progress through the various stages of their development.  Fast, fun, and flexible golf is what we are working to achieve.

With regard to special access, we are exploring potential partnerships with the First Tee of Greater Chicago, Evanston Township High School, and Northwestern University’s golf program.  Numerous details to work out on those fronts, but we like the idea of having partners who can help subsidize the renovation and go-forward operations, while at the same time promoting youth golf.

8. Here’s an odd question: has there been any backlash from any members in the community? If so, how have you handled it?

Evanston and Wilmette are diverse communities and I am not surprised to have experienced a wide variety of reactions to our ideas.  Further, different groups of stakeholders have different desires and priorities.  From my perspective, listening to feedback, and doing our best to incorporate all good ideas are appropriate and natural parts of the process.

9. What question haven’t we asked, that you would love to answer? Ask it and answer it, please

What role do you think Canal Shores might play in the future of the game?

Our hope is that what we are trying to do inspires others to take a fresh look at their community golf courses, and perhaps start exploring how they can make those courses an even greater asset to their communities.  I love the game and I love its playing fields, and nothing would make me happier than to see projects like Goat Hill, Rockwind, Winter Park CC, Schoolhouse Nine, Lions Municipal and others continue to pop up all over the country.

Click Here to watch the USGA video on the Canal Shores project.