Location: Chicago’s lakefront
Time: 5:05 p.m., April 21st
It is the first nice day in what feels like 7,000 days in Chicago. That’s what this spring has been like: Winter, extended. And that’s why the hottest place to be is the Diversey Driving Range.
Springtime in the Midwest — we won’t sugarcoat it — totally stinks! No good for golfers, and no good for golf courses. But it makes driving ranges one helluva place to people watch. As Midwesterner Andy North explained to me last fall, “If you’re running a golf course, you’re basically shut down for five months. But then, if you get nice weather in April, you can’t keep people away.”
Only Diversey was keeping people away on this day, because there was nowhere for them to go. Every one of its 76 hitting stations was filled, with players on deck, and even some waiting in the hole. One quick-thinker snatched a mat off the pile of synthetic turf squares and added a new station to the far end. For at least one day, Diversey now had 77 stations. And it needed it — the line to simply buy a bucket of balls was 20 deep, stretching out the door and snaking its way toward the lake.
The Lincoln Park Zoo is nearby, and so is Lake Michigan, but my walks and runs through the area always draw me toward Diversey, for nothing more than an innocent State of the Game assessment. The golfers, bounding down Diversey Parkway or biking along Lake Shore Drive West, come in all different shapes, sizes and levels of club-carrying creativity.
There’s the typical looper, schlepping a full set through the park, but also many toting “Sunday” Bags, the woven satchels that closely resemble rifle cases, slung over a shoulder. Some players carry just three clubs in hand as they arrive for their session. Others show up with five clubs awkwardly sticking over their shoulders, jammed into a drawstring bag. One ingenious father wedged three clubs between the wheels of his toddler’s stroller, right above the Spiderman comic books. Another, wearing a LeBron James player tee, hoofed it across the park to the practice facility, four shafts protruding his backpack, zip-tied together via an iPhone charging cord. He must have run out of rubber bands.
They come by Uber, by bus, by car. It’s plausible some even come by boat, with the marina nearby. Plenty turn up via bike, and obviously plenty on foot. At least one golfer, his sweaty cheeks glistening, came gliding in via Bauer rollerblades.
If Bethpage Black on Long Island is The People’s Country Club, Diversey might as well be The People’s Practice Facility. There are zero frills here. No huge targets to hit at, just rock-hard greens, unreceptive to a spinny wedge shot. A yellow, painted caution line separates endless optimism (the watchers) from reality (the swingers). Diversey is about as far from TopGolf as you can get these days, despite the property holding incredible value. (TopGolf, I’ve been told, was at one point interested in buying up the land.) There’s no music being played, just the sound of contact, instruction, and often disappointment. When the weather is consistently good, a beer garden opens up next door, and on warm summer nights can be just as popular as the range itself.
Tonight, in mid-April, that beer garden was unsurprisingly closed. Instead, the place to drink was the top level of the two-level range as it was blanketed in sunshine. One happy customer in shorts, shades and an unbuttoned Chris Coghlan Cubs jersey was just happy to hang out. He had spent 30 minutes waiting for a spot to open up, basking in the sun and bragging about how he never pays for parking at Diversey (and had never been caught). Once his practice partner arrived, he made a quick run to a convenience store, returning triumphant and announcing: “I’ve got Pringles and alcohol!” Pringles, White Claws and wedges — what more could you need? Perhaps not even that much. He crossed paths with one player leaving the range, a hybrid in his left hand and a tallboy Miller Lite in his right, nothing more.
In about 30 minutes at Diversey, you can see every lovable aspect of golf sickos. The hardo with three alignment sticks, grinding through each swing. The five buddies with five large buckets, ready to spend the next two hours in control of a single station. There was also the pair chipping styrofoam balls on the putting green, right next to a sign that read ‘No Chipping.’
There would be no policing of this infraction, because there was no time to police it. A sign posted on the window of the driving range entrance stated the obvious: Help wanted. Two people checked in guests behind the counter while one picked the range and another wrangled the empty buckets. It was, unquestionably, the worst time for one of the two working ball dispensers to suddenly break. But one of them did, creating a line 35-deep of people who spent $16 for golf balls they had to wait 15 minutes for.
Perhaps the healthiest sign of the game is just how many women use the facilities at Diversey. Sure, there will always be a male majority here and at nearly every driving range, but dozens of women were getting their cuts in during high-time this Thursday. That’s the case for this driving range on most nights and weekend afternoons. There’s nothing intimidating about it. Diversey is open year-round, and despite the brutal Chicago winters, it’s used every single day. In 2019, when a polar vortex ripped through the Midwest, the parks department shut down the range for two days … and received a string of phone calls from Chicagoans who wanted to brave the frigid temps. Then, a year ago, another rare closure: Too many balls got stuck in the snow, so there were none left to dish out.
Around 5:30 p.m., a driving range neighbor crossed the street with two clubs in hand: driver and putter. He spent a half hour on the concrete putting green, hitting into cups so old, their edges had permanently been beaten inward, creating a funneled diameter much wider than the standard 4.25 inches. You could find better holes at the mini golf course 30 yards away, but not a single person was playing it. Full swings only.
Dismayed by the lengthy wait for a range spot, our neighbor bid me farewell as he headed home, zero full swings taken. Did he learn anything? Probably not. But you can’t blame him for wanting to try. He — like all of us — had been putting on carpet for the past five months.
Another reason why he’s anxious is that Diversey had been closed for months. It shut down in January for improvements and construction, and promised to reopen in late March. But it didn’t open in late March. It opened, finally, on April 8, “at 1:30 in the afternoon!” the shop attendant exclaimed. It was the earliest they could do it, on a Friday afternoon where the high temperature reached 39 degrees. Why would they open on a 39-degree day? Because they knew people would come. And they did.
This is part of our Muni Monday series, spotlighting stories from the world of city- and county-owned golf courses around the world. Love Diversey? Send an email to Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org. Got a muni story that needs telling? Send tips to Dylan Dethier or to email@example.com and follow Muni Mondays on Instagram.