This municipal driving range is the best people-watching spot in Chicago
Location: Lakeside Chicago
Time: 5:05 p.m., April 21
It’s the first beautiful day in what feels like 7,000 days in Chicago. That’s how this spring has been: winter, extended. And that’s why the trendiest place is the Diversey Driving Range.
Spring in the Midwest – we won’t sugarcoat it – totally stinks! Not good for golfers, and not good for golf courses. But that makes the training grounds a hellish place to people watch. As Andy North, a Midwesterner, explained last fall, “If you’re running a golf course, you’re basically closed for five months. But then, if the weather is nice in April, you can’t keep people away.
Only Diversey been drive people away that day, because they had nowhere to go. Each of its 76 hitting stations was packed, with players on deck, and even some waiting in the hole. A quick wit ripped a mat from the pile of synthetic turf squares and added a new station at the end. For at least a day, Diversey now had 77 stations. And he needed it – the line to just buy a bucket of balls was 20 deep, stretching out the door and winding down to the lake.
Lincoln Park Zoo is nearby, as is Lake Michigan, but my walks and runs in the area always draw me to Diversey, nothing more than an innocent assessment of the state of the game. Golfers, hurtling Diversey Parkway or biking along Lake Shore Drive West, come in all shapes, sizes and levels of creativity.
There’s the typical looper, swinging a full set across the park, but also plenty of “Sunday” bags, the woven satchels that closely resemble gun holsters, slung over the shoulder. Some players only have three clubs in hand when they arrive for their session. Others show up with five clubs clumsily slung over their shoulders, stuck in a drawstring bag. A resourceful dad has wedged three clubs between the wheels of his toddler’s stroller, just above the Spiderman comics. Another, wearing a LeBron James player tee, walked it from the park to the training facility, four rods sticking out of his backpack, tied together via an iPhone charging cord. He must have run out of rubber bands.
They come by Uber, by bus, by car. It is plausible that some even come by boat, with the marina nearby. Many arrive by bicycle, and obviously many on foot. At least one golfer, his clammy cheeks glistening, came gliding 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 no frills here. No huge targets to hit, just rock hard greens impervious to a spinny corner shot. A line of caution painted yellow separates endless optimism (watchers) from reality (swingers). Diversey is about as far from TopGolf as you can get these days, despite the incredible property value. (TopGolf, I’m told, was at one point interested in buying the land.) There’s no music playing, just the sound of contact, instructions, and often disappointment. When the weather is still 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, this beer garden was unsurprisingly closed. Instead, the place to drink was the upper level of the split level range as it was covered in sunshine. A satisfied customer in shorts, sunglasses 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 the fact that he never paid for parking in Diversey (and was never caught). Once his training partner arrived, he made a quick run to a convenience store, returning triumphant and announcing, “I’ve got Pringles and booze!” Pringles, White Claws and wedges – what more could you need? Maybe not even that much. He crossed paths with a player coming out of the range, a hybrid in his left hand and a Miller Lite tallboy in his right, nothing more.
In about 30 minutes in Diversey you can see all the adorable sides of golf sickness. The hardo with three alignment sticks, grinding with every swing. The five buddies with five big buckets, ready to spend the next two hours at the controls of a single station. There was also the pair chipping Styrofoam balls on the green, right next to a sign that read ‘No Chipping’.
There would be no police for this offence, because there was no time for the police. A sign posted on the window of the driving range entrance stated the obvious: Ask for help. Two people checked in on guests behind the counter while one picked out the stove and the other fought over the empty buckets. This was, without a doubt, the worst time for one of the two working ball dispensers to suddenly break. But one did, creating a queue of 35 people who spent $16 on golf balls that they had to wait 15 minutes for.
Perhaps the healthiest sign of the game is the number of women using Diversey’s facilities. Of course, there will always be a majority of men here and at almost every driving range, but dozens of women were cut off Thursday. This is the case for this driving range most nights and weekend afternoons. There’s nothing intimidating about that. Diversey is open year-round, and despite Chicago’s brutal winters, it’s used every day. In 2019, when a polar vortex swept through the Midwest, the Parks Department shut down the range for two days…and received a series of phone calls from Chicagoans who wanted to brave the freezing temperatures. Then, a year ago, another rare closure: too many balls got stuck in the snow, so there were none left to distribute.
Around 5:30 p.m., a neighbor from the driving range crossed the street with two clubs in his hand: a driver and a putter. He spent half an hour on the concrete green, hitting in cups so old that their edges had been permanently beaten inward, creating a funnel diameter much larger than the standard 4.25 inches. You could find better mini golf holes 30 yards away, but not a single person was playing there. Full swings only.
Appalled by the long wait for a shooting point, our neighbor said goodbye to me as he walked home, without full momentum. Did he learn anything? Probably not. But you can’t blame him for wanting to try. He – like all of us – had been carpeting for five months.
Another reason he is anxious is that Diversey had been closed for months. It closed in January for upgrades and construction, and has promised to reopen in late March. But it did not open at the end of March. It finally opened on April 8, “at 1:30 in the afternoon!” exclaimed the salesman. It was the earliest they could do it, a Friday afternoon when the high temperature reached 39 degrees. Why would they ever open at 39 degrees? Because they knew people would come. And they did.
This is part of our Muni Monday series, highlighting stories from around the world of golf courses owned by cities and counties around the world. Do you like Diversey? Email Sean at [email protected] Do you have a story that needs to be told? Send advice to Dylan Dethier or for [email protected] and follow Mondays Muni on Instagram.