A dream come true

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If you want to know the secret to the success of Cog Hill, start with the garbage. That's where Frank Jemsek begins.

A warm September morning found Jemsek trolling through the parking lot at 7 a.m. The tall, angular figure stooped over every few seconds to retrieve a piece of paper, a stray scorecard, an empty can, and anything else that dared to litter the concrete.

It might seem strange that the owner and operator of one of top public golf facilities in the U.S. would spend his time on such a menial job. But for Jemsek, it is part of the tradition handed down by his father, Joe.

Once when Frank was a teenager, Joe, who died in 2002, saw him picking up trash in the parking lot. Joe rushed to his son."He was as excited as I ever saw him," Frank said. "He knew that's what he wanted me to do."

It is attention to the little things, the tiniest details that make big things happen at Cog Hill. It has enabled this year to be a special one for the four-course facility in Lemont.

Joe Jemsek's crown jewel, the No. 4 course, turns the big 4-0. In 1964, the classically nicknamed, "Dubsdread," opened to golfers, transforming public golf in Chicago.

For the first time, regular players, the men and women who change their shoes sitting on the trunk of their cars, had a chance to experience a country club caliber layout. Actually, only a handful of country club courses in the area rate higher than the course, the home of the Western Open.

Joe's inspiration came from the 1949 U.S. Open at Medinah, according to Frank.

"He had so many customers tell my dad that they would like to play Medinah No. 3," Frank said. "He knew that less than 10 percent of them would ever get to play a course like that. That's when he got it in his mind to build a quality public course. It was his dream."

It seemed like pure folly back then. The idea of building a hard course for the public player wasn't considered good business sense. Most of the public courses in that era hardly had any sand traps.

"There was a feeling that public golfers wouldn't appreciate (a difficult course) and wouldn't play it," Frank said.

Joe, though, defied convention. Already the owner of St. Andrews in West Chicago, Joe purchased the Lemont facility from the Coghill family in 1951. Joe always loved the rolling terrain that was in stark contrast to the flatness of the region.

Cog Hill had only two courses. Jemsek quickly went to work building his dream course. But initially it wasn't a dream come true. Joe saw his layout wasn't a championship quality course. Several of those holes could be found on No. 1 and 3, also good layouts.

Joe kept trying and eventually contacted architects Dick Wilson and Joe Lee. He purchased more land, providing the designers with the type of topography needed to make No. 4 unique.

Eventually, Joe saw his vision come alive. In 1964, public golfers were introduced to a course they hadn't seen before.

It was hard, challenging, had sand traps and was well manicured. In short, a championship course.

The layout is a complete test. It starts with dogleg par 4 first hole. The front 9 features No. 4, a short but taxing par 4 into an uphill green. No. 6 is a difficult par 3 with several pin locations on a long green. The ninth hole winds it way through the trees for a taxing par 5.

The back 9 features No. 12, a downhill par 3 surrounded by traps. No. 13 is a menacing par 4 that has a gully in front of the green. The 16th is Cog Hill's picture hole with a creek running down the side of the fairway. And then there's finale. The 18th hole is a long par 4 that features an intimidating lake that brings down even the best golfers.

It is the kind of layout that routinely sees Cog Hill ranked among the top courses in the country.

"It's an extremely fair test," said Ira Rosenberg, a 5-handicap player who has been a Cog Hill regular for 25 years. "If you hit a good shot, you're going to get rewarded, and if you hit a bad shot, you're going to be penalized. It's not like one of those new courses, where you can hit a good shot and still be dead. Cog Hill is very straightforward. It's stood up over time."

When No. 4 opened, it cost only $8 during the week and $12 on the weekend. Inflation and demand have jacked up the price since then.

This year, golfers will pay $130 per round. But that expense hardly is a deterrent.

The weekends are jammed with owners of regular tee times. The course usually plays to capacity during the week.

Yes, it is expensive. But Rosenberg, who lives in Burr Ridge, is able to rationalize his expense.

"People might say ($130) is a bit high, but I might only play 25 times per season," Rosenberg said. "Compare that to what it costs to join a private club, and I think it's a bargain, especially for that kind of course."

Cog Hill isn't a country club, but there always has been a premium on making the customers feel special. It is part of the package, especially for the regulars.

Joe made a point of being on the first tee to greet the players. He often entertained them with his jokes and one-liners. After a while, the regulars knew all of them by heart.

Rosenberg called Joe "a master of hospitality." Frank has carried on that hospitality. He rotates through the four courses on the weekends to make sure he connects with all the regulars.

"The people who come here consider this place their home away from home," said Katherine Jemsek, Frank's daughter and the facility's vice-president. "We want them to feel part of the family."

Adds Frank: "It scares to me to think that players would be treated like this was a factory. Golfers are fun to be around. The better you get to know them, the more fun you'll have."

The golfers arrive at Cog Hill knowing they are going play a good round of golf, especially if it is on No. 4. They have a good chance at being greeted by the owner. They can have a post-round "Dubsburger."

And they won't see any garbage in the parking lot. For Joe and Frank, it is a matter of pride. It has carried down to Frank's children, as Katherine jokes that she, her sister, Marla, and brother Joe, found themselves picking up garbage without realizing it.

"It says that Frank (and the rest of the Jemseks) are not above doing any job," said Cog Hill manager Nick Mokelke. "If Frank doesn't care, then who's going to care? It trickles down. Joe's method was to provide a first-class product. You get the reward on the back end."

The Jemseks have gotten their rewards many time over. But so have the public golfers.

Forty years ago, Joe Jemsek unveiled No. 4. Countless golfers who never got to play a top country club course have found first-class golf waiting for them on "Dubsdread."

If you really want to thank Joe Jemsek, do him a favor: If you see any garbage swirling around Cog Hill, pick it up. It would make him happy.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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