Frank Jemsek: A giant in the history of Chicago golf

Being the son of a famous father isn’t always easy. Frank Jemsek, however,  had a famous father, Joe. He  did many great things in golf, as both a player and course operator, and Frank has followed in his footsteps.

Frank, who turned 80 in December, followed his father into the family business at the tender age of  11. When Joe passed away at age 88 in 2002 the leadership duties at both Cog Hill, based in Palos Hills, and Pine Meadow, in Mundelein, reverted to Frank and — to no one’s surprise — the transition turned out a classic case of “Like father, like son.’’

Joe taught Frank well, and Frank’s daughter Katherine – now the president of Jemsek Golf – can attest to that.

“His favorite place now is on the first tee of a golf course, getting to know his customers,’’ said Katherine.  Frank has greeted golfers warmly for years.  He had been known to welcome them as early as 5 a.m. to do that. It’s not the case any more, but – like his father – he still wants to be on the scene.

“Thank you for playing Cog Hill,’’ was a sincere comment made regularly by Joe, Katherine’s grandfather, and Frank followed with his own trademark phrase of gratitude, “We love golfers.’’

And golfers love Jemsek back – and not just the  towering 6-9 Frank. His golf opeation has grown to include his three children and a son-in-law. Oldest offspring Marla, once one of the nation’s top amateur players, works in Cog Hill accounting department while raising a family of her own with husband Kevin Weeks.  Weeks, who also works at Cog Hill, is recognized as one of the country’s top teachers.

Katherine works with her father on a daily basis and son Joey has his own golf architectural firm with his projects including work at Cog Hill.

Joe Jemsek’s role in golf course began in 1940 when he purchased St. Andrews, in West Chicago.  That was the same year that Frank was born. The family lived off the No. 1 tee of what was then called its No. 1 course. By age 8 Frank was caddying with the help of a pull cart and by 11 he had a job keeping the parking lot clean.

“I worked at the golf course so that I could spend some time with my Dad, because he was at the golf course all the time,’’ recalled Frank. “I enjoyed my mother (Grace) and Dad and wanted to be with them. Hard work was very important to them, and that was good. I had to be there before daylight and worked until 3 p.m.  Then I could go out and play golf.’’

Spending all that time at the golf course didn’t keep Frank from trying other sports.  He was both a basketball player and wrestler at St. Edward High School, in Elgin, and earned a basketball scholarship to Loyola of New Orleans. By that time Joe had already bought Cog Hill and was making plans to build the fearsome Dubsdread course there.

“I always worked at the family business in the summer,’’ said Frank, who took over the management of St. Andrews after college while his father was making Cog Hill one of the nation’s premier public facilities. Dubsdread was built in 1963, opened in 1964 and “was my Dad’s favorite place in the world.’’

Frank took on all the jobs necessary to running 36-hole St. Andrews.  That included spending time in the kitchen and enduring a scary moment as a dishwasher.

“A guy I was helping soaked me and thought it was funny,’’ recalled Frank.  “So, I turned the dishwasher on him, and he grabbed a knife.’’

No harm was done, fortunately, and Frank’s working base changed in 1990.  Joe, battling some health problems, wanted Frank to shift his operations to Cog Hill. Now married to Pat and the father of three children, Frank moved his family to Burr Ridge. Unlike St. Andrews, they didn’t live on the golf course because Pat felt a neighborhood setting was preferable for raising a family. Frank was in agreement with that.

Cog Hill quickly became the center of golf in Chicago and Dubsdread was  a PGA Tour site for 20 years, beginning in 1991.  It was both the final home of the Western Open and the first site of its replacement – the BMW Championship.

“It was a blessing to bring in the Western Open It was one of my Dad’s dreams,’’ said Frank.  “It gave him a chance to say `Thanks for coming’ to the tournament patrons. It was a magnificent opportunity to meet people.’’

Jemsek, also a fixture in greeting Cog Hill’s players and spectators, provided a great opportunity for the Western Golf Association, which uses the tournament to raise money for its Evans Scholars Foundation.  The Jemseks provided the course free, which wasn’t the case at the tourney’s previous sites.

After the PGA Tour left Cog Hill  the Jemsek moved  on  Frank led the family team into some innovative projects..   M was the PGA Junior League.  Katherine was particularly enthusiastic about that,  and Cog Hill and Pine Meadow were the first courses in Illinois to start the break-through program that has gone nation-wide.

Then there was Family Fun Golf, a program that – for $10 a person — brought together family members on weekend afternoons. The format created new players.  Up to fivesomes were allowed, and one player had to be over 18 and at least one under 18.  Jemsek early on recognized that interest in golf was not a problem, but the comfort level for new players was. This made the game more user-friendly.

In another attempt to bring in new players, the tee structure on the No. 3 course at Cog was revamped to make the game most enjoyable for new players. This wasn’t just a case of shortening the holes. Considerable study, headed by Joey Jemsek, went into that project.

Now the popular Track Tracer technology has been added to the Cog practice range and this year lights will be added. A big event is also on the 2021 Cog Hill calendar – the Extreme Long Drive Championship. Cog Hill has always been on the cutting edge of all things golf, thanks to Frank’s willingness to adjust to the times.

Oh, yes.  And there was this horrible thing called the pandemic.  Jemsek has needed creative ways to cope with it. As always, he is taking care of his golfers even while dealing with the loss of his wife Pat in 2018 and some health problems of his own.

“A lot of the friends I played basketball with counted the days until they could retire,’’ said Jemsek.  “I would dread the day when I retire.  It isn’t work for me when I am at Cog Hill.’’