Mistwood: McWethy’s Renovation Is Underway

Jim McWethy’s decision to completely revamp his Mistwood golf course in Romeoville, IL. wasn’t an easy one. Despite these trying economic times, McWethy opted to renovate what was already a respected course, add a spiffy new learning center and build a new clubhouse. He chooses not to discuss the cost involved but, needless to say, it’s substantial.

So why is he doing it?

“It is scary,” McWethy admitted. “Part of it is my love of the game. We’re doing this in spite of the frustrations, the sleepless nights worrying about it. We’re running counter to the rest of the world.”

McWethy closed his course early, on Aug. 22, to allow Michigan architect Ray Hearn to get the renovation going, and he has had no regrets as work continues. His plans call for a 5,000 square-foot learning center to be operative before 2011 is over and the course to re-open in May.

“If you believe you have a really good product, market it well and take care of your customers I can’t believe that — even in this market — you can’t be successful,” said McWethy. “I go to other golf courses now and come back feeling even better about this place.”

The ressurection of Mistwood will be a three-step process. The first is the course renovation. Hearn did the original design in 1996 for a previous owner and had the course ready for play in 1998. It was deemed good enough to annually host one of Chicago’s top tournaments, the Phil Kosin Illinois Women’s Open, which completed its 18th staging this year.

Step 2 in the ressurection will be the construction of the learning center. The old clubhouse, along with a cart barn, will be torn down as soon as the learning center is ready. It’ll eventually have indoor and outdoor hitting stations, a putting green and golf simulators. Initially, though, it’ll double as Mistwood’s clubhouse when play resumes in the spring.

Step 3 is the construction of a 32,000-square-foot clubhouse. Just when that will begin is uncertain.

“At first we thought we would do everything at once, but that could have been an absolute disaster,” said McWethy. “Deciding when to start is a tough one. We plan to break ground now in the fall of 2012, but we’ve got to get the course changes and learning center out of the way first.”

When all is said and done McWethy expects to have one of the best public courses in the Chicago area.

“We can be in the top five,” he said.

The old course wasn’t far off being in that select group that includes such obvious members as Cog Hill Dubsdread in Lemont, Cantigny in Wheaton, The Glen Club in Glen Ellyn and Harborside on Chicago’s South Side. Hearn, though, said the renovation was needed.

“As time goes on that technology monster — with golf clubs, golf balls going further — every course needs to be tweaked every 10 years or so,” said Hearn. “Mistwood was no exception.”

McWethy, 68, grew up in Palos Park and developed his love for the game as a member of the high school team at Blue Island Eisenhower. He continued on to college at Cornell, in Iowa, and then settled in Chicago after entering his professional life in 1970 with Berry Bearings Co., a company created by his grandfather, Lester Berry.

McWethy was part of the ownership of Berry Bearings until 1993, when the company was sold. At that time it was the world’s largest privately held industrial bearings distributor.

Shortly after the sale McWethy entered into the business side of golf, as a 7 percent owner of another course named Mistwood. This one was in Lake Ann, Mich., near Traverse City. Eventually the owner of that layout invited McWethy to join him in creating Mistwood’s Illinois version. He was also a 7 percent owner of that course when it opened but took over sole possession in 2003 after the facility endured some difficult economic times.

McWethy made the big step after being assured that course management would stay on. Director of golf Dan Phillips, general manager Andy Krajewski, head professional Visanu Tongwarin and superintendent Ben Kelnhofer have been with him almost from the beginning.

Along the way McWethy sought the advice of Mike Keiser, who was doing his own thing in the golf business and is now the creator of extremely well-regarded Bandon Dunes in Oregon. Keiser owned the Dunes Club, which was near McWethy’s summer home, and he wanted to become a member. Eventually he did, after Keiser learned that McWethy was already a member of Chicago Golf Club — the Wheaton layout that was the first 18-holer in the United States.

McWethy became a Chicago Golf member in 1991 and later was a sponsor for Keiser when he joined that prestigious club.

Mistwood is by no means McWethy’s only business venture. He owns several farms, some in Chicago, and his wide variety of investments include projects as far away as Brazil and Uruguay. Farming, though, is particularly close to his heart. His son Todd operates McWethy Farms in Michigan, and father and son have a unique working relationship on that one.

Father Jim makes deliveries for son Todd. The two meet at a truck stop in Gary, Ind., twice a week in growing season, and Jim takes his son’s hydroponic tomatoes to Kramer Foods, a Hinsdale landmark, as well as some top Chicago restaurants. McWethy also includes a bag full of choice tomatoes in the awards given to the Illinois Women’s Open champion each year.

Married to Susan and the father of two, McWethy has been a Downers Grove resident since 1978. He wants his golf course to be considered among the best, with profitability a secondary consideration.

“I’d have no inclination to be involved in this if I didn’t love the game,” he said. “Golf isn’t an easy way to make a buck. It’s close to impossible. All I’m looking for is a modest return. This (Mistwood ressurection) isn’t to make more money or grow wealth. I’d like to have something to be very proud of, to make it as good as I can possibly make it.”