October 4, 2022

Managing editor Matt LaWell takes a multi-state journey to understand the people and places that make 9-holers critical parts of the industry.
The Culver Academies Golf Course is easy enough to find on a map. Drag your finger about 125 miles north of Indianapolis, exactly 100 miles southwest of Chicago, and just shy of 50 miles south of South Bend. Finding it in real life, burrowed deep within a grid of northern Indiana farmland backroads, is another matter — especially when the sun is still climbing and those backroads are still dark. The entrance is easy to miss and easier to pass.
But the destination is well worth the journey, as so many breathless stories and reports about the course have raved ever since Bobby Weed restored the almost-100-year-old William Langford and Theodore Moreau classic. The real reward, though, even more than nine incredible holes, is walking the grounds and talking with superintendent Michael Vessely, who has tended to the course for almost eight years and is equal parts caretaker and advocate.
Vessely might share stories about that course restoration, or about the nine decades of play that preceded it, or about how he appreciates course architecture much more now than he did a decade ago. He might discuss the rich history of Culver Military Academy, which has educated business leaders, sports team owners, a few crown princes — and counts a handful of Augusta National members among its alums and friends. Or he might just dive into what makes 9-hole courses special.
“With as busy as everyone is, just life in general, spending four and a half hours on the course is a long time,” he says. “We’ll get faculty who come out here and play four holes at lunchtime or after work, then they’ll bring their kids at night. They go practice for two hours, or go play nine holes, or go play four holes.”
The course is a magnet. The quick play and the legendary layout appeals to students, faculty and alumni, of course, as well as to campus guests — Vessely laments that former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice was unable to play during a recent stop — writers, architects and fellow superintendents. Course developer Mike Keiser visited a few years ago and needed a fourth. “‘Grab your bag,’” Vessely recalls Keiser telling him. “You know, Mike Keiser tells you you’re going to play golf, it’s hard to say no.”
Vessely maintains the 70-acre course with crew members Randy Sellers, who has worked on it for more than 30 years, and Justin Binkley, who recently marked six years. He works without an assistant, a regular internship program or seasonal crew members, though he would love to add any or all between now and the course’s centennial — which, for the record might be celebrated in 2023 (100 years after ground was broken), 2024 (100 years after the course opened) or 2026 (100 years after its dedication).
As far as the turf, “There are still some improvements I’d like to make to the playing surfaces,” Vessely says. “And I’m still not done combing through the archives to find the nooks and crannies and things I’d like to get back to where they originally were. I’m still motivated to make it better. I don’t feel like we’re in the coast-and-just-maintain mode. There are different things I still want to accomplish here, and I want to make it a great place for kids to learn golf.
“That’s what’s motivating me now.”
What stories can land itself tell us? If we tuck low and cup an ear to the soil, if we really listen, what rich history might bubble up?
At Eagle Springs Golf Resort, the stories start in 1866, when a pair of Irish immigrants named John and Mary Touhy arrived in Eagle, Wisconsin, by way of Boston. They acquired 600 acres over a quarter of century before the land proved too rocky, and they passed it along to their son William. He developed a hotel, cottages and — as family legend goes, with the help of sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding — an 18-hole golf course. The resort thrived as long as the farm before did John’s daughter Agnes died of tuberculosis. Heartbroken, John ordered the hotel to be demolished. Early during the Great Depression, the Tuohys sold some of their land and the course halved to nine holes. The resort remained opened but the plot shrank. The golf course, at least, remained.
Today, on the brink of its 130th anniversary, Eagle Springs is still in the family, now operated by Anne Krug, part of the sixth generation of Touhys, and her husband, Matt Krug. Anne grew up on the grounds, five doors down from her cousin, Tom Walsh, who’s also back in the fold as the new superintendent and has to be one of the few turf pros in the country with an MBA in data analytics.
“I didn’t picture doing this when I was growing up,” says Anne, a UPS executive for 12 years before she retired to raise her daughters. Her uncle, Mike Bolan, part of the fifth generation, suggested she should take over, telling her, “It’s easier than what you were doing.” She watched him run the resort in 2020 — an interesting year — learning plenty about the business before taking over last year. Operating from behind a laptop, she normally sets up her office in the pro shop cottage.
Anne played whatever holes she liked — normally 7, 8, and 9 — but never played a full round until she brought Matt to Eagle Springs in the fall of 2005. “The first time I played,” Matt says, “I hit the second green with a tee shot and there was a dead mouse next to my ball with his legs in the air, and Anne said to me, ‘You have to putt around it. You can’t move it. Play it as it lies.’” He fell in love so much with both Anne and Eagle Springs that he later proposed to her on the course.
“I think this place can be great for the game,” says Matt, a psychologist by trade. “You could have four eagle putts, or you could play alongside your 16-year-old and get just as much enjoyment out of it, because it’s not super easy. A beginner could go out there and play. I’ve had really good golfers who can’t break the course record.
“I think golf is struggling to find something that fits all demographics and I think, selfishly, we might be able to do that.”
They just might, if the lands tell its story.
Despite the old saying that they are remarkably similar, kindergartners tend to be more unpredictable and more difficult to corral than cats. They do whatever and go wherever they want. They move on their own time. They seem to listen to maybe half of what they are told. Cats are largely similar, but they also have the excuse that they don’t speak the language.
All of which makes the trio of YMCA camp counselors working with young golfers on a postcard-perfect Twin Cities Tuesday afternoon so incredible. Each of them walks half a dozen campers out to the first, second or third tees at municipal Brookland Golf Park in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, and instructs them about how to play the game — and, more important, how to act on the course. It doesn’t matter what club the kids use or where their ball goes. Their joy grows just from being with friends and being outside.
This is all in line with what manager and superintendent John Lindman has tried to bring to Brookland over the last 22 years.
When Lindman arrived from nearby Edinburgh Golf Course, Brookland operated as a standard executive par-3, 9-hole course. After the Great Recession hit both rounds and revenue, he expanded his ideas and creativity, renovating layouts, adding tees and cups to the course, and broadening his definition what golf is and could be.
“Nobody says you have to play from the same color the entire round,” he says.
Lindman tries out new concepts and events throughout the season, including zombie golf, where each golfer receives a pink brain ball and each hole is patrolled by a pair of “zombies” who tilt and lurch toward shots over the course of the special round. If a zombie reaches a ball before the player does, the zombie keeps the ball. Whichever group has the most brains at the end of the round wins. The seemingly silly Halloween idea teaches younger and newer golfers about pace of play and aiming shots.
Lindman also wrote new guidelines (not rules) and a new philosophy for the course, both posted near the first tee. Among the highlights:
That last guideline is moreso just a suggestion to those campers, who wield their clubs like lightsabers and eventually listen to their counselor and walk up the fairway. And nobody minds. Because at Brookland, the most important part of the game is the last bullet point Lindman wrote on the course’s philosophy:
“The only thing that matters is that you have a good time.”
Marty McKitterick was certain he had signed himself up for the biggest mistake of his life.
This was back in the summer of 2008, on the brink of the Great Recession, and McKitterick had recently entered into a five-year lease to operate Iyopawa Island Golf Club, just over the state border in southern Michigan and at the almost-equidistant center of Ann Arbor, Fort Wayne, Kalamazoo, South Bend and Toledo. He was already running a retail golf shop at a nearby mall but the homeowners who own the course persuaded him to double up. Really, how hard could it be?
“And I’m just thinking, What the hell did I do?” McKitterick says now with a decade and a half of hindsight. “It was 15, 16 hours a day, seven days a week. I could do one, but to do both of them right? It was a lot, yeah.”
McKitterick survived that first season — and the two after that, when he was the superintendent too — then worked through the Great Recession, turning a profit each of the last 15 seasons. “It’s as close as it can get to a well-oiled machine. We’ve got it running as lean as we can without sacrificing anything.”
McKitterick manages the golf course, runs the pro shop and mows greens on the weekends, but he’s quick to credit superintendent Mark Fasick, who arrived two years ago from nearby Coldwater Golf Course, and crew member Rollie Arsenaud, who mows rough, for everything running so smoothly.
Fasick “knows grass,” McKitterick says. “He knows how to grow it, he knows how to take care of it. He and I think so much alike we can go through a half a day and get all the stuff done. It’s just so automatic. He’s reliable. I told him he has to stay as long as I do.” As for Arsenaud, “Just put him on the blue tractor and let him go. He’s really good.”
The course is at the center of Iyopawa Island, ringed by vacation homes on Coldwater Lake for the last 75 years. The regulars who return weekend after weekend, year after year, provide McKitterick with a good idea of how many rounds to expect most weekdays, weekends and holidays, with about 80 percent of rounds played by homeowners and guests.
Many of those were out on the course last summer not to tee off a round or two but to help clean up after the season’s biggest storm pushed in off the lake.
“It rocked us,” McKitterick says. “I came in Thursday morning and was like, Oh, my God. We have the island party in two days, a big golf Saturday. A lot of people called up, ‘Hey, Marty, I got a tractor,’ ‘I have this and that.’ People just came out and started helping pick up stuff, making piles. It was 5 a.m. till 10 p.m., chainsaws, tractors, and we got it done, we got the course playable. It was pretty humbling. It’s a neat place. I wouldn’t be in the golf business anywhere else.”
There might be no other 9-hole golf course in the world with operating and maintenance budgets as big as Ansley Golf Club’s.
This is a technicality, of course. Ansley opened its Midtown Course in 1912 just three miles outside downtown Atlanta — and given the metro area’s population growth and various construction booms, it’s probably closer to a mile and a half these days — then acquired Settindown Creek Golf Club in Roswell in 1999, adding 18 holes and a second more suburban offering. Still, each course operates with its own maintenance equipment and, outside of a handful of the club’s 385 employees, such as general manager Calvin Bolling and director of agronomy Courtney Young, its own staffs and crews. The Settindown Course handles about 20,000 rounds annually, the Midtown Course about 25,000 — which, because most golfers play twice from different tees, works out to about 50,000 9-hole equivalents.
“We couldn’t survive without this,” Bolling says about the Midtown Course. “It wouldn’t be the same place without it. It has defined us, and Settindown has enhanced us. Which makes it pretty special.”
Bolling started his professional career at Ansley back in 1982, when he was still an undergraduate at Georgia State University. He worked at the club for seven years, meeting his future mother-in-law, Marie Marshall, early on. Marshall mentored Bolling and took such a liking to him that she told him she would love for him to marry one of her three daughters.
“She just helped guide me as a young professional,” Bolling says. “I had never been in clubs, I had never been in business. I was still in college.” She taught him how to write business letters, how to dress for various occasions and, yes, how to tie the knot. Bolling eventually married Marshall’s daughter Carolyn, who, as a teenager, worked as a lifeguard at Ansley.
These days, Marshall’s early lessons still kick in as Bolling, who left Ansley in 1989 and returned in May 2020, is making major decisions like master plans and course management through future renovations.
“We’re going to be redoing (Settindown) in the next three or four years,” Bolling says. “And when that’s the case, then we’re looking at possibly doing 9-hole rounds” at the Midtown Course for probably about five months. With so few tee times available — 26 each day, equally divided between the morning and the afternoon, and filled within five minutes of when they become available on Wednesdays and Sundays — that could provide another challenge. What would reaction be from members?
“We don’t know yet,” Bolling says. “We were just debating that. We know we’ve got some time to deal with that.”
No matter the decision, the Midtown nine at least will be as perfect as ever.
During his first 18 months as superintendent of The Course at Sewanee, Justin Browning has thrilled at details enormous and miniscule across the nine historic holes, from the breathtaking Columbia Plateau out beyond the third green to seeing holes from the slightest different angle while walking the course during his weekly round. Perhaps his greatest — and most instructional — thrill? Seeing another Gil Hanse course on television during what has been a banner year for the architect.
Hanse famously renovated Bishop Albion W. Knight’s original design in 2013, giving new life to what Browning describes as the course’s “really good bones.” He also renovated Southern Hills, the site of this year’s PGA Championship, in 2019. Watching that course on television, Browning says, “You really get to see the identity of Sewanee and Gil Hanse’s handiwork. There’s a lot of likeness in all those courses — not just the bunkers but the whole layout — and you kind of see what he’s thinking and where everything ties in together. That’s been fun this year.”
Browning arrived at Sewanee, located on the campus of Sewanee: The University of the South in southern Tennessee, from Clarksville Country Club, about 135 miles northwest. His philosophy has already evolved.
“I find myself being able to focus a lot more on everything, instead of just getting done what we can get done,” he says. “You can treat every hole with the same amount of love in every aspect, the roughs, the natives, the bunkers, which is where we’re lacking” — and which might be the focus of an upcoming maintenance project. “The greens are still youthful, and in great shape, and up here in the mountain climate they thrive. So as opposed to me being in the Transition Zone and having to focus my time on bentgrass that doesn’t want to live, I can focus a lot of my time on the rest of the golf course and let the greens kind of work for themselves.”
Browning normally maintains the course with four full-timers, a mechanic and a student or two during the summer, and he works closely with golf course manager Matthew Daniels in the pro shop to promote the course. The course is famous in certain circles, but Browning says he thinks its profile could expand.
“The people that know about it are very golf knowledgeable, they have heard about it through the right grapevines,” he says. “And I think that’s about to change. I think we’re going to get a little bit more involved on some social media outlets. It’s a great course, and it’s kind of hard to learn about or know about it.
“A lot of people drive up and down this mountain and don’t even know it’s here.”
The best dreamers, the ones whose visions meet reality and thrive when they get there, tend to be thought of as at least a little out there if not totally bonkers. By all accounts, George Vitense was far more measured, but his friends still described his biggest idea as a pipe dream.
Vitense, a longtime PGA professional and the onetime owner of Nakoma Golf Club in Madison, Wisconsin, veered away from the country-club life in 1955 to open Vitense Golfland — at the time, two miniature golf courses, a double range and a lighted 9-hole, par-3 golf course, regularly open until midnight to accommodate first- and second-shift factory workers — a little more than five miles outside the center of the state capital. Miniature golf was experiencing a revival at the time — Don Clayton launched his first trademarked Putt-Putt course a year earlier in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and the Professional Putters Association followed by the end of the decade — but Vitense wanted far more than just putting. And he was ahead of his time.
Walk around Vitense Golfland on a sunny summer Monday and the whole grounds are packed. All three miniature golf courses — an indoor option opened in 2006 — teem with teens and families. Both ranges are full. So is the par-3 course, which is still, almost 70 years later, the only lighted course in the state. Vitense’s daughters, Yvonne, Georgene and Vicki, operated the family business after George passed away in 1988, and Georgene’s son Joel Weitz purchased the property in 2001. Over the years, they added indoor golf simulators, Toptracer technology and footgolf, along with a variety of other family fun center options.
The bevy of golf is not dissimilar from what many public courses and private clubs offer today. Who cares what brings people to the sport as long as they have a club in their hand — even if it is a brightly colored rubber putter — and a smile on their face? Vitense knew decades ago that today’s golfers, miniature in both size and course persuasion, might grow up into regular range users and 9-hole players. The rest of the industry is finally catching up.
Road trips are both exhausting and renewing. My Summer 9s trek to 18 golf courses — all of them 9-holers — across 12 states in 11 days was no different. By the end, my body both ached and thrived. My mind was both jammed and clear. My visits included a trio of esteemed 9s, ranked in so many top 50s, a variety of municipals and mom-and-pops, and far more publics than privates, all of them filled with great people on the course and in the maintenance facility.
My favorite stop, though, was the one where I never picked up a club.
Ten days in, my then-5-year-old daughter, Margot, joined my parents, Cheryl and Mike, my wife, Carolyn, and me for her first round of footgolf at Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course. The course features the familiar rainbow umbrella of Arnold Palmer Golf Management, which operates it for the Mouse, and is Audubon International-certified as a Cooperative Wildlife Sanctuary. Golf carts surround the pro shop but run only on other Disney courses; Oak Trail is a trail in more than name and allows only walkers.
The course was just the third Margot had visited and all have been gems. Her second was Firestone Country Club when Larry Napora and his team had the South Course humming for the 2021 Bridgestone Senior Players Championship. Her first was an enclave so perfect and exclusive I am legally barred from writing about it. But only her third featured Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy and friends.
And only her third allowed her to kick a soccer ball up the fairway.
Who knows what athletic pursuits my first grader will dive into over the years? I would love for her to pick up a club, build her bag and fall in love with a game she can play all her life. For one overcast afternoon, though, just watching her chase an orange ball into oversized holes — more dribbling the ball than ever letting it stop and taking distinct kicks, and often shouting back that she had recorded “14!” or “12!” — was plenty.
Like so many of the greatest things in life, golf is a game that can be enjoyed with family and friends. For those of us who are the only members of our family who play the game, footgolf is a perfect entry to draw the rest of our brood out onto the course.

source

Leave a Reply