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As an avid golfer, I have an appreciation for any golf course. And that ranges from playing two rounds at Torrey Pines — a high school kid persuaded me to play from the tips — to the worst “course” I ever played, “The Holiday Inn Sporty Five” at Tomah, Wis.
But ever since I first saw it, I’ve had a fascination with Spring Creek Golf Course.
When I was an Iowan kid, my family would drive past on Interstate 80 on the way to mini vacations in Chicago, and the tight, tree-lined fairways of the front nine caught my eye — as did the slag heap “mountains” to the north at the Ladd exit. But my dad was not going to stop the car and play there and leave my mom and sister with nothing to do.
Later, I became a regular, taking advantage of all-day, all-you-can-play rates, and some years purchasing annual passes.
In the past 20 years, I’ve seen changes and improvements in the course — the most notable being the improved quality of the greens after the banning of pointy steel spikes at Spring Creek, just like at most other courses other than PGA venues. Through the years, tree growth tightened some of the fairways, such as the fairways of the dogleg-right 12th and the fifth, both of which have been guarded by mature weeping willow trees that had branches that could grab a ball and quickly turn dreams of birdies into certainties of bogey or worse.
Now 50 years old, a few trees that made some holes nearly unfair are dying back or dying altogether.
Those trees are reaching their life expectancy, but the course certainly is not, as the family that tends the course has planted hardwoods and other trees to fill voids.
The die-off of a few willows at Spring Creek was completely expected when they were planted. However, planting them made sense; not spending a fortune on oaks that would take 50 years to even mature was the way to go when the family started the course.
John Potthoff died at age 85 in 2003, and the years have continued to prove he and his brothers were wise when they took a risk and invested in the La Salle-Peru-Oglesby-Spring Valley area’s first 18-hole course.
This past weekend, I chatted with John’s son, Chris, as Chris was sipping a beer and directing parking for the course’s 50th anniversary party. To show appreciation for longtime members, guests and supporters, the Potthoffs served a free chicken dinner and hired a band. They had reason to celebrate, considering how hard it was to get the course established and considering the course’s survival through recent recession years when hundreds of courses nationwide closed.
In the early 1960s, much of John Potthoff’s land midway between Spring Valley, Ladd and Dalzell was pasture for grazing angus beef cattle. During construction for Interstate 80, contractors set up a huge temporary “batch plant” to mix concrete, Chris said. That covered much of the modern-day, par-5 17th fairway that parallels the freeway and frontage road.
In a low spot beside and behind what serves as the tee for the par-3 12th hole, there was a building with 3-foot-thick walls where dynamite was stored for area mines, Chris said. John allowed the building on the property (more than a quarter mile from his home), and the mines wanted to store the explosives far away from people.
In addition to raising cattle and poultry, John Potthoff worked at the Illinois Zinc plant, located where the Flint Hills plastic plant is today in Peru. He’d sell extra meat to factory coworkers, and duck or goose blood for Polish Czernina soup.
“Hey, if you could make a buck, you did it,” Chris said.
In the early 1960s, several people told the family members, such as brothers John, Leo and Clem that the land could make a nice golf course. During the interstate construction, one of those was wealthy businessman Charlie Ind. The Potthoffs listened.
“We didn’t have any money. He stuck his neck out,” Chris said.
With financial help and labor from his brothers, John built the first nine in 1964, which today is the back nine on the high ground along the interstate. For the first half, they hired architect Peoria’s Walter Brakeman, an architect the family “could afford,” Chris said. For the front nine, where fairways wind along and across Spring Creek, they invested more into planning and hired soon-to-be famous Killian and Nugent, eventual designers of Kemper Lakes near Chicago.
Chris, who toils seemingly nonstop on course maintenance with his brother, Jack, and their family, recalls learning the value of hard labor from his dad while the courses were being built. Some of the fairways on the front nine today were wooded and the clay-soil filled with rocks. The area of today’s 15th and 14th fairways “was a jungle,” Chris recalls.
He said workers and family members cut timber day after day, and dug a hole and burned huge stumps in an area in front of the 15th fairway for weeks on end. Golfers who wonder why there are sinkholes sometimes can wonder no longer: ground occasionally settles there.
Chris remembers wielding shovels, doing bull work, running the backhoe, whatever needed to be done.
“When it started, I was probably in seventh grade. When it was done, I was probably 15, 16,” Chris said.
The family initially planted trees that would grow fast, such as poplars near the 12th tee, fully knowing they would die in 20 years. They also planted cottonwoods, because they’re native and they survive, though the “cotton” that falls in late spring and the leaves that fall early in fall are a pain.
When I was playing at Spring Creek addictively in the 1990s, occasionally an old-timer would tell me the Potthoffs didn’t know what they were doing and that they were “just farmers.”
“We learned by trial and error, baptism by fire,” Chris admits about the course’s first couple of years.
But “just farmers” they are not. After high school, Chris studied turf management at University of Massachusetts. His brother, Jack, 24 years younger, followed the same course to U-Mass.
“It’s a great place to raise a family. They have a good work ethic. They get along with people,” Chris said of his grown children and nephews. “That’s what life’s all about. I guess you could call us the American success story. Was it easy? No.
“We’re appreciative of what we have and we hope it can continue …” Chris said, trailing off.
Obviously, he’s not hoping it can just “continue” for another year or two, but for future generations of family members and golf addicts.
Craig Sterrett can be reached at 220-6935, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_NewsEditor.
Posted: Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Article comment by:
Great article Craig....Spring Creek and the Potthoffs' have a lot to be proud of for sure...
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