Trio hits the links at Oak Hills before city closes golf course

A trio of golfers, including two from Chicago, spent part of their day Friday at Oak Hills after learning the city of Elkhart had decided to close the facility because of budget constraints.
Posted on Oct. 20, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

MIDDLEBURY — A little rain and temperatures in the upper 40s weren’t going to keep Glen Faikus and two others off the links Friday at Oak Hills Golf Course.

Faikus and a friend traveled from the burbs of Chicago Friday morning and met up with his father-in-law, Jim Payonk of White Pigeon, Mich., for their final round before Elkhart’s municipal golf course closed.

The trio made the trek knowing it would be their last chance to stroll the heavily wooded 6,699-yard, par 71 course after learning the city of Elkhart had decided to close the facility after 47 years because of budget constraints.

A heavy mist prevailed as they lined up their first tee shots, but the weather was a non-issue for Faikus.

“When you golf, you golf. It’s part of the game,” he said.

Playing at Oak Hills, north of Middlebury on S.R. 120, has been a tradition for nearly 30 years when Faikus visited family on summer holidays.

“I could play this course every day. It’s just a fun course and you can’t beat the price,” Faikus said. “It’s almost worth the gas from Chicago to play.”

Outside the clubhouse entrance, general manager Scott McMurray took a smoke break in the drizzle Friday as two employees in rain gear washed off fresh grass clippings from two lawn mowers.

McMurray said other golfers played their last round Thursday under slightly better weather conditions.

McMurray has overseen the golf course for two years and expressed frustration over the circumstances of the closing.

“Everybody’s pretty upset about it,” McMurray said. “It’s a crying shame.”

The way city officials handled the closing was par for how they operated the facility in recent years, he said.

He’s disappointed with what he considers a lack of good marketing and general communication from city hall on various matters. The closing — and even the course’s 50-year anniversary — passed without any promotion, he said.

On Friday, he said he was told somebody would collect the final cash receipts at 1:30 p.m., which left him wondering how soon the city expected him to close up.

He passed along those concerns to the trio of golfers in case they returned and found the clubhouse closed.

McMurray said he felt he gave Oak Hills all he had during his tenure.

Friday marked McMurray’s 219th consecutive day at work, he said. It was the last day for him and four part-time employees.

Jerry Wenger has worked at Oak Hills since June 1985 and became golf course superintendent nine years ago, overseeing and maintaining 150 hilly acres of fairways, greens and roughs.

Wenger found some satisfaction in seeing a trio play a final round on a rainy October day.

“It’s says a lot about the golf course and the quality of it over the years,” he said.

Wenger will remain for a few more weeks to, among other things, ensure leaves are removed before winter arrives.

Cutting the grass on the last day of operations, Wenger said, keeps him from having to do it later.

Wenger said he’s been told he may join the city’s buildings and grounds department, but is unsure what will happen.

Wenger and McMurray are hopeful somebody will purchase the 215-acre property and revive the golfing tradition.

Out-of towners, especially from the Chicago area, liked the inexpensive $34 fee for 18 holes and a cart, he said.

“Hopefully, somebody will scoop it up,” Wenger said. “It’s one of the most challenging courses in the area.”

When McMurray finished up Friday, he closed the final chapter to a 47-year history for the city and a golf course that has provided recreation for 50 years.

A plaque near the first tee honors Ernie Sims, who gave the facility to the city for $1 three years after he opened it in the early 1960s. Portraits of him and his wife still hang on a wall inside the clubhouse.

Over the years, the course has hosted dozens of tournaments and helped numerous golfers achieve the dream of a hole-in-one, including one just a few weeks ago that McMurray said he witnessed.

The clubhouse has also been home to a calico cat for the past year.

The cat doesn’t even have a name, but on McMurray’s final day, the golf pro said he planned to grab the cat, lock the doors and head home.

Today, McMurray will start looking for a new job, but the cat has a new home.

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