author spent two weeks working and living with the strange family that
runs a bucolic but financially strapped nine-hole golf course in
Ottawa, Ill. Winner of 2003 Peter Lisagor Award from the American Society of Professional Journalists.
By David Murray
On one cold and rainy afternoon in late May, the general manager of
Pine Hills Golf Club sat in the quiet clubhouse and declared that this
year’s Mike “Pro” Sipula Memorial Invitational golf tournament—the 55th
annual—might be the last.
To the few men who happened to be sitting there, Jim Sipula might as well have said the world was coming to an end.
The world, to the Sipula men, is a nine-hole golf course just south of the Illinois River Valley, in Ottawa, Ill.
I first heard about Pine Hills Golf Club almost 10 years ago. A golfing
buddy had discovered it—and the tournament that’s the pride of Pine
Hills—in the process of playing the central-Illinois circuit known
informally as the “Manure Tour.” He persuaded me to make the nearly
two-hour drive from Chicago by promising that Pine Hills would offer
the smoothest greens of any public golf course I’d ever played.
I probably fell in love with the golf course before I ever saw it. Just
getting to the course from Interstate 80 is a trip through geological
time and American history. Rt. 23 leads you down into the lush Illinois
River Valley, through old Ottawa and past Washington Park, where the
first Lincoln-Douglas debate took place. Then, over the bridge spanning
Illinois River just a few hundred yards from where Fox River comes in.
Then another mile south, across a couple of cornfields and over a set
of old railroad tracks. That’s where you turn right and wind around and
down into the natural bowl where the golf course is.
Pine Hills is a bowl of golf.
Many lovers of the outdoors scoff at the notion of a manicured golf
course as nature, but in contrast with the cramped, house-lined urban
and suburban layouts to which I, along with most American golfers, have
become accustomed, Pine Hills is natural solitude itself.
Bordered on three sides by infinite woods and high shale bluffs and the
wild Kovell Creek, Pine Hills is always peaceful. And on some days and
in some moments, it’s impossibly charming.
In the morning sunlight, for instance, walking off of the sixth green
and noticing a smoky carpet of bluebells disappearing deep into the
forest. At noon, waiting to tee off on the eighth hole as two young
boys climb out of the trees with fishing poles and tackle boxes after a
morning of fishing in the creek. In the middle of the afternoon,
playing up the first hole for the third time today, noticing a wild
turkey taking shade in the trees next to the green. Near sunset,
trudging down the ninth hole for the fourth and last time, watching an
untethered dog galloping free down the ninth fairway.
And always, Pine Hills is hushed: no sounds except for the clinking of
your clubs as you walk, the singing of the birds and the occasional
thwack of a golf shot, echoing through the trees.
And yes: the smoothest greens of any public golf course I’ve ever played.
In short, this little golf course in Ottawa, Ill., is just about my favorite place in the world to be.
So with the vague notion that I wanted to write an article about the
place, I asked the Sipula family if I might help get the golf course
ready for the Invitational. They said yes—and then put me to work.
Pine Hills is a textbook example of the many homey, family-run golf
courses that once dominated the U.S. public golf scene—the kind of
course where you don’t need to make a tee time, the kind of pro shop
that looks more fondly on playing cards than credit cards. The kind of
course where, as John Updike once wrote, “workingmen, children,
retirees, and housewives of modest social pretension lose themselves in
the bliss and aggravation of the sport.”
At the same time, Pine Hills harbors the classic snootiness of the
upscale golf course. Not the kind of high-society snootiness that
predisposes many egalitarian-minded people to despise the game. Running
a public golf course in the country, the Polish/Czech Sipula clan could
never get away with social pretensions, and they would rightly bridle
at the notion that they do.
But the Sipulas do work under the old-fashioned assumption that golf is
a game that separates the disciplined, the refined, the precise men and
women in this world from the coarse and clumsy and lazy among us. Thus,
a sensitive customer at Pine Hills will quickly ascertain that, though
he may be accepted by the Sipulas no matter how he plays golf, he’ll be
admired only to the extent that he plays it well, and, like a customer
at a fine bed and breakfast, trusted only to the extent that his
“Golf used to be a game of the classes,” declares Jim’s older brother
Mike, Jr., taking a pull from his cigarette. “Then, it became a game of
the masses,” continues the big, bald man. “Now,” he says, hesitating in
happy anticipation of his own punchline, “it’s become a game of the
Of course this man, like his little joke, is obnoxious on more levels than you can count.
But, as I would learn over my two weeks there, the Sipulas’ arrogance
is intertwined with their pride, and it’s their pride that makes you
want to please them. If you’re a golfer, you don’t endeavor to forgive
their myopic, golf-centered worldview; rather, you want to paint
yourself into that picture in a flattering light. And you know you can
do this in only one way: by pleasing them with your manners and
impressing them with your game.
What gives the Sipulas such power?
They maintain so thoroughly satisfying a golf course that it’s not enough to play it. You want to be a respected part of it.
“Golf as it should be,” is the slogan the Sipulas use to promote the golf course in a brochure and on a Web site.
“Golf as it once was and will never be again,” is more like it.
Anybody who knows Jimmy Sipula took with a grain of salt his dour prediction about the future of the Invitational.
More than any of his brothers—Mike Jr., John and Bill—the 52-year-old
Jimmy is given to worrying. Maybe that’s why the old man made him boss.
“I’m always in a bad mood the week before the tournament,” he said.
But this year, Jimmy had reason for concern. Only 60 players had signed
up—half the number the Invitational boasted in its heyday. The
Invitational field used to be jammed with top amateurs from as far
north as Rockford and Chicago and as far south as Peoria; that radius
hasn’t gotten smaller over the years, but the number of participants
And though the tournament has never been a big money-maker for Pine
Hills, with so few entrants paying the $90 entry fee, this year the
tournament was shaping up to be a minor financial disaster.
Adding to Jim’s worries was the fact that the course wasn’t in great
shape. After a May of cold and rainy weather, the grass was getting out
of control. A wild windstorm the weekend before the tournament had
littered the course with tree limbs. And not all of the pre-tournament
finishing touches had been completed. The brothers, like a couple
trying to get the house cleaned for a party, bickered about what to do.
“We shouldn’t even bother to edge the sand traps,” growled 44-year-old
Bill Sipula—Billy Joe, or BJ to family and Pine Hills regulars—as the
tournament approached. Instead of trying to make the usual perfect
impression on Invitational visitors, BJ thought competence was a more
realistic goal. Calling the fairways “hayfields,” BJ said sharply to no
one in particular, “We should just try to cut the *bleep*ing grass.”
Even that humble goal was easier said than done. A sour weather
forecast threatened to inhibit the greens keepers, the thin 59-year-old
pipe-smoking John “Greenie” Sipula and his barrel-chested 36-year-old
son cigar-chomping John, Jr. (incongruously known as “Slim”). Even if
the rain did let up enough to allow the mowers on the soft turf, Slim
and Greenie were working short-handed after one of their college-age
crew members had been badly hurt in a car accident. And who did they
have to fill in? A writer from Chicago.
Most worrisome of all, the family matriarch, 85-year-old Ellawyn “Ma”
Sipula, was in the hospital undergoing tests for internal bleeding.
What if she was in the hospital over the tournament weekend? It was
One thing was sure: This year’s tournament would go on, no matter what. The Pro in heaven would see to that.
Mike “Pro” Sipula Sr. was an eight-year-old caddie at the Ottawa
Country Club when it opened in 1924. By the 1930s, he was managing the
pro shop, and when the club fell on hard times during the Depression
and World War II, he and two partners bought the nine-hole course in an
auction in 1943. He bought out the partners the next year, and renamed
it Pine Hills, according to the Web site, “because of its beauty and
multitude of trees.” By the time he started the Invitational in 1949,
the local boy was becoming a local legend and building a local
Through the second half of the 20th Century, Pro ran the golf
course—and raised his family—with an iron fist and a kind heart,
apparently in that order.
“If you can’t wear it and you can’t eat it, you don’t need it,” was one of his favorite lines.
Pro was an autocrat who didn’t need to explain his reasons. For
instance, he wouldn’t let any of his sons play in the Invitational
until they had graduated from high school—despite the fact that most
had plenty of talent to compete in it by the time they were about 14.
Son BJ resented that rule and still chaffs when he thinks of the years
he missed. But ask what the old man’s rationale was in enforcing it,
and he still shrugs as if to say, “None of my business.”
Old customers remember Pro’s standoffish demeanor, too. One recalls
asking if he could use a golf cart to retrieve a club he’d left on the
course. “Oh, look at this guy,” Pro said. “He never rents a cart to
play, and now he wants me to give him one to get his club.”
But as the customer headed out the door to retrieve his club, Pro
offered him a key to a cart. The customer decided to take the walk.
A friend of one of Sipula’s grandsons says: “He was a very stern man.”
“Golf was the most important thing in his life next to his family,”
recalls Ottawa Daily Times sports editor Jeff Glade. “And he didn’t
understand why it wasn’t that way for everybody else.” Glade remembers
being harangued by Pro during the Invitational, when the old man would
take the results down to the newspaper, plop down in Glade’s office and
start talking about the tournament. “He didn’t care if you were busy.
‘That’s only baseball or softball,’ was his attitude about whatever
else you might be working on.”
But like any dead hero, Pro gets the benefit of the doubt every time. A
pussycat deep down, is the family line. And you can’t find a customer
to conclude anything but that Pro was a good man under all that crust.
But people don’t want to talk about Pro’s heart of gold as much as they want to talk about his golden golf swing.
Pro’s elegant, athletic swing is displayed behind the clubhouse bar in
a frame-by-frame series of black and white pictures taken in the 1950s.
He won the Illinois State PGA Championship once, and the Peoria Open
seven times. The story goes that Byron Nelson once called Pro the best
iron player he’d ever seen. And naturally, he holds the nine-hole
course record at Pine Hills, having once shot an astonishing
He was certainly the best player anybody in Ottawa, Ill. ever saw. That’s why everybody called him Pro.
And it’s why Pro built a successful business despite not running the
friendliest clubhouse: Pine Hills customers thought of him as a
charismatic golf legend and they felt honored to be around him.
A few days before Pro died in his apartment over the clubhouse in the
spring of 1999—his corpse would be carried out the front door—the
cancer-stricken patriarch told his sons he had only one request: That
the golf course not be closed for his funeral. And it wasn’t. Family
friends ran the course while the Sipulas attended the funeral. Then all
the men came back and played an impromptu 18-hole family tournament
that they recall fondly.
But there wasn’t much joy in the air at that year’s Invitational. The
Lord’s Prayer was recited over the PA system as dozens of startled
golfers around the practice green awkwardly removed their sun visors
and hid their putters behind their backs.
It was an odd moment, but moving to everyone who had noticed a
broken-hearted Ma shuffling around in the clubhouse in a fog of grief.
Since then, the Sipula family has run the tournament in honor of Pro but for the benefit of Ma.
“This whole tournament is basically a party for her,” said Slim over an
idling mower engine one morning. “It’s just so emotional,” he added,
indicating the whole nine-hole landscape with a sweep of his cigar
hand, while slipping the fingers of the other behind his thick,
black-framed glasses to wipe tears from his eyes. “The whole thing.”
Just like their late father, the Sipula men have a sentimental side. But generally, this is not a particularly cheerful lot.
If oldest son Mike is the most outrageous of the Sipula boys—the man
refers to himself as “The General,” and rides around the course with a
beagle named, “The General’s Pal”—the youngest, BJ, might be the
darkest. He glowers his way through the day.
A big man with a messy goatee and a patch of unkempt fuzz on the back
of his bald head—all the Sipula boys are bald just like their old
man—the expression of warmth does not come to him naturally. When I
showed up to play golf a couple of weeks before starting work, BJ said,
quietly, haltingly, “So … I guess you’re going to be around now.”
While I worked there, his communications with me had a hard edge. If he
saw me on my way to play nine after work, he’d say without the hint of
a smile, “So, I guess you’re just *bleep*ing off for the rest of the
His sons, 27-year-old Brian and 20-year-old Bobby seem to share his hard outlook—and, in fact, direct it back at him.
“Suck this dick, Dad,” Brian shouted in front of a half-dozen non-family members during a drunken putting contest one night.
Asked how BJ felt about finishing behind him at the Invitational last
year, Bobby said flatly, “My dad knows I’m better than him.”
That’s saying something. All the Sipulas play well—Jimmy is the club’s
teaching pro—but BJ has long been considered the family’s best hope
keep the Invitational trophy in the family. And he has won the
tournament twice. But he’s played every year since 1974, and he thinks
he should have won it more than twice. When I asked why he hadn’t, he
said he didn’t know.
The next morning, he said, “You know that question you asked me
yesterday, why I’ve only won the Invitational once? I think I figured
it out. Pressure.”
Jimmy Sipula doesn’t play in the Invitational at all. He rarely gets
out on the golf course. He’s too busy to play golf: Giving lessons,
running around the clubhouse serving customers, and worrying about what
is and isn’t getting done by his brothers and his nephew.
When he does get out for a round, he is a man transformed—from the
slightly nervous, fast-talking clubhouse hustler into a calm, supremely
But Jimmy plays only one nine-hole round a week—not nearly enough to
maintain the scratch game he’s capable of. In a round while I was
there, a Chicago writer beat him by a stroke.
He consoles himself for such humiliations by saying that, as the club
pro, he’d rather teach someone how to play better than play well
Jimmy tells the story of how stressful it was, running the first
tournament after Pro died. On that Sunday night after the trophy was
handed out, the prize money was paid, the golfers were gone and the
work was all done, some of the tournament volunteers were still having
drinks as Jimmy said goodnight and started out the door for home,
He was startled by the sound of applause behind him.
When he adds unnecessarily that that humble ovation was one of the
greatest moments of his life, it’s clear that he’s told the story many
times. It’s also obvious that he knows the tears are coming, and that,
when they come yet again, he’s happy they’re here.
As the 55th annual tournament grew closer, things started looking up.
Ma’s medical trouble turned out to be nothing serious and she was
released from the hospital on Monday morning.
Also, a small glut of last-minute tournament sign-ups had come in, and the number of entrants was now approaching 80.
The postal truck brought a welcome arrival: a package containing this
year’s tournament giveaway: a heavy metal money clip with Pro’s face
Everyone agreed this was a much better idea than last year, when the
whole tournament field was wiping the mud from their pitching wedges on
Pro’s scowling white face, emblazoned on green golf towels.
Another important development: The weather was good enough to allow
Slim and Greenie—and their writer, whose previous greens keeping
experience was coming in handy—to get the mowers onto the course.
Greenie is the Sipula that the Sipulas call crusty. But you’d never
know it, because Greenie doesn’t talk much since his son Slim took over
the superintendent’s job in 1994. Greenie has the air of a man who
doesn’t need the hassle any more. He’s newly remarried, and he keeps to
himself: He drives his tractor, pulls his gang mowers, smokes his pipe,
talks to his new wife on his cell phone and lets his son Slim deal with
the stress of responsibility.
Slim started working at Pine Hills when he was 10 years old. He dropped
out of high school to work for his dad full time when he was 16. How
did the family feel about that? “I don’t think they knew,” he says.
As Slim pushes 40, his broad back is sore all the time from all those
years of work. He can’t swing a golf club like he used to (though he
still tries, playing in his work boots and marking his golf ball with a
washer). And most painful of all, he’s often in Jimmy’s doghouse—for
projects not completed and for imperfect conditions on the course.
(Last winter, Jimmy took the drastic step of putting Slim’s dad Greenie
back in charge of those special Pine Hills greens, after a few years of
bumpiness and brown spots. “I had to do it,” Jimmy says grimly.)
Despite his various dissatisfactions and the nagging sense that maybe
he’d be better appreciated if he plied his trade elsewhere, Slim says
he goes home every night, eats dinner with his wife, contemplates his
life working on his grandfather’s land and says to himself, “Life is
Preparations for the Invitational were made easier by the fact that the
grounds crew was able to work largely uninterrupted. That’s because
precious few people play golf at Pine Hills during weekdays.
Play is down 15 percent at Pine Hills over each of the last two years.
With still five family members to support—Jimmy, Greenie, Slim, BJ and
Ma still draw from the revenues and Brian and Bobby work part
time—money is getting tight.
Mike, who owns stock in the course but does not work there—he owns a
bar in town—says he gets no dividends because Pine Hills’ profits are
negligible. “One year we break even, one year we lose money, one year
we make a little,” he says.
The Sipula sons have made some smart moves to increase revenue, the
most significant being the conversion of the clubhouse lunch counter
into a proper bar.
This move has created something of a social scene at Pine Hills. A
men’s league on Tuesday nights and a “Ladies Night” on Thursdays
contain a core of barroom regulars who drink in the clubhouse into the
wee hours—the men until about midnight, the women until 2:00 a.m.
People even show up at the clubhouse to drink and play cards in the
The public golf course is their country club, and for some, it’s the
social center of their lives. “The people who play out there love
them,” says the Daily Times’ Glade, who has been the victim of the
Sipula customers’ loyalty. “My boss’s boss is a regular,” Glade adds.
And if the Sipulas are somehow upset about how they have or haven’t
been covered in the paper, “they call him and it passes down to me.”
Electrician Tim Olam plays in the men’s league, his wife Nancy plays in
the women’s and their son Kevin—the greens keeper hurt in the car
accident—works and plays on the course every summer. The family spends
so much time at the golf course that they’re moving into a house just
up the driveway from Pine Hills. In fact, much of the developed land
surrounding Pine Hills is inhabited by golf-course regulars.
It’s the undeveloped land—the cow pasture to the west and the woods to the north—on which the fate of the golf course turns.
Fact is, there’s only so much you can do to generate business at a
little small-town golf course. Perhaps not wanting to give in to market
forces they can’t control—like the glut of 18-hole golf courses their
nine-hole layout is competing against—the Sipulas sometimes blame each
One by one, during my two-week stay in Ottawa, every Sipula but Ma came
to me to share one or more deeply felt complaints about their family
members. Each beef came with a stated or understood assumption of
anonymity; one brother said that if I quoted his criticism, he’d “kick
the *bleep*” out of me.
Each Sipula also seemed to hope that my article might be his chance to
get a fair hearing for his or her beef: I’m the only one who really
cares about this place. We’d make more of a profit it if so-and-so
would do such-and-such himself instead of hiring it out. We ought to
spend more to improve the golf course. We shouldn’t take tee times,
because they make people feel the course will be busy. We should hustle
more to find players for the Invitational. We should build guest cabins
in the woods behind the seventh tee. Everybody’s lazy, nobody wants to
work like the old man used to.
The Sipulas have a perpetual case of cabin fever.
But that’s not Pine Hills’ problem.
The problem is that people prefer 18-hole courses.
A short, discouraging conversation repeats itself day after day on the clubhouse telephone:
“Yeah, are you guys 18 holes?”
“No, just nine.”
With expansion not an option, the most plausible way for the Sipulas to make money on the course is the least palatable.
They could let the course go a little, or a lot. Spend less on upkeep
and lay off some or all of the half-dozen or so non-family workers the
Sipulas hire to help out. A lowering of standards would no doubt prompt
some of the Pine Hills regulars to make another course their home, but
it would also make the whole course more welcome to the masses—even to
the beer-drinking, tank-top-wearing “asses,” as The General would call
them–who line up to play the other course in Ottawa, the nine-hole
Dayton Ridge golf course north of town. At the unkempt Dayton Ridge,
the grass is filled with weeds, the trash cans are filled with empties,
and the fairways are filled with golfers.
By definition, the masses exist in more numbers than Pine Hills’
current, shrinking customer base of the “classes.” And since the masses
don’t require a highly manicured golf course—indeed, they’re put off by
it—the Sipulas obviously could spend less and make more if they wanted
That won’t happen. Pro’s boys could never, will never bring themselves to settle for slovenly maintenance.
For those reasons, and because no one in the third generation is
emerging to take over the operation, Pine Hills’ future is uncertain
bordering on gloomy, notwithstanding Daily Times sports editor Glade’s contention that the Sipulas would keep the course open “even if they were the only ones playing there.”
As the sun burned the dew off Pine Hills on tournament Saturday, everything was suddenly perfect.
Almost 90 people were signed up for the 2003 Mike “Pro” Sipula Memorial
Invitational, making the event economically viable. (Though the Sipulas
pay out $9,500 in prize money—$500 to the winner, the rest spread over
the dozens of also-rans—it’s not in cash but, instead, in clubhouse
merchandise; so the golf-course profits from the exchange.)
Ma was feeling fine, busy greeting old friends in the clubhouse as the
tournament volunteers served egg sandwiches for breakfast and heated up
the hamburger grill for lunch.
And the course was looking good—the roughs were trimmed, the fairways
were striped and all of it was lush green from all the rain. The sand
traps had been edged, but not quite smoothed out. A Pine Hills neighbor
and regular customer was out on the course doing a last-minute rake job.
The sky was sunny and the temperature was 70 degrees and suddenly Pine
Hills was again what it had been to me for all these years: It was the
sunniest, shadiest, quietest, happiest place I know.
As I always am, I was plain thrilled to be playing golf on these
fairways, on the edge of these woods, at the foot of these bluffs, on
the banks of this flowing stream.
I played badly in the tournament, as I do every year. (The Sipulas aren’t the only ones who feel pressure at the Invitational.)
Indeed, I had played so badly on Saturday that my Sunday round was
irrelevant. I was paired with Slim, and we got through as quickly as we
could in order that we could get a six-pack of beer and follow BJ, in
the final group.
BJ had shot a two-under-par 68 Saturday and was leading the tournament
going into Sunday. By the time Slim and I caught up with him, about 20
other onlookers were following, including BJ’s son Bobbie, who had shot
himself out of the tournament on Saturday with a sloppy 75.
We followed quietly, and at a distance. I noticed that the enormous
Slim walked almost gingerly in fear of distracting the man in search of
his third Invitational title; BJ’s wife Bonnie told us he was one
stroke ahead of his nearest competitor with five holes to go.
In a howling wind and under stormy skies on the 15th hole—the sixth,
played for the second time of the day—BJ had a 40-foot putt for birdie,
while his rival was about to make bogey.
When BJ’s putt rolled over a rise, swung left and then straightened and
slowed and shockingly disappeared into the cup, everyone yelled at
once—all the onlookers, plus Slim, Bonnie, Bobbie, BJ, and me. For only
the third time in almost 30 years, BJ had overcome the pressure of
being a Sipula on his old man’s golf course, and his face was dour no
Three holes later, BJ walked off the last green after clinching the
victory, and his boys Bobbie and Brian gave him high-fives. Slim hugged
BJ and Jimmy ran out of the clubhouse and hugged him too. Pine Hills
regulars and the tournament volunteers shook his hand and he looked as
happy as any Masters winner you ever saw.
Then, as the crowd dispersed, BJ’s boys each gave their father a hug.
The Daily Times was there, and its photographer got a picture of an
ebullient Ma kissing her youngest son, and she got a quote in the
paper. “I went to church on Saturday at four o’clock and again today at
7,” Ellawyn Sipula said, “And I was praying the weather would hold off
today … It did, thanks to Pro and the good Lord up there.”
BJ got a quote, too, of course. Asked if winning the tournament felt
any different this time from the other times he’d won it, he replied,
“I don’t think it does feel different. It feels about the same. It
I drove out of there Sunday night hoping the feeling lasts. For all of us.
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