The following is the first of a three-part series on Rozella Ford Golf Club, which celebrates 60 years of golf this year.
WARSAW — On a clear and warm summer day, the closely-manicured fairways and greens of Warsaw’s Rozella Ford Golf Club meander and undulate, artistically engaging in an emerald-colored dance with mature hardwood trees and winding creeks.
Golf courses typically have a reputation for landscaped beauty, and the course many local linksters refer to affectionately as “Rozie” is argued as one that sets the gold standard.
“When I was about eight, I started playing out here every day,” recalled 64-year-old Jeff Johnson, the course’s owner and architect of the facility’s much-heralded resurgence. Johnson wasn’t old enough for kindergarten when the course opened in 1960, but has as much connection with the course’s humble beginnings as he does with its recent renaissance.
“Mayor Mike Hodges and other community leaders, they were on bull dozers building this place,” said Johnson. “It was a community effort to build it.”
Johnson purchased the 18-hole, Par 70 golf course in 2013 during a time when membership was declining and the course, which turns 60 this year, was in need of a caretaker with a green thumb. Johnson, a Warsaw native and longtime landscaper and tree expert, was up for the task.
“I believe it was 2012 when I read that Rozella Ford was coming on bad times and they were looking for someone to buy it,” said Johnson. “I had retired in 2009, and as it got later and later and it looked like no one was going to buy it and it was going to become a cornfield, I decided I’d better do it, I just couldn’t let it go.”
Johnson would then set to work restoring a golf course that came from humble, and philanthropic beginnings.
Rozella The Farmer
The woman who would become the golf course’s namesake was described as driven, hard-working, no nonsense and extremely generous. Rozella Ford was born in Kosciusko County just more than a decade after the last gunpowder smoke dissipated from the Civil War battlefields, in 1876.
With the deaths of her parents, the college-educated Ford took over the family farm and grew crops and livestock for much of the first half of the 20th century before leasing 200 acres of her family farm to a collective of golf enthusiasts who would form the golf course named in her honor. Hodges, the mayor of Warsaw at the time of the bequest, was one of the driving forces behind the course’s conception.
“She told me she did it because of him,” said longtime Rozella Ford golfer and senior golfing champion Jerry Nelson. “It ended up being a good thing for the community.”
Nelson knew Ford through their colleague status as farmers.
Ford excelled in an industry that was traditionally dominated by men, and during a time when that distinction spanned most industries.
She attended DePauw University and was affiliated with several sororities and service organizations, according to her 1964 obituary.
“She was kind of an interesting woman,” Nelson continued, describing the woman who never married as aloof to those she didn’t know. “It wasn’t bad if you really knew her,” he said. “But, if you didn’t know her, she was kind of drawn back.”
At their home near Center Lake in Warsaw, longtime golf master professional Don Dicken and his wife, Sondra, talked about the early days when Dicken was hired as the club’s first professional, not long after it opened in 1960. Dicken officially began his tenure in 1961 and served as the club’s professional for 35 years, retiring in 1995.
The Dickens said that after Ford leased the approximate 200 acres to the club’s first owners, a collective known as the Lakeland Golfers’ Association, Inc., she would occasionally respond to errant golf balls that found their way to her remaining farmland from the nearby fairways.
“She drove her car every day, circling that golf course, because she was mad at the guys hitting the ball over the road on the third hole, the par five, and she came in I don’t know how many times, it just drove her crazy,” said Don. Sondra added, “You always said ‘there goes Rozella Ford,’ Sondra Dicken said to her husband, “and you could always tell, because you could always see her tail lights because she drove with her foot on the brake.”
Enter Don Dicken
Dicken, a U.S. Army veteran, was an assistant professional in Michigan when he looked to take over a course of his own. With several options, he drove south to Kosciusko County in Indiana to size up the golfing community in the county seat of Warsaw — and he did it during the time of year when snowdrifts are more likely to come into play than water hazards or sand traps.
“There were three jobs being opened and I decided I would check Warsaw out,” Dicken said. “It’s January the fifth, or something like that, and I came to see what I was running into here. I drive into Warsaw and it’s a miserable day.”
According to Dicken, in an area not far from the current location of the recently-closed Owen’s supermarket, he spotted a woman in an open area and she immediately caught his eye.
“I look over and I see somebody hitting golf balls and I mean it’s cold, it’s freezing and I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” he said. The woman, identified by the Dickens as Mary Alice Estep, inspired Dicken to take the Warsaw job. “I said ‘my God, you mean to tell me that these people play golf in this kind of weather?’” he said. “I said ‘boy, I gotta come here.’”
The native of the east-central Indiana town of Richmond met his wife, the daughter of well-known Sarasota, Fla. golf professional Bert Montressor, in Montressor’s living room.
“I met him (Don) through my dad, in my living room, with my hair in rollers,” said Sondra Dicken with a chuckle.
Not long after nine-hole play began on the fledgling course, in August of 1960, the golf course welcomed the Dickens to Warsaw and Don wasted no time putting his stamp on the facility.
Armed with a tiny, wheeled trailer as his first pro shop, Dicken became known as an amiable and knowledgeable professional who could improve just about anyone’s game. The golfers of today are fond of Dicken, 85, because he had a penchant for helping youngsters to hone their game.
“When I was a kid, they (the golfers’ association) finally got enough money that Don could get a day off,” said Johnson. “He was working seven days a week, 14 hours a day. He finally got a day off and it was Monday and every Monday, Don, on his only day off, would take us kids to a golf tournament. He would spend his whole day taking us to a junior golf tournament on his only day off. It’s people like that who made this golf course.”
Johnson’s brother, Tim, is a former Rozella Ford club champion. He remembers Dicken’s first pro shop.
“Dicken worked in an eight by eight little shack right there in front of the putting green and it looked like it wasn’t much bigger than an outhouse,” remembered Tim Johnson. “He had a little window that went up and that was the first clubhouse.”
Today, Dicken is still held in high esteem by golfers of all skill levels.
“Dicken did a good job when he came in there,” said Nelson. “He knew what he was doing and he got things rolling the right way.”
Nelson’s fondness for the club’s first pro is shared by Tim Johnson. “Don Dicken was very good to me,” said Tim Johnson. “He did more for golf in this community than anybody sucking air.”
The course was designed by architect Bill Diddel and the first greens superintendent was Don Dustin. Dustin passed the greens keeping torch to Randy Denny in 1973. Today, owner Jeff Johnson fills that role. Dicken was assisted for much of his tenure by assistant professional Mark Stidham.
The original board of directors included Warsaw Mayor Mike Hodges, Fred Yohey, Larry Castaldi, Jerry Overmyer, Hobart Creighton, Mort Huffer, Virgil McCleary, Elmo Hudson and Ed Mackey.
Part two of this series, scheduled for noon on Friday, July 19, will feature some of the golfers who called the course home, more history of the facility and why avid golfers love the game and hold affection for the course that calls Warsaw home.