The following is the second of a three-part series on Rozella Ford Golf Club, which celebrates 60 years of golf this year.
WARSAW — Tucked atop of a small hill near the green of hole number eight and the tee box for hole number nine, a small, family cemetery plot stands as the final resting place for many ancestors of longtime area farmer Rozella Ford. The namesake of the 60-year-old golf course referred to by many as “Rozie” was a strong and independent woman who spent much of her life growing crops and raising livestock. Today, golfers of all skill levels negotiate the carefully-manicured fairways and greens of Rozella Ford Golf Club in the presence of Miss Ford’s ancestors. The plot, known as Ford Cemetery and declared an historic cemetery by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in 2013, is the final resting place of Miss Ford’s paternal grandparents and generations of other ancestors. Rozella and her parents, Dr. Daniel Ford and his wife, Harriet, are buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Warsaw and not in the 178-year-old historic graveyard.
Graves And Snakes And Garbage
Not long after Ford leased 200 acres to a group of investors for the purposes of creating a place for golf enthusiasts to practice their avocation, work began on converting the farmland into a viable golf course. The cemetery is chained off and out of bounds to golfers. In the early days, players had other environmental obstacles to overcome on their way to completing a round of golf.
“There was a dump over here on 16 that was huge,” said Jeff Johnson, the course’s current owner who grew up hanging out on the course as a young boy. “If you hit the ball 80 yards off of 16 tee, you could see where it was. They eventually filled it all in, but that dump, and the rattlesnakes…you would not go into the woods off 16 and 17 because of the rattlesnakes and the stuff in the dump. It was scary.”
Johnson’s brother, Tim, a former club champion, earned spending money by helping the course become more golfer friendly during its early days.
“When they were building it, we raked the stones off the fairways of the golf course, literally, for a dollar an hour,” said Tim Johnson. “Eight dollars a day was good pay back then. We raked the whole golf course up so they could grow grass.”
The course would exist for several years without a sprinkler system.
“When we started off, we didn’t have really good grass and Don Dustin was the greenskeeper back then and he actually planted these greens without water and I don’t know how he did it,” said Jeff Johnson.
As the course got up and running, with the first nine holes opening in August of 1960, Rozella Ford Golf Club began to give rise to players who would dominate the links for decades.
Burket native Jerry Nelson played basketball and baseball during his youth and didn’t step foot on a golf course until he was well into adulthood, at 23. Rozella Ford was the proving grounds where he rapidly gained skill. He would go on to become one of the area’s most competitive and successful players, mentioned in the same breath as former touring professional Denny Hepler, who holds Rozella Ford’s modern course record of 62, having shot the score twice.
For Nelson, his local claim to fame is having eagled every hole on the course.
This distinction is something he feels as fond of as his many championships. Nelson, 81, a graduate of Beaver Dam High School who attended Burket High School until his senior year, has won the Indiana Senior Open four times, the Indiana Senior Amateur once and, in 1993, was runner-up in the U.S. Senior Amateur Championship.
Nelson acknowledges that most successful golfers begin to achieve only after years of practice.
“I was very fortunate,” said Nelson. “I was a decent athlete, I played basketball and baseball and I think that helps your eye-hand coordination. Then, I worked pretty hard at it after I got into it.”
Nelson, the longtime owner of Nelson Beverage, fired aces on all four of the course’s par 3 holes, shot a score of three on both par 5s and scored two on every one of the course’s 12 par 4s. He has been a lifetime member of Rozella Ford since 1963. Nelson won Rozella Ford’s club championship seven times, the most of any other golfer.
Nelson explained his love of the game.
“I just think there are very few sports that are individual, and that you play by yourself and you go out on beautiful days and play, and I think it’s so challenging to do better,” he said, adding that the sport can be a type of behavior filter.
“You meet such wonderful people,” he said. “You don’t meet many bad people on the golf course because people won’t play with them. So, there’s always good guys when you’re out there because if someone is a jerk, no one wants to play with them.”
Nelson was inducted into the Indiana Golf Hall of Fame in 1995.
For two years in 1986-1987, 1973 Warsaw High School graduate Denny Hepler played on golf’s most storied stage as a competitor on the Professional Golfers Association tour. Hepler, like Nelson and the Johnson brothers, also honed his early golf skills on the fairways of Rozella Ford.
Hepler left Warsaw to play collegiately for Ball State and Florida State universities before turning professional in 1978. He was the first American to win the Malaysian Open and in 2006, won The Golf Channel’s reality show “The Big Break,” receiving his award from future U.S. President Donald Trump.
The owner of Raccoon Run Golf Course for the past 18 years, while playing professionally, Hepler competed in nine major championships, including one British Open and four times each for the PGA Championship and U.S. Open.
Hepler has also won the Indiana Open twice and in 2003 was inducted into the Indiana Golf Hall of Fame.
Hepler, now managing Stonehenge Golf Club and coaching the Grace College Golf Team, could not be reached for comment.
Don Dicken was the club professional at Rozella Ford for 35 years. He was designated a master professional by the PGA. During his career, he earned Golf Professional of the Year, Teacher of the Year and Public Golf Course Merchandiser of the Year by the Indiana PGA. His lowest competitive score was 64 and during his career, he fired 12 holes in one.
“It’s a tough game, there’s no question about that,” said Dicken about the game of golf. “It’ll beat you and make you not look so good sometimes.” Dicken has retired to his home with wife, Sondra, near Warsaw’s Center Lake, but said he is fond of his days on the Warsaw golf course. “It’s been quite a journey,” he said.
Dicken was assisted for many years by assistant professional Mark Stidham, and for several years by Todd Firestone and Jennifer Deeter Lancaster.
Records for the course’s club champions have been lost over the years, but compiling the recollections of the Johnson Brothers and Sondra Dicken, the following is a close compilation.
Jerry Nelson won the club championship seven times.
Art Johnson won the title four to five times and his son, Tim Johnson, earned the title three times.
Other multiple winners include T.J. Carpenter, Hepler, Tom Huer, Dave Owens, Caleb Rovenstine, Bruce Grossnickle, Doug Neville and Tom Beno. Marge Neville was a multiple winner of the women’s club championship. Johnson admits there may be other multiple winners who could be revealed when the club championship records are re-collected.
Johnson Family Legacy
Current owner Jeff Johnson and his brother Tim have fond memories of the golf course, playing with their older brother, Glynn, and their father, multiple club championship winner Art Johnson.
“Mom would drop me off at eight o’clock in the morning and we’d play all day and we didn’t have any money for food or drink,” said Jeff Johnson. “They had water pumps out on the course and that’s what we drank all day. I’d go home at 10 o’clock at night and that’s when I’d eat again.”
Jeff’s brother Tim credited the farm land-turned golf course as being the hub of Kosciusko County golf all those decades ago.
“Rozella Ford is a huge part of golf in this area,” said Tim. “If it wasn’t for that course, hardly any of us would have learned how to play golf.” He said there were sometimes money-earning opportunities on the course. “You could earn money by shagging balls or washing clubs to get tips,” he said. “It seemed like everyone in town played golf.”
For Jeff, who bought the course in 2013, buying the golf course of his childhood has instilled in him the desire to return some of that magic he felt when he waited for invitations to play from generous adults while he remained too young to be allowed to play solo.
“The people out here, it was like young, old, rich and poor — everybody was one,” Jeff said. “It was really cool and there were so many people out here who treated me so well as a little kid. Everybody was a family back then.”
Part three of this series, scheduled for noon on Saturday, July 20, will feature the golf course’s resurgence under the direction of owner Jeff Johnson.