The following is the third and final part of a three-part series on Rozella Ford Golf Club, which celebrates 60 years of golf this year.
WARSAW — From the vantage point of the Rozella Ford Golf Club pro shop, owner and self-appointed greens superintendent Jeff Johnson beams about the golf course’s revitalized beauty. “Look at that view out there,” he said in an interview last week. “I think this is the most beautiful golf course in northern Indiana.”
According to Johnson and others, the course that is hosting golfers for its 60th season was steadily declining in membership, grounds quality and aesthetics when the professional landscaper-turned golf course owner purchased the par-70 facility in 2013.
“We put our money into it and a lot of hard work,” said Johnson. “It was 100 hours a week.”
Johnson found success for decades as the owner of Johnson Nursery and it was his skill as a horticulturist and arboriculturist that lended itself to the massive renovation. The first step, managing the hundreds of mature trees that peppered the landscape and had, for decades, played havoc with anyone not skillful enough to find the fairway.
“The first thing we did was take out 386 trees,” said Johnson. “We planted back 70, but we took out the bad ones and the ones in the wrong spots and we re-shaped every bunker out here. Every sand trap out here got re-shaped and re-sanded.”
According to Johnson, the shapes of many of the course’s bunkers provided a trough for rain water to funnel into the bunker, turning what is suppose to be a sand trap into an impromptu water hazard. But, by building an elevated lip around many of the bunkers, water could be kept from draining into the traps.
“We re-did the sprinkler system, we re-did the clubhouse and now we’ve got it back,” he said.
Johnson said when he was a youngster, he remembered the golf course being a place where people of all ages and socio-economic statuses could bond over the centuries-old game. His words were mirrored by Sondra Dicken, wife of longtime Rozella Ford Club Professional Don Dicken.
“You didn’t have any classes,” she said. “When people played golf, they were all in the same class. You would have the president of a company and his janitor playing in the same group. On the golf course, it made no difference.”
Joining Johnson on the course in those early days was future PGA touring professional Denny Hepler, who played countless rounds with Johnson as a youngster and later joined Johnson as a teammate on the Warsaw High School golf team.
“When I’ve been out there, it looks like he’s got it in super shape,” Hepler said of Johnson’s progress with the course. “He has a real passion for it. He and I played out there all the time as kids and in fact, we had a game we used to play where the two of us would play a best ball (format where each player plays through the hole and the best score is used) and we would play against a make believe opponent we called Old Man Par.”
For Johnson, helping to meld the social classes is a viable goal as he takes the course further into the 21st Century.
“My premise to the whole thing was to keep a great golf course at good prices,” said Johnson. “I haven’t raised them any since I took over.”
When Johnson took ownership, passersby could have wondered if the golf course had been hit by a tornado, as hundreds of mature trees began being taken out. At the time of the purchase, Johnson estimates the course had more than 700 trees for approximately 200 acres.
“There were too many trees planted too close together, so we spaced them,” said Johnson. “Like, there were five oaks on (hole number) three and I love oaks, OK, but they were too close together. So, we took out tree two and four. So, trees one, three and five can look good, aesthetically and health-wise.”
In several locations, Johnson explained, mature trees mark the turning point of a left or right-veering fairway, known as a dog leg. For those spots, Johnson said he planted new trees in front of and behind the pivotal mature trees. “So, when that mature tree dies, those younger ones will be there to take its place,” he said.
Seven-time Rozella Ford club champion Jerry Nelson remembers the early days of the facillity when the course was riddled with stones and a garbage dump existed in the area of the 16th hole
“There used to be a junk pit over on 16,” said Nelson. “It was stony, so you’d booger your irons up when you played. But, Jeff Johnson’s done a fabulous job with it. The course is in great shape and he works hard at it. It’s a good golf course.”
For Johnson, returning the course to not only its former beauty but also attempting to recreate the family atmosphere and making golf at the facility affordable for everyone has been a labor of love.
“You’d be a little kid and some of these grown ups would come up and go ‘how’d you shoot, Jeff?’ remembered Johnson. “They took the time. It was just a different world and I’m trying to return this golf course to that type of atmosphere. I want people to feel that when you come out here, you don’t have to be rich. If I make it affordable, everybody can play what is a great golf course.”