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If you were playing behind them, they were the fivesome from hell. A severely nearsighted and partially deaf 17-year-old boy whiffed and shanked balls. An older man, presumably the boy's father, topped shots and hit wild slices. A woman, presumably the boy's mother, took occasional swipes with a persimmon driver. The fourth and fifth members of the group, two hackers with baseball grips, drove ground balls into the trees. No one enjoys a six-hour round of golf--particularly not in Montana, where the wildlife outnumbers the people--so the group behind the slowpokes began to fume. "Make sure you put the pin back in the hole!" one man shouted on the 5th hole of Buffalo Hills Golf Course in Kalispell. More taunts followed until a marshal ushered the disgruntled foursome ahead of the beginners.
The scene upset the 17-year-old, John Espinoza. Before that day he had never set foot on a golf course. Neither had his father, Steve, a California native and Vietnam veteran who had opened the first Mexican restaurant in the tiny Montana town of Eureka (pop. 1,017), 50 miles northwest of Kalispell. "I want my own course," John said to his parents on the drive home that spring day in 1994.
October 16, 2005
Steve, who owned 10 acres of rolling, timbered land, glanced at his wife, Juana, and then back at the road. Why not? he thought. I'm going to build a course where every person with a disability can come and play and never be rushed again.
Nestled 3 1/2 miles from the Canadian border in the Rocky Mountains, John's Golf Course is an unspectacular, 12-hole, par-39 pitch-and-putt that measures 2,106 yards. There are no bunkers or water hazards. A sign by the dusty gravel driveway leading to the Espinoza place greets visitors to the course; it reads handicapped and disabled, although everyone is welcome. Steve and Juana bought the spread for $15,000 in 1982, when they moved from Los Angeles to the logging town of Eureka to open Espinoza's Authentic Mexican Restaurant. Their 3,300-square-foot pine house, which sits in the middle of the course, doubles as the clubhouse. An assortment of tractors and mowers in various states of disrepair litters the backyard. A couple of woodsheds shelter bags of fertilizer, seed and fungicides.
On the course, the pins have flags bearing the same handicapped logo as the one on a tag in Steve's car that allows him to park his blue Chevy Suburban anywhere he wants. A few golf carts are available, but that's where the resemblance to a typical course ends. At John's Golf Course, players may move their balls from behind trees and drive their carts onto tee boxes. There are no greens fees. In a typical year about 600 rounds are played at the course. John and Steve keep the place going by soliciting donations from corporations and individuals. "It's not Augusta National," says Steve. "It's simply a cow-pasture course built with no money and a dream."
The dream of the Espinoza men is a simple one: Grow and maintain John's Golf Course. "We only want equipment that doesn't break down," says John, now 28. But course maintenance takes money, and the caretakers here don't have much. They struggle to put together the $2,000 a month it takes to maintain the operation. When they can afford diesel fuel for the mowers, they cut the greens every day; when they can't, they mow every two or three days. A pair of USGA-donated 2005 U.S. Open badges that Steve sold on eBay for $840 went toward course-related expenses. The annual fund-raising tournament in July added another $6,000. But without greens fees and outings, it's a constant struggle.
So the question is, Why would a family getting by on veterans' compensation and government disability checks spend money maintaining a free golf course in a place where there's little demand for one?
Seeing John's pride in the course and his dedication to its upkeep begins to answer the question. He was born with Cornelia de Lang syndrome, a congenital disorder that causes several physical and developmental abnormalities. He wears thick glasses for nearsightedness, but they're really only for his left eye; he is almost totally blind in his right eye. He is also 35% to 40% deaf in both ears and has had more than a dozen operations to drain fluid from them. When he was eight he had surgery to repair a cleft palate. Aftereffects from that operation, along with his hearing impairment, make John's speech loud and difficult to understand. While most people with De Lang's have mild to moderate mental retardation, John is highly functioning. He's a pretty ordinary fellow who can wax eloquent about women, music and the hardships of running a golf course on no money. "Golf has made John more confident," says Juana, "but he's always been social."
John attended regular and special education classes at Lincoln County High in Eureka and graduated in 1995. "People treat me normal," he says. "I go to bars, I drink. I don't know if my disability will allow me to have children, but I want to try."
Whether his disabilities would be passed along to the next generation is unclear, as is the source of his abnormalities. Steve, 57, believes his exposure to Agent Orange in 1967-68 during his tour of duty in Vietnam as an expert machine gunner in the Army's 1st Infantry Division may have contributed to John's condition, but there is no medical proof. For years scientists have been establishing links between the chemical herbicide, sprayed by U.S. planes to defoliate the forests and fields that gave cover to enemy soldiers, and the health problems of those exposed to it. But those findings have not proved conclusive for the Espinozas, who lost a one-year-old daughter, Malia, to a heart defect in 1976.
Steve spent years fighting the Veterans Administration to get full disability for stomach, back and leg injuries he suffered during an enemy bombing at the Michelin Rubber Plantation in October 1967. He finally succeeded in 1992. That same year, having lost two thirds of his stomach following five surgeries over a quarter century, he had to close the family restaurant.
But the roots of John's passion for golf lie in still another family tragedy. His older brother, Michael--who was the right-hand man at the restaurant and also worked at Eureka Pellet Mill, where he loaded pellets into bags for 90 cents a ton--had been the family's first golfer. "Michael was Steve's favorite," says Donny Carvey, a close friend and neighbor of the Espinoza family. In the summer of '93 Michael died in a single-car accident on a straight stretch of Highway 93 after a night out with friends. The 20-year-old's death devastated John. Michael had been everything that John wanted to be: a high school football star, a skilled hunter and a ladies' man.
When John took up golf in '94, at that long, contentious outing at Buffalo Hills, it was the fulfillment of a promise he had made to Michael. "Michael is the inspiration for everything that I do," says John. "There wouldn't be a course without him."
John and his father seeded and planted their first green nine months after Michael's death. They used the family's Jeep to drag a 6-by-10-foot wooden beam in circles across the 5,000-square-foot green until they had smoothed out the sand. They then downsized to a four-wheel ATV, on which they attached a lighter beam with a metal net to mold the crown that allows water to drain from the surface. "There wasn't money for tractors or graders," says Steve, "so we had to improvise." To water the green, Steve ran 300 feet of hose from their well. "I must have spent a small fortune on hoses at Costco," he says. With the help of a couple of loggers, Steve and John cut down 22 Douglas firs to make way for the 1st fairway. Over the next year 400 more trees would come down to make room for the second fairway.
Each summer they prepare their course for their charity outing as if they were hosting the U.S. Open. In late May, with the tournament about a month away, John and Steve were worried sick about the condition of their greens. Ice damage had created yellow and brown patches and gray snow mold. They invited their friend Tim Heiydt to offer some technical advice. Heiydt, a 42-year-old Spokane agronomist who consults for more than 100 courses in the Northwest, came armed with a soil probe, agronomy books and five bags of fertilizer. As Heiydt took soil samples from each green--crumbling the dirt in his hands to study its smell, texture and color--his two attentive students stood at his side. The Espinozas' greens are cut at 3/16 (.188) of an inch, while the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 were cut to .120 of an inch during this year's U.S. Open. In other words, the Espinoza greens are slow. Steve laughs. "But our greens are healthier than U.S. Open greens," he says.
Heiydt doesn't dumb down his vocabulary for John and Steve. "Their knowledge of agronomy has come a long way since I first started coming here six years ago," says Heiydt. "They actually sort of know what they're doing now."
When Steve is not working on the course, he's on the phone with people in the golf industry soliciting money and equipment. "The worst thing people can say is no," says Steve. He's a hustler who seems to know instinctively how to use humor or pathos to get what he needs from people. He can sometimes be overzealous. Spotting some equipment representatives at the Montana Special Olympics this summer, he said, "Look at all these guys in one place. This is a buffet to me. It's like lobster and steak all at once."
Even with Steve's propensity for overstatement, people in the golf industry take him seriously. Over the last 11 years companies and individuals have donated utility carts, golf carts, fairway mowers, a tri-plex greens mower, fertilizer, sprayers, seed and every measure of parts, rollers and reels. This summer, Stock Building Supply, in Kalispell, donated $84,000 to build a storage facility to house all the equipment. In a chance meeting with a Charleston, S.C., course developer at this year's Masters, Steve persuaded the man to donate a backhoe. Over the last few years Steve raised enough money to install an irrigation system. In addition to donating about $10,000 worth of herbicides and pesticides, the Environmental Science division of Bayer, an international chemical company, also sponsored Steve and John on trips to conventions to solicit money. The Eureka Rural Development Partners, an area economic empowerment organization, has also helped Steve land a $10,000 USGA grant to make various improvements to the course.
Steve's resourcefulness has raised some eyebrows. A newspaper reporter came out a couple of years ago to see if Steve was a con man. The reporter asked Steve if he was reselling the donated equipment. "He wanted to know if we were legitimate," Steve says. "I think he left here convinced that we were doing the right thing. People should simply come out and see how we live."
Since they've built their field of dreams, people have indeed come. NBC's Today show visited in June, and there is a TV movie in the works. "I like the attention," says John. "It's fun when people come out and donate stuff to us." His father adds, "John's life is meeting people."
Most summer days, with the Montana sun shining until 10 p.m., John waits for a neighbor or a tourist to come by for a round. John's game has improved enough that he can shoot in the mid-50s for nine. He's a good putter despite his lack of depth perception. (He hits everything firm.) A half-dozen times a year John plays in charity tournaments and Special Olympics events around the country, mostly to increase awareness of his course. In 2003 at the Special Olympics World Games in Ireland, John won a bronze medal.
For most of his trips he takes his bright orange General Lee number 1 golf cart, which is a downsized replica of the '69 Dodge Charger that Bo and Luke Duke drove in the '80s TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. (John's miniature dachshund, Daisy Duke, is named for the Hazzard character of the same name.) The cart, donated by the Club Car company, has become his signature.
The course, though, is his real passion. In the morning he mows the greens, fairways and tees. Juana asserts that her son is lazy and wouldn't work if he didn't have to. "I like hard work sometimes," counters John, "but I'd rather play golf with friends." And here there are never any complaints about slow play. "This is John's Golf Course," he says with a giggle. "I can do whatever I want."
When John took up golf, it was the fulfillment of a promise he had made to Michael. "Michael is the inspiration for everything that I do," says John. "THERE WOULDN'T BE A COURSE WITHOUT HIM."
Why would a family getting by on veterans' compensation and government disability checks maintain A FREE COURSE IN A PLACE WHERE THERE'S LITTLE DEMAND FOR ONE?