SOUTH BEND — Stand and squint from a corner spot where the parking lot hugs the driving range and the putting green and memories of what Warren Golf Course looked like this time last year rush back.
Fans were lined three deep near the driving range to watch the who’s-who of senior golfers work to get their shots right for their next championship round.
Along the parking lot, food tents beckoned you to buy a bottle of water for $3 or a crab cake sandwich for $16.
Along the right side of the fairway of what is No. 6, but was No. 18 for USGA and television purposes, sat the VIP chateaus, where fortunate fans or big-money donors could sit in the comfort of air conditioning and watch the field make their way toward the final green.
On Sunday of that week, Steve Stricker stalked up 18 and walked away with the 40th U.S. Senior Open championship. He sprinted to a big lead three days prior and never offered anyone much hope.
Throughout those four days, Warren Golf Course general manager John Foster beamed like a proud, new papa. He got about as much sleep as one.
Years of planning and development and wonder and worry came together to show off Warren to the golf world. There were the crowds and the pictures and a national television audience and good weather and approving nods from just about everyone in the field.
Foster spent those days on the go from morning to noon and sometimes into the night. He’d steer his golf cart here and there and basically everywhere. Not necessarily was he pulling another 12-hour shift as he was taking it all in.
“I, Foster said, “was a kid in the candy store.”
Foster did lunch with Curtis Strange and Bill Warren, a 1956 Notre Dame graduate whose name is on the course’s front door.
He traded text messages with Tom Watson. He took calls and questions from Jack Nicklaus.
He watched the seniors act like juniors as they checked in for the tournament at Notre Dame Stadium, then walked down the stairs of the Irish football locker room and on the hallowed ground of the field.
That was then.
Now, the 65-year-old Foster is likely in his golf cart near the parking lot with the day’s tee sheet wedged under the mini clipboard on the steering wheel.
He’ll shoot to the starter’s cottage to check in golfers who want to squeeze in a quick nine before heading back to the office, or look to play 18 before the sun sets.
Foster makes sure every golf cart that goes out — one golfer per cart — is sanitized. Sprayed down and wiped clean. Rinse and repeat. He’s also learned how to drive the picker cart on the range and how to clean those golf balls properly as well. Can’t be too careful, even outside during a global pandemic.
From rubbing elbows with Watson and Nicklaus to washing range golf balls, life’s flipped about 180 degrees from one June to the next for him.
“It’s been interesting; I’m doing everything,” Foster said as he relaxed for a few minutes and practiced the six-foot social distance guideline via golf cart. “This is a totally different world than last year. I don’t know if you can call it a challenge because people just have to adapt.”
A new Warren
Adapt or else. That’s basically what Foster and Warren’s skeleton crew of employees and volunteers from other campus venues have had to do during the pandemic.
Set to start March 28, Warren didn’t open until June 2. Even then, it did so under strict guidelines. Like the one cart per golfer rule. And no rakes in the bunkers. No removing flag sticks. No access to the clubhouse dining room or pro shop. Both important revenue sources remain closed.
The standard 7 a.m. first tee time was moved back 90 minutes, in part to help the course maintenance workers, also operating way below capacity, more time to prep the course. Tee time intervals, normally 10 minutes, jumped to 12.
Rates vary from as low as $25 (Notre Dame students and juniors under age 18) to as high as $90 (general public weekend rate).
Foster hoped for Warren to slingshot off last year’s Senior Open success — it was the first held on a public course — and enjoy a record-setting summer. Even after last June’s tournament, the course saw a 30 percent bump in golfers for the rest of the season, which ends the Sunday after the final Irish home football game in late November.
“People all over the Midwest were driving in to play the course because they saw it on TV,” Foster said. “We still have those after-affects.”
Even during a pandemic. Maybe because of the pandemic. In today’s world, where everything seems to have changed to where even a trip to the grocery store is a chore, life at Warren in June 2020 feels a lot like it did in June 2019.
On Thursday afternoon, the parking lot was more than half full at 1 p.m. Normally, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as crowded. People would be at work in offices.
A half dozen golfers were on the range trying to wedge in a quick workout, some maybe even on a break from their work-at-home routine. The putting green was busy. Cars arrived. Cars exited. Golfers golfed. Another day unfolded.
“There’s a lot of people with nothing to do right now,” Foster said. “That is the part that’s been the most surprising to me.”
It was hard to tell if it was a weekday or a weekend. It also was hard to tell there was a pandemic. Yes, there are the social distancing guidelines in place and restrictions, but get in a golf cart, get out on the course and life doesn’t seem any different. Everything seems so normal. So right. The sun was shining. The birds were chirping. Cars whizzed down Douglas Road along the front of the course. Traffic sailed along the Toll Road along the back of the course.
“This is about as normal as it gets right now,” Foster said as he looked out over the course on a cloudless 79-degree day. “I don’t see anything when you look around here that says there’s a pandemic going on.”
Foster’s never-ending routine of cleaning and sanitizing and distancing suggests otherwise, but once that’s done and it’s time for a golfer to load their clubs on the back of the cart and head for the first tee, it’s golf again. Just you and the outdoors and 18 holes and the 7,020-yard (from the back tees) course.
“When the customer gets here, we don’t act any differently,” Foster said. “You kind of get used to it. Whoever thought we’d get to this point?”
A needed release
In a typical world, a round at Warren runs four hours and 10 minutes. A pandemic round averages three hours and 30 minutes. There’s less socializing and more playing. Hit your ball, get in your cart, find it and hit it again.
There’s also less complaining.
It was common for Foster to hear his share of gripes from golfers after rounds. How there were footprints in the bunkers on 12 or the greens are too soft on 7, but not soft enough on 16. Golfers can be a bit petty.
“There are fewer complaints,” Foster said. “People who visit us are a lot more pleasant this year.”
People like David O’Connor, a Philosophy professor at Notre Dame who played nine holes Thursday before lunch. An Elkhart native and Marian High School graduate, O’Connor tries to get out to at least one area course every week. Warren on this day. Maybe Juday Creek the next. Or Elbel. With the world the way it is today, it does him some good every which way.
“Everybody’s under a lot of different stresses and anxieties,” O’Connor said. “But just to have a day where your biggest anxiety is a six-foot putt is really nice. It’s not just a mental thing. You feel better physically.
“That’s a big part of being a human being.”
Prior to Warren’s opening, Foster was asked to submit revenue projections to the university. Could the course make any semblance of profits with the pro shop shuttered? Foster submitted something on the conservative side. Less than a month in, Warren surpassed them.
“We’re already at nearly twice of what I forecast,” Foster said. “I don’t think the demand is going away.”
Having taken some time out of another 12-hour day to talk about today and reminisce about last June, Foster headed back to the starter’s area. There were more golfers to get to. More carts to clean. Maybe range balls to rinse. Some volunteers to tutor.
Foster’s days are longer now than when the U.S. Senior Open was in town. It’s a grind, but one he embraces, especially when golfers finish their rounds and seek him out as they head for their cars and back into the real world. They’ll stop and offer Foster words that make it all worthwhile.
Thank you for being open.
“A lot of them know that we’re going above and beyond,” Foster said. “People just appreciate that we’re open even though we might be somewhat restricted in what we can do.
“It’s been great.”