Noie: John Foster drives life in a new direction after 19 years running ND's Warren Golf Course

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

A sure sign that Warren Golf Course general manager John Foster is ready to drive life in a different direction surfaced earlier this week in his cramped corner office.

The key clue wasn’t found amid the assorted packing boxes stacked here and there and ready to be carried from the clubhouse. It wasn’t among the memorabilia that Foster found while preparing a move. Those trinkets included a wooden baseball bat signed by former Notre Dame coach Paul Mainieri, which sat untouched in one corner since 2006.

It wasn’t the constant ringing of the office phone, which Foster answered several times to help facilitate a tee time. The best indication that Foster is ready for something new after 19 years of running Warren danced across the flat-screen television wedged on a wall directly in front of his desk.

Televisions at golf courses typically are tuned to two channels — Golf or Weather — 24/7. Occasionally, someone flips on ESPN. What’s the latest PGA Tour news? What’s the latest weather forecast? Golfers, and golf course general managers, seek to stay current with both. Earlier this week, on a crisp afternoon that included morning frost — in May — Foster’s television was tuned to neither.

Instead, The Financial News network was on as background noise. The sound was down, but every once in a while, the 66-year-old Foster would look up from his computer or conversation and take note of the ticker and mention the markets because, well, a new path in life gets walked starting next week.

On this day, and all the days that follow, Foster’s financial profile means a little more than how the greens on Warren’s back nine are playing.

All the years and months and weeks and days that Foster worked to help make the Warren course a destination are down to a handful of hours. Eventually, it will be minutes. Foster planned to arrive for work as usual Saturday morning — getting in just before 8 — but when his work day ended, there wouldn’t be another to follow. Nearly two decades after taking over for former general manger and good friend Brian Godfrey, and after three different careers that also saw him work in international sales and as a restauranteur, Foster’s ready to call it a day. Call it a career.

“I really am excited about retirement,” said Foster, a 1976 graduate of Indiana State with a degree in biology. “A number of people have told me to wipe that grin off my face. They’re getting a little sick of it.”

Foster should say the same about his position. As he got older, the hours at Warren got longer and the job description a little more challenging. Last year, it was routine to see the general manager near the starter’s cottage spraying down golf carts and assisting with tee times. That was the pandemic life of 2020. It changed only a little in 2021. He spent part of one morning this week in the clubhouse lower level sorting range balls — Titleist Pro Vs in these buckets, red stripes in those.

It all seemed a detour of the job description, akin to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick taking football season ticket orders by phone or replacing ink cartridges on the printer that spits out the basketball statistics at Purcell Pavilion.

Foster never much minded and never gave the additional duties much thought given where the world’s been since March 2020. Then he had a phone conversation a couple months back with his younger brother, Larry, who retired five years ago.

“He said, ‘You paid your dues and worked really hard; you got into the golf business and you worked really hard for the last 15 years,’” Foster said. “Why are you still doing that? So you could die in the parking lot when you were sanitizing a golf cart?’”

The words resonated with Foster. The more he thought, the more he realized his brother was right. He loved his job, but he loved his life more. He gave Warren, gave Notre Dame, a whole lot of years. Hard years. There simply are no more to give.

Not long after the talk with his brother, Foster looked out his office window only days after it had been 80 degrees. It was snowing.

“It was God sending me signals, like the lightbulb went on,” Foster said. “Some people want to continue doing what they do. This is a job that I probably would like to continue in, but it’s gotten more and more difficult. It’s hard when everything is a struggle.”

Much of the struggle centered on moving beyond memories of a magical week in the summer of 2019, when Warren did the unthinkable for a university course and hosted the U.S. Senior Open. That accomplishment/adrenaline rush was as good as it ever would get for Foster. He feared it then. He knows it now.

After that ride, there was only one way to go.

A better course, place

Hosting the Senior Open in late June 2019 was an event 15 years in the making for Foster and for Warren. He put in a lot of time and effort and energy and man hours — mornings, afternoons, nights, weekends, springs and summers and falls and even winters — to get every aspect of the course to a point where it might be considered to host a Senior Open. College courses usually don’t get that chance. Ever.

When Foster replaced Brian Godfrey as general manager in 2002, Warren had about as much chance of hosting the Senior Open as one would have of winning the lottery — slim and none and slim was wandering somewhere down the first fairway.

Foster wouldn’t fold and wasn’t fazed. Warren could get there. He believed it. He lived it.

“It was amazing for me to see them have success, given where we were with that course when it first opened,” said Godfrey, now the PGA head pro at Long Beach (Ind.) Country Club in LaPorte County. “It was remarkable. It was very cool.”

When the Senior Open ended, it was like, “Uh, OK, what next?’’ Foster had reached the summit in his role at Warren. It wasn’t going to get any better than it was that week in June. A year ago, when the world turned upside down with the global pandemic, Foster was too busy trying to help Warren remain relevant to ponder the previous summer. But this year, with pandemic protocols still an issue and Warren’s clubhouse still half-deserted, reality set in.

The Senior Open was gone. That magic, that rush, wasn’t ever coming back.

“That’s kind of hard to top,” Foster said. “If I knew another one was coming around the bend, I’d probably hang around. It was that much fun. It was a lot of work, but then again, it wasn’t.”

Work never seemed like it for Foster, not with an office that looks out over the 18th green. When the to-do list would get too tedious, he could always stare out the window for a minute and any worries would go away. Irish football coach Brian Kelly often needled Foster about having the best office view of anyone on campus. Kelly included.

There were times when Foster would feel the need to get up from behind the desk, walk out of the clubhouse, grab a golf cart and go anywhere around the course’s 250 acres. He often wound up in a certain spot. His spot. It was a spot that Foster planned to visit this week. It was out there off 17. A big bluff where you could see the 16th green and much of the 17 fairway. It overlooks an area of wetlands on the back of the property.

A few minutes alone out there, even with traffic whizzing past on nearby Ironwood Drive, all would be right in the golf world.

During the pandemic, Foster often found himself out there. Thinking about 2019. Thinking about his future. Each time he returned to his office, he returned with a clear mind and clearer vision.

“That was my respite,” he said. “I love this property. I love this this golf course.”

Loves it even though it’s been too long since he last played it. Here’s a fallacy about golf course general managers — they spend days playing golf. In their time together at Warren, Foster and Godfrey would leave at day’s end, look around and joke that, “Wow, there IS a golf course out there.” They rarely saw it. Or played it.

Foster last got in nine holes at Warren in November. He can’t remember the last time he played 18.

A few rounds and a home in Hilton Head, S.C. await Foster’s arrival next month. He’s anxious to get reacquainted with his clubs. Anxious to again paint and fish and live without many work worries. He’s got a lot that he wants to do, a lot that he didn’t have time to do the last few years.

Just after 5 p.m. on Saturday, Foster will make the short walk from the clubhouse to his car a final time. He insisted earlier this week that he’s never been one to watch the clock before calling it a day when the day’s supposed to end. He might do that Saturday.

On his way down the driveway toward Douglas Road, he’ll pass a sign just off to his left trumpeting Warren as host course for the 2019 U.S. Senior Open. Blink and you might miss the marker. Foster won’t.

He leaves knowing he left Warren a far better course than when he arrived. To him, that counts for something. Sometimes, everything.

Golf Magazine recently ranked Warren No. 70 in its Top 100 of United States courses. When Foster arrived, Warren wasn’t in the Top 700.

“He was able to elevate that course to what it should be and that’s the ultimate for a university course,” Godfrey said. “That’s kind of the pinnacle. He always had his eye on making it what he thought it could be, what it should be.”

And today, what it is.

Any time work in the office got a little too overwhelming, Warren Golf Course general manager John Foster could always escape to the greens and fairways and areas around the course, and life would seem a little better.
John Foster at Warren Golf Course in South Bend on June 14, 2019.