Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

20,000 Leagues? Yes, It Might Be!

By Jack Saylor

Being summoned for a tax audit, jury duty or a command appearance at his mother-in-law's birthday party - all on his league day - probably rank 1-2-3 on the list of worst things that can happen to a golfer.

For most, weekends are penciled in for getting the lawn mowed, taking the kids to the beach or cutting down the number of things on the "Honey, Do" list.

Thus for someone who works all week in the shop or office, the anticipation of playing in his once-a-week golf league is the week's highlight.

Rain any other afternoon, please. Don't let a holiday fall on your league night. This is what it's all about, getting nine holes in before dark, never mind the mosquitoes, let's get at it - how many strokes do we get?

This scenario is played out Mondays through Fridays at nearly every public golf course in virtually every community in Michigan large enough to have a golf course.

In smaller towns, the Rotary Club League might be Mondays, school employees Friday and anybody signing up for Joe's Bar League some other night.

In metropolitan areas, there are more courses, more leagues, more competition for space. Leagues begin to take on not only more importance, but even tradition.

Not every golf course needs them. PGA pro Gary Whitener operates two courses for the city of Livonia - Idyll Wyld and Whispering Willows. There are 18 leagues playing weekly at Idyll Wyld, only four at the other course.

"The leagues help, but they aren't mandatory to survival," said Shawn Thomas, who manages Idyll Wyld. "It's good to have them around, but we wouldn't go under if we didn't have them."

Whitener concurs. "We're in the heart of Livonia with everyone around us," he said. "If we were out in Whitmore Lake or Salem Township, we'd need the leagues more.

"We could fill the golf courses all the time without leagues at Whispering Willows. We're busy just because we don't have leagues to speak of. People come in from Dearborn, even the east side of Detroit because they know they can get on, even though it might take a wait. Elsewhere, if there are leagues, you're out of luck."

Thirty miles or so out in suburbia, Dan Fife owns Spring Lake Country Club, a public fee course near Clarkston, and he offers the flip side on league play.

"We have 40 leagues on the weekdays, ranging from 12 people to the Pontiac-Waterford Elks Lodge league of 72 members," said Fife, a former U-M basketball captain who invested some of his income from a major league pitching career in the golf business.

"Leagues are the backbone of our business," he said. "Some of them play from snow 'til snow and they're vital. We feel very strongly about our leagues. They account for probably 50 percent of our play. And they seldom move - everybody's as booked up as we are."

One of Fife's leagues bears testimony to this fact.

In the 1950s, what started as a group of west Oakland County businessmen formed a league and played each Wednesday afternoon at an area course then named Highland Golf Club.

When the then-ownership began closing the club too early to suit those who enjoyed lingering at the 19th hole, the majority voted to move. They titled their little band, the Highlanders, after their old home, and shifted operations in 1960 to courses whose hours more suited their needs. After a couple of stops, they settled 20 years ago at Fife's Spring Lake course and are still going strong.

But even the most veteran of the Highlanders - would be Leonard Kruskie, a Union Lake retiree who dates back to the league's origins - would almost be a youngster to some of the membership of the BASF Rinshed Mason League, an automotive paint company, which not only dates to 1938, but still hits the tee each Thursday night at the same old stand, Livonia's Idyl Wyld course.

"Yeah, we've thought about leaving, but we've never really come up with a different course we could get on," said Mark Lambert Sr., a pipe-fitter who is a veteran of 25 years in the league and now serves as its president.

"Everybody worked at the same place when it started, but not any more, said Lambert, whose partner is son, Michael, who doesn't work for the company.

"As people started moving out, we had less and less from the shop so we had to go outside the company to fill out the league. But most members are still either with the company or tied in by business somehow."

One ex-employee, George Diedrich, who will be 84 in September, organized both the company bowling and golf leagues - the latter in 1938.

Arthritis caught up with him in the mid-'80s and he was forced to the sidelines. "But I still go to the golf course now and then and watch them and keep up with them," Diedrich said.

Especially, he keeps tabs on his former partner Jack Sandretto. "We won the league three times," Diedrich recalled.

"Jack's been having problems this year," president Lambert reported.

"He doesn't score as good as he used to."

No doubt a little slump for Sandretto, who is 92 years old.

"He has to ride a cart now," Lambert said. "Jack never rode a cart until last year, then he had some medical problems and the doctor said the only way he'd let him come back and play was if he'd ride a cart."

Sandretto also began to lean a little more on his partner. "He plays with a real young guy, John Onderko," Lambert said. "John's only 73 or 74."

After 57 years, there may be trouble on the horizon for the Rinshed Mason guys.

"This could be our last year as a shop league," Lambert warned. "The company is planning on shutting down the plant in March and then we wouldn't be sponsored by them anymore - they've always thrown a nice banquet for us at the end of the year.

"Some employees might get a chance to go to another plant, but most probably would be mustered out. Retirees and others might keep the league going. Hopefully, we'll work something out."

Michigan Golfer is betting on the spirit of guys like Diedrich, Lambert, Onderko and, yes, Jack Sandretto, even if he has to grudgingly ride a cart. The game's the thing - and at many golf courses - leagues are the name of the game.

In a league by himself, Jack Saylor is the golf writer for the Detroit Free Press.

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