Looking out the window of the clubhouse that famed architect Harry Weese designed, Harold Hatter pointed at the No. 1 tee area at Otter Creek Golf Course on Saturday.
“That big sycamore on No. 1, I remember that it was like that,” said Hatter, who spread his thumb and forefinger a couple of inches apart.
As the man in charge of facilities for Cummins in the early 1960s, Hatter worked on the development of Otter Creek, which quickly gained acclaim as one of the best public courses in the United States.
Fifty years to the day that Cummins held an open house to introduce Otter Creek to the community, the course held another open house Saturday to celebrate that half century.
Indeed, the trees are bigger now, many preventing golfers from taking some shortcuts across fairways as they could do when the course opened. By and large, though, the course doesn’t play much different than the one that drew rave reviews in 1964.
“Irwin Miller (Cummins’ chairman) and Don Tull (Cummins’ president) wanted to have the best course we possibly could have,” Hatter said. “They wanted this course to be No. 1. Everything was beautiful.
“And they wanted it to be inexpensive enough that the community could play here.”
Hatter, who is 84, has been a regular player at Otter Creek over the past 50 years, and he still goes out about three times a week. Has he gotten bored playing the same course so many years?
“It’s not boring,” he said. “You get mad at it.”
No one was mad Saturday night in the Otter Creek clubhouse. Besides guest speakers Jim Henderson, former Cummins chairman and CEO, and Mickey Powell, a former president of the PGA who was Otter Creek’s first club pro, many others shared their early days stories of Otter Creek.
“I remember that my friends asked me (in 1963) if I wanted to go play at Otter Creek,” said Jack Brisben, who was a pattern maker in town at the time. “I said to them, ‘What course?’ I didn’t know.
“The clubhouse was still under construction in the fall of 1963, but the course for the most part was done. We drove our car right up to the first tee because there was no parking lot.”
Although they were more or less playing the course illegally, Brisben couldn’t resist.
“I was scared to death,” he said. “But we weren’t the only ones out there.”
What they found was a place unlike any other they had known.
“The speed of the greens was unbelievable,” Brisben said. “Everything was so perfect. And the course was so long. I had never seen anything like it.”
Cummins had decided to offer the course as a donation to Columbus, so security at the new course wasn’t an issue.
“We never bothered anybody,” said Robert Kirchner, who was an assistant course superintendent at the time.
The push was concentrated on getting the course open, so Kirchner and his coworkers had other things to worry about.
“We started early in 1962,” he said. “I remember there were a lot of fences and a lot of brush that we more or less cleaned up. I had as many as 23 people working for me at one time.”
While the course opened officially in 1964, the idea started much earlier.
Henderson explained that the project began in the early 1950s when Miller went after famed golf course architect Robert Trent Jones and eventually got to agree to the job.
Miller looked at eight different sites and convinced Cummins to purchase the 400-acre site where the golf currently calls home. The course itself covers 218 acres.
A slowdown in the economy and internal management strife at Cummins shut down the project for 30 months, but eventually Tull took over as president and Miller went back to Jones and told him to get busy.
By the fall of 1963, the course’s construction was well along but some “behind the scenes” maneuvering was still needed. Cummins wanted to donate the course to Columbus, but a state law prohibited a city from owning property not contiguous to its border unless it was occupied by a landfill or a hospital.
“They changed the law to say landfill, hospital or golf course,” Henderson said. “They called it the Columbus Amendment. We had some clout then, too.”
Dudley Moore, who was a member of the first Otter Creek board of directors, and the Cummins director of personnel at the time, said that it was not a sure thing that Columbus would accept the course, either.
“Would the city take the course?” Moore said. “Cummins had to show it was profitable.”
Moore said other issues were hiring a club pro, who ended up being Powell, and setting up food service for the clubhouse.
The course itself was coming along nicely.
“It was a tough course, and it was beautiful,” Moore said.
Those in attendance on Saturday told stories about the course’s construction. The big rock that welcomes people to Otter Creek’s parking lot was not dug up during the course’s construction and rather came from Brown County.
The sands in the traps came from South Carolina. The peat moss in the greens came from north of Lafayette.
Kirchner and his crew planed 283 trees, willows, oaks, pines and others.
“I had been playing at Harrison Lake and the old city course,” said Joe Anderson, who worked at Hamilton Cosco at the time. “I gave that up. This was the place.
“The course was perfect for the very first round. I know I played poorly, I imagine. It was considerably more difficult.”
Looking to the future, current Otter Creek Board Chairman Richard Freeland said “we’re going to continue to invest in this course.”
He talked about replacing all the greens in the next few years, updating the practice facilities and re-purposing the clubhouse.
“People will talk about how this is one of the truly great courses in the country.”