Following his Passion

River Chase Golf Course owner Weales on mission to renovate

He hopes a major upgrade will help attract more golfers

(May 2016) – River Chase Golf Course at 1253 W. Main St. in Madison, Ind., has known good times and bad. It was a country club at one time in its history but has also known a short period when area golfers were not sure the course would survive.
It has been the loyalty of generations of golfers that has kept River Chase alive. Golfers today, including golf pro Jeff Weales, spent their teen years as caddies there. Their fathers, uncles and even grandfathers were caddies there in their youth.
Weales is now the owner of the operation and leases the property from the Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corp. power plant next door.
“My wife, Sally, would say I am second in charge,” he laughs. “I own the business and equipment and anything it takes to run the business, but not the property.”
Weales is now spearheading a $35,000 project to improve the course. The investment will pay to reseed the entire course. Once complete, the course will be treated for unwanted species of grass and weeds.

Photo by John Sheckler

River Chase Golf Course owner Jeff Weales says he hopes to renovate the course in the near future.

“Because of our location, we are susceptible to floods that bring in bad seeds,” said Weales. “Last year, the river was up 41 straight days. The flood in June and July really hurt us. It took its toll. In spring, a flood is not so bad because of cooler temperatures and longer nights. We also have a 30-year-old irrigation system of sprinklers and heads dating back to1986.”
Weales had some very qualified people assess what needed to be done. Roots and Shoots from New Albany, Ind., is doing the job. That company also did Slugger Field in Louisville.
“What is paying for the renovation is the support of the people playing here but also local businesses that purchase hole sponsorships and score cards,” Weales said. “After the renovation, there may be a few other things needed, and we may need more done in the coming years.”
Weales said he is very experienced in golf course operations. He worked at The Links Golf Course at the casino in Rising Sun, Ind., for 14 years. Before that, he worked as an assistant pro here from 1996-99, when it was the private Madison Country Club.
“Golf saw a big boom period when Tiger Woods was playing,” said Weales. “There was an onslaught of new courses during his 10-year run. People just built and built new courses when demand was greater than the supply.”
The attention given to Woods brought lots of new people, including minorities, into the game, and courses were built to meet that demand.
“Then we lost a generation of golfers and have more supply than demand,” Weales said. “In Madison, there are four courses vying for 500-600 avid golfers. We are after the ones who play two to three days a week. A golf course can’t keep the doors open if people play only two to three times a year.”
Weales gets lots of support from business owners who worked as caddies when they were in their teens.
“Their support is invaluable,” he said. “My volunteers used to be caddies in their teens. They would stand by the caddy shack pitching pennies and nickels waiting for a tote. I have joked about taking a metal detector down there.”
The nature of the game also has changed over time.
“Other Madison courses get the majority of golfers because there is a perception that this is still a country club.” Weales laments.
“I have to change that perception. In those days, golf used to be a four to five-hour thing. Now, everyone is in too much of a hurry. They get in a cart, finish and run.”
River Chase has been open to the public for 12 years. The restaurant above the pro shop is operated by the Elks Club and also is open to the public.
“There is good food at a reasonable price,” said Weales. “It is still similar to what you could do at a private club. A man could come on Friday with his wife for nine holes, then eat upstairs. It has the amenities of a private course but on a public course downtown. It would be a great Friday night out.”
On a sunny Saturday afternoon, three men gather in the clubhouse before heading home. They are all part of the River Chase legacy. Tony Waltz, Bob Wall, and Merritt Alcorn all grew up as caddies during the country club era.
“This course has a long interesting history, and we are part of it,” said Waltz.
“My uncle caddied as a teen when they had sand greens,” Wall added. “That was hard work because the caddie had to rake the greens at each hole.”
The three men are very knowledgeable about the history of the course.
“When the country club closed, a lot of the members bought it and owned it for six or seven years, then sold it to IKEC.” Waltz continued. “There have been several operators in that time, including the city for a few years. Matt Eggenspiller was the last owner.”
The three men know the history of the property before it was a golf course.
During the Civil War, it was the site of the largest Union hospital west of the Allegany Mountains,” said Waltz. “The hospital had a lot of small buildings scattered around the grounds as infection control. The wounded from the Battle of Shiloh came by river.”
An 1870 steeplechase track came after the U.S. Army Hospital, and there is speculation that some of the shotgun houses along Main Street were originally on the River Chase property.
“We have a photo of Beech Grove Race Track from around 1876,” said Alcorn. “There are horses, wagons and straw hats, but no cars.”
“Around 1890-1900, it was a Chautauqua,” said Waltz. “It wasn’t like the Chautauqua today. It was for speeches like Fancy Farm in Kentucky. It was for political, philosophical and musical presentations.”
“There were open air tents and people lived here,” added Alcorn.
The men believe the golf course layout is pretty much the same as when it was a private club, with only a few changes.
“They did cut away a hill near the sixth hole,” said Alcorn. “They also removed a lake that never held water.”
The three men believe the country club started in the early 1950s, and that there was a six- or eight-year period when it teetered on the edge of not being here.
“What used to support the country club were the slot machines,” said Alcorn. “Dues in the early 1950s were $30 a year, and it was so members could play those machines. Then, Gov. Henry F. Schricker threw the machines out.”
Weales and the golfers say the golden years of the course were around 2009. Weales hopes those golden days will return after the completion of the renovation.

• For more information about River Chase Golf Course, call (812) 265-2139 or visit River Chase on Facebook.

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