Golf has always had a place in Billy Dettlaff’s life. Born in 1950, he grew up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in a house that bordered an 18-hole, municipal course. Some of his earliest memories are of watching players walk that 5,600-yard layout from his backyard. He also learned early on that golf was what put food on his family’s table. His father, Hank, was the head professional and greenskeeper at the place they called, “the Muni.”
Dettlaff, now 70, was a young boy when he watched his parents at the kitchen table on Monday mornings, going over the receipts from pro shop sales the week before, separating the paper money by denominations and putting the coins in paper rolls before going to the bank together to make a deposit.
“After dinners during the summer, Dad always went back to work,” Dettlaff recalled. “He sold soda in his shop to golfers during the day, and they’d leave the empties on the ground in the small groves of pines that grew by the first and 10th tees. Dad would take my older brother, Peter, and me over to the course in his pick-up truck and have us pick up the bottles. If we did a good job, Dad let us each pick out a candy bar in his shop before going back home.”
The Muni became an even more important place for Dettlaff after his father passed away in 1956 at the age of 57. Young Billy was only 6 at the time. And it was at that facility that he developed a deep passion for the game – as a golfer, a caddie and later a member of the course maintenance crew – and where he first started dreaming of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a PGA professional.
Being at the Muni also soothed the loneliness and loss that came with his father’s passing and allowed him to connect with his dad even though he was gone.
More recently, the golf course that was so much a part of his childhood led Dettlaff to write a memoir. Titled Summers at the Muni, it is a heartfelt, coming-of-age tale of life in the 1950s and ’60s – and of a place the author describes as “magical” and representing “the heart of golf.” The book also serves as a tribute to a father lost – and later found – as well as an ode to public golf and all the good it can do for a young man.
It is a wonderful story.
The author of Doctors of the Game, a definitive and highly readable history of the golf professional, Dettlaff starts this tome with the immigration of his father’s parents from Prussia to the United States in the mid-1800s. He then leads us through Hank Dettlaff’s birth in Oshkosh in 1898, the fifth of eight children, and his childhood in a place that had come to be known as Sawdust City, for all the lumber and shingle mills that operated in town. Dettlaff the Elder was 9 years old when he started caddying at what was then known as the Algoma Country Club. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade and helped support his family with money he earned from hunting waterfowl; fishing for bass, walleye, perch and sturgeon; and trapping fox, mink and muskrat. Hank enlisted in the Army during World War I and was stationed throughout his hitch at Call Field outside Wichita Falls, Texas, where he toiled as a biplane mechanic. After his discharge, Dettlaff took a job as a cowhand on a ranch for a year before returning home to Oshkosh.
A couple of years later, in 1921, the Muni opened. It was only a nine-hole track at its founding, and its first head professional was Hank Dettlaff.
For the next 35 years, Dettlaff served in that job. He gave lessons, including one to the daughter of Hungarian immigrants, Helen Wesmarovich, who would later become his wife. He organized a vibrant caddie program that offered youngsters the same introduction to the game that he enjoyed while also providing a valuable service to golfers. One of those loopers included Johnny Revolta, who became a protégé of Dettlaff’s and went on to win 18 times on the PGA Tour, including a Western Open and a PGA Championship.
During the Great Depression, Dettlaff also oversaw the design and construction of a second nine at the Muni, with much of the labor provided by workers from the WPA program created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration.
In addition, Hank Dettlaff played competitive golf, capturing several sectional championships and playing in a number of pro tour events, including the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in 1934.
Then, in the summer of 1956, Hank Dettlaff died, leaving behind his wife, sons Peter and Billy and a daughter, Mary.
While his death rocked the whole family, it hit 6-year-old Billy especially hard.
One way the youngster dealt with his grief was immersing himself in golf. He knocked golf balls around his back yard, where his paternal grandfather once tended to extensive fruit and vegetable gardens. He caddied at the Muni, sometimes sneaking behind the counter in the pro shop that his father had manned for so many years. At the age of 10, he laid out a short course of his own design at home, complete with holes made of tin coffee cans and flagsticks made of brooms, with pieces of sheets as flags. Dettlaff went so far as to conduct his own club championship there, collecting entry fees from his friends and producing crude scorecards for the occasion.
“I did all those things to emulate Dad,” he said.
His love of golf deepened with his mother’s encouragement, as she saw the game as a way to keep her late husband’s legacy alive with her kids.
When Billy turned 12, he was finally old enough to procure his first season pass at the Muni. “It cost $10, and it allowed me to play as much as I wanted Monday through Friday, provided I teed off by 3 p.m.,” he said.
Why 3 o’clock?
“Because that was when the factory golf leagues started, and when workers from those places started showing up at the Muni to play,” he explained.
His love of golf deepened with his mother’s encouragement, as she saw the game as a way to keep her late husband’s legacy alive with her kids. Dettlaff teed it up as much as he could during the week and would putt on the practice green on weekends when youngsters were not allowed onto the course to play. As a teenager, he regularly competed in the Oshkosh City Golf Tournament, which was contested each year on the Muni. And Dettlaff also began working on the course maintenance crew.
It wasn’t until years later – after high school, college and a five-year stint as a photographer, designer and editor for a Chicagoland newspaper – that he decided to return to the game. His first gig was as a starter and course ranger at the Inverrary Country Club in Florida, and within a couple of years he was promoted to head professional. Dettlaff earned full PGA membership in 1981, and by the end of that decade, he held one of the biggest jobs in golf, that as national director of golf operations for the PGA Tour’s TPC Network.
Surely, the old man would have been proud. And readers will no doubt enjoy this tale of the Muni and how it kindled Dettlaff’s love of golf, his livelihood in the game and his lifelong connection to a father he lost so long ago.
Summers at the Muni website: BuySummers.com.
Top photo: Amber Lake, Ponte Vedra Recorder
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