John's Golf Course: how a community came together
Posted on 08 June 2016
Eureka family builds course for disabled son
Nick Faldo teaches a lesson at John's Golf Course in Eureka. David Reese photo
BY DAVID REESE
They say it takes a village to raise a child.
It took a village to help send John Espinoza to the World Special Olympics in Dublin, Ireland, last summer, where he brought back international pride to the community of Eureka with a third-place finish in golf.
Espinoza, 27, was born with Cornelia deLange syndrome, a birth defect that causes developmental disabilities.
John held a 13-stroke lead going into the last three holes of the tournament. But like Kevin Costner in the movie "Tin Cup,"John went out in fine fashion. He took 10s on the last three holes, pushing him into position for the bronze medal.
"I was nervous and tired. And frozen," said John, an unassuming man with a shy sense of humor who speaks in a slow but articulate manner.
The village that helped send Espinoza and his father, Steve, to the World Games last summer gathers in Eureka each summer for the annual tournament at John's Golf Course.
About 80 golfers came out last year to play nine holes at John's Golf Course and nine holes at Buckwood Country Club, a new nine-hole course built on the outskirts of Eureka on U.S. 93. Buckwood, located at the Silverado motel, opened two years ago. It's an executive course that stretches over 1,285 yards.
The area next to the Silverado motel had been a rock- and knapweed-infested field for years, then owners Donna McCully and Brian McCully decided to put in one golf hole.
"We needed to do something with the rock and knapweed," Donna said. "We put in one hole. We ended up with a golf course."
This year the tournament is bigger and better than ever, with media and players coming from around the world to play at John's Golf Course.
Buckwood is a golf country club in the purest sense of the term. Horses graze nearby, and the Whitefish mountain range towers in the background. During last summer's tournament, while the sun blazed down on the fairways, a bit of snow lingered on Ksanka Peak. At this country club, you're more likely to see Ford and Chevy pickups than Town Cars and Cadillacs or Hummers. Across the highway from the course is a lumber mill.
The greens at Buckwood are on the small side, with pushed-up sides reminiscent of the greens at the Cameron Nine in Kalispell. The longest fairway is a 243-yard par four.
Brian McCully learned by trial and error how to build a golf course. After the course south of town went into disrepair, he decided to take matters into his own hands to give locals - and nearby Canadians - a place to play. After putting in an RV park, he figured he ought to have something for his campers to do.
"It's been a learning experience," he said. "After I built one hole, I figured I might as well finish it."
The course gets a lot of play from locals on the other side of the Canadian border, which is just down the road. The mild climate near Lake Koocanusa allowed golfers to play until mid-December last year.
"It's a good family deal," McCully said. "What can you do for $7?"
THE ANNUAL "John's Golf Course" tournament has become a favorite with locals. Even golfers from nearby Fernie, B.C., came down for the weekend. With that many teams gathered on John's Golf Course, things get a little tight. "Everywhere you looked there were golf balls and people," Eureka golfer Gary Tisdell said.
The event drew publicity from around the nation. A writer and photographer from People magazine showed up, as did a writer for the national golf course superintendents magazine.
The story of John's Golf Course goes back about 10 years, when tragedy struck the Espinoza family.
When John's older brother, Michael, died in a car accident in 1993, John wanted to follow in the star-athlete's footsteps; he decided to take up golf. So he and his father set out to build a golf course out of the deep woods surrounding their home near Murphy Lake.
The course started as a single green in front of the family's front yard, built with help from a former superintendent at the now-private Crystal Lakes Resort. The course slowly grew from there, one hole at a time. The dense forest of pines slowly became thinner and thinner, as trees that got in the way of John's drives were cut down.
The Espinozas had to drag sprinklers around the course to keep it green, but with help from golf courses around the country, they've developed an arsenal of equipment and knowledge. Golf courses from around the Flathead Valley have helped with carts, mowers, seed, irrigation equipment - anything that they could do without but could help John's Golf Course.
"We're a two-man team with a staff of thousands," Steve said. "Without everyone's help, we wouldn't be here."
John's birth defect left him nearly blind in one eye, with poor depth perception and limited mobility in his wrists. One of the reasons the family built their own links was because golf courses typically don't cater to people with disabilities. "I was worried about how fast he could get around the course and how the other golfers would treat him," Steve said.
Last summer, Steve Espinoza stood at the center of the ninth green and told the community how vital they were in helping send John to Ireland. Behind him, a banner from the World games in Ireland hung on a fence.
"We couldn't have done it without you," he told the cheering throng of fans who were ringed around the green.
Business owners like Brian McCully are always ready to pitch in when it comes to helping someone in their community. "It doesn't hurt a bit to help somebody out. He's a good-hearted kid," McCully said of John.
McCully was amazed at the national response to John's Golf Course, and how national media arrived to tell his story. But then again, that's how things get done in a small town. McCully was there to unload sand when the first hole was built seven years ago at John's course. With no golf course in town, the high school golf team had nowhere to practice or play, except Whitefish, which is 60 miles away. Now, with Buckwood Country Club in the picture, kids on the high school team get to play for free. "You know how that goes," McCully said. "It'll come back ten-fold."
Now with 20 holes of golf - although in different locations - Eureka is etching out place in Montana golf history. "We're just a little tiny community," McCully said. "Next year the tournament will be bigger and better."
And so goes the story of one small village in northwest Montana where golf has brought a family - and the community - together.