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John attended regular and special education classes at Lincoln County High in Eureka and graduated in 1995. "People treat me normal," he says. "I go to bars, I drink. I don't know if my disability will allow me to have children, but I want to try."
Whether his disabilities would be passed along to the next generation is unclear, as is the source of his abnormalities. Steve, 57, believes his exposure to Agent Orange in 1967-68 during his tour of duty in Vietnam as an expert machine gunner in the Army's 1st Infantry Division may have contributed to John's condition, but there is no medical proof. For years scientists have been establishing links between the chemical herbicide, sprayed by U.S. planes to defoliate the forests and fields that gave cover to enemy soldiers, and the health problems of those exposed to it. But those findings have not proved conclusive for the Espinozas, who lost a one-year-old daughter, Malia, to a heart defect in 1976.
Steve spent years fighting the Veterans Administration to get full disability for stomach, back and leg injuries he suffered during an enemy bombing at the Michelin Rubber Plantation in October 1967. He finally succeeded in 1992. That same year, having lost two thirds of his stomach following five surgeries over a quarter century, he had to close the family restaurant.
But the roots of John's passion for golf lie in still another family tragedy. His older brother, Michael--who was the right-hand man at the restaurant and also worked at Eureka Pellet Mill, where he loaded pellets into bags for 90 cents a ton--had been the family's first golfer. "Michael was Steve's favorite," says Donny Carvey, a close friend and neighbor of the Espinoza family. In the summer of '93 Michael died in a single-car accident on a straight stretch of Highway 93 after a night out with friends. The 20-year-old's death devastated John. Michael had been everything that John wanted to be: a high school football star, a skilled hunter and a ladies' man.
When John took up golf in '94, at that long, contentious outing at Buffalo Hills, it was the fulfillment of a promise he had made to Michael. "Michael is the inspiration for everything that I do," says John. "There wouldn't be a course without him."
John and his father seeded and planted their first green nine months after Michael's death. They used the family's Jeep to drag a 6-by-10-foot wooden beam in circles across the 5,000-square-foot green until they had smoothed out the sand. They then downsized to a four-wheel ATV, on which they attached a lighter beam with a metal net to mold the crown that allows water to drain from the surface. "There wasn't money for tractors or graders," says Steve, "so we had to improvise." To water the green, Steve ran 300 feet of hose from their well. "I must have spent a small fortune on hoses at Costco," he says. With the help of a couple of loggers, Steve and John cut down 22 Douglas firs to make way for the 1st fairway. Over the next year 400 more trees would come down to make room for the second fairway.
Each summer they prepare their course for their charity outing as if they were hosting the U.S. Open. In late May, with the tournament about a month away, John and Steve were worried sick about the condition of their greens. Ice damage had created yellow and brown patches and gray snow mold. They invited their friend Tim Heiydt to offer some technical advice. Heiydt, a 42-year-old Spokane agronomist who consults for more than 100 courses in the Northwest, came armed with a soil probe, agronomy books and five bags of fertilizer. As Heiydt took soil samples from each green--crumbling the dirt in his hands to study its smell, texture and color--his two attentive students stood at his side. The Espinozas' greens are cut at 3/16 (.188) of an inch, while the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 were cut to .120 of an inch during this year's U.S. Open. In other words, the Espinoza greens are slow. Steve laughs. "But our greens are healthier than U.S. Open greens," he says.
Heiydt doesn't dumb down his vocabulary for John and Steve. "Their knowledge of agronomy has come a long way since I first started coming here six years ago," says Heiydt. "They actually sort of know what they're doing now."
When Steve is not working on the course, he's on the phone with people in the golf industry soliciting money and equipment. "The worst thing people can say is no," says Steve. He's a hustler who seems to know instinctively how to use humor or pathos to get what he needs from people. He can sometimes be overzealous. Spotting some equipment representatives at the Montana Special Olympics this summer, he said, "Look at all these guys in one place. This is a buffet to me. It's like lobster and steak all at once."
Even with Steve's propensity for overstatement, people in the golf industry take him seriously. Over the last 11 years companies and individuals have donated utility carts, golf carts, fairway mowers, a tri-plex greens mower, fertilizer, sprayers, seed and every measure of parts, rollers and reels. This summer, Stock Building Supply, in Kalispell, donated $84,000 to build a storage facility to house all the equipment. In a chance meeting with a Charleston, S.C., course developer at this year's Masters, Steve persuaded the man to donate a backhoe. Over the last few years Steve raised enough money to install an irrigation system. In addition to donating about $10,000 worth of herbicides and pesticides, the Environmental Science division of Bayer, an international chemical company, also sponsored Steve and John on trips to conventions to solicit money. The Eureka Rural Development Partners, an area economic empowerment organization, has also helped Steve land a $10,000 USGA grant to make various improvements to the course.