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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
If you were playing behind them, they were the fivesome from hell. A severely nearsighted and partially deaf 17-year-old boy whiffed and shanked balls. An older man, presumably the boy's father, topped shots and hit wild slices. A woman, presumably the boy's mother, took occasional swipes with a persimmon driver. The fourth and fifth members of the group, two hackers with baseball grips, drove ground balls into the trees. No one enjoys a six-hour round of golf--particularly not in Montana, where the wildlife outnumbers the people--so the group behind the slowpokes began to fume. "Make sure you put the pin back in the hole!" one man shouted on the 5th hole of Buffalo Hills Golf Course in Kalispell. More taunts followed until a marshal ushered the disgruntled foursome ahead of the beginners.
The scene upset the 17-year-old, John Espinoza. Before that day he had never set foot on a golf course. Neither had his father, Steve, a California native and Vietnam veteran who had opened the first Mexican restaurant in the tiny Montana town of Eureka (pop. 1,017), 50 miles northwest of Kalispell. "I want my own course," John said to his parents on the drive home that spring day in 1994.
Steve, who owned 10 acres of rolling, timbered land, glanced at his wife, Juana, and then back at the road. Why not? he thought. I'm going to build a course where every person with a disability can come and play and never be rushed again.
Nestled 3 1/2 miles from the Canadian border in the Rocky Mountains, John's Golf Course is an unspectacular, 12-hole, par-39 pitch-and-putt that measures 2,106 yards. There are no bunkers or water hazards. A sign by the dusty gravel driveway leading to the Espinoza place greets visitors to the course; it reads handicapped and disabled, although everyone is welcome. Steve and Juana bought the spread for $15,000 in 1982, when they moved from Los Angeles to the logging town of Eureka to open Espinoza's Authentic Mexican Restaurant. Their 3,300-square-foot pine house, which sits in the middle of the course, doubles as the clubhouse. An assortment of tractors and mowers in various states of disrepair litters the backyard. A couple of woodsheds shelter bags of fertilizer, seed and fungicides.
On the course, the pins have flags bearing the same handicapped logo as the one on a tag in Steve's car that allows him to park his blue Chevy Suburban anywhere he wants. A few golf carts are available, but that's where the resemblance to a typical course ends. At John's Golf Course, players may move their balls from behind trees and drive their carts onto tee boxes. There are no greens fees. In a typical year about 600 rounds are played at the course. John and Steve keep the place going by soliciting donations from corporations and individuals. "It's not Augusta National," says Steve. "It's simply a cow-pasture course built with no money and a dream."
The dream of the Espinoza men is a simple one: Grow and maintain John's Golf Course. "We only want equipment that doesn't break down," says John, now 28. But course maintenance takes money, and the caretakers here don't have much. They struggle to put together the $2,000 a month it takes to maintain the operation. When they can afford diesel fuel for the mowers, they cut the greens every day; when they can't, they mow every two or three days. A pair of USGA-donated 2005 U.S. Open badges that Steve sold on eBay for $840 went toward course-related expenses. The annual fund-raising tournament in July added another $6,000. But without greens fees and outings, it's a constant struggle.
So the question is, Why would a family getting by on veterans' compensation and government disability checks spend money maintaining a free golf course in a place where there's little demand for one?
Seeing John's pride in the course and his dedication to its upkeep begins to answer the question. He was born with Cornelia de Lang syndrome, a congenital disorder that causes several physical and developmental abnormalities. He wears thick glasses for nearsightedness, but they're really only for his left eye; he is almost totally blind in his right eye. He is also 35% to 40% deaf in both ears and has had more than a dozen operations to drain fluid from them. When he was eight he had surgery to repair a cleft palate. Aftereffects from that operation, along with his hearing impairment, make John's speech loud and difficult to understand. While most people with De Lang's have mild to moderate mental retardation, John is highly functioning. He's a pretty ordinary fellow who can wax eloquent about women, music and the hardships of running a golf course on no money. "Golf has made John more confident," says Juana, "but he's always been social."