A Sterling Education

After eight decades as a private club, the oldest course on the Eastern Plains begins a new, public life as part of the local junior college.

The eastern plains of Colorado stretch out like an ocean, a vast and tumbling landscape of earth and sky. Enormous views sweep to the horizon in every direction. Summer thunderheads rise to the west. Wind constantly howls. The history of these plains is mainly that of those who travel across them, looking for something that only a few find in the small towns that defy the odds to become permanent outposts in this wide-open wilderness.

Sterling, set along the South Platte River 128 miles northeast of Denver, is one of those towns. Originally a stop for dusty pioneers on the Oregon Trail, the town itself came to be when a forward-thinking businessman persuaded the Union Pacific Railroad to build a station in the small settlement. By the early 1900s, Sterling had grown into a regional market and transportation center. Golf couldn’t be far behind.

When the Sterling Country Club opened for play in 1922, built by Henry T. Hughes (who had honed his craft by working with the legendary Donald Ross at The Broadmoor just a few years prior), it settled onto its slightly rolling terrain and became the town’s premier social institution and, by most accounts, the top golf club on the Eastern Plains. The club enjoyed home-and-home matches with such lofty opponents as Denver Country Club and Lakewood Country Club. Its Labor Day Invitational became a fixture on the state’s amateur circuit (and still is—this year will mark the 87th playing), with a list of champions that includes the Eastern Plains’ greatest golfer, 1996 U.S. Open champion Steve Jones of Yuma.

As you work your way around the golf course, you can almost hear the laughter and ribbing that has risen from this property for some 90 years.  Facility coordinator Judy Robinson fondly recalls the days when Sterling Country Club was the only game in town.

“This was the family and social center of Sterling,” she says.  “We had golf, tennis, the pool.  It was a different world.  There were up to 450 members and families at one point.  The poker games never ended.  The matches on the golf course were legendary, and even in the winter we were able to keep the spirit alive by putting together all kinds of crazy indoor golf games.  There was live music – any reason to have a party.”

That classic era came to an end in 2001 when a fire destroyed the old clubhouse that was home to so many memories and shenanigans over the years.

“Once they scooped that hole in the ground, a lot of things were lost forever,” Robinson says.  “Some secrets were told in that dirt, and others disappeared with it.  It was never really the same after that.” 

Yet, the 2010 Labor Day Invitational will unfold on the same golf course as the previous 86. Competitors will face the same tricky greens and negotiate the same hazards. But this year’s event won’t take place at Sterling Country Club. Nor will it take place at Pawnee Pines Country Club, the name a group of members chose when they took over club ownership in 2005. No, this year’s Labor Day Invitational will take place take place at Northeastern 18 Golf Course, the unlikely name chosen by the new, unlikely owner of the historic golf course and grounds—Northeastern Junior College.

It might be virtually de rigueur for today’s top universities to own and operate a golf course. But at Sterling, the innovative arrangement between the college and the course represents the best opportunity for Sterling’s historic golf course to remain open—while delivering a bonus to the institution that has become an integral part of Sterling life since its 1941 founding.

“We see the facility as a live learning environment,” says Northeastern Director of Marketing Services Barbara Baker. “We intend to use the golf course for turfgrass management classes and other agricultural training. The restaurant (the Plainsman Grill) will support culinary arts classes, and we will incorporate some business courses as well. And, of course, our athletic department is going to field a golf team.”

First and foremost, however, the golf course must remain viable, and that means making the transition from longtime private club to a public facility. For that, Northeastern 18 has brought a familiar face back Sterling’s golf community. PGA Director of Golf Vernon Harbart served in the same capacity at Sterling Country Club from 1986 to 1999 and thus represents a link between the erstwhile club and the new daily-fee college course. Harbart, a soft-spoken Nebraska native, has spent most of his professional life on the plains of eastern Colorado, most recently at Fort Morgan Golf Course.

In the early 2000s, Harbart explains, “Sterling Country Club found itself facing the same difficulties as many other clubs. There were fewer members and higher operational costs. The Pawnee Pines group loved the place and wanted to keep it going, but there was more to operating a golf course than they might have realized. Today, I think the potential is outstanding.”

That potential comes courtesy of longtime Sterling (and Pawnee Pines) Country Club members Frank Walsh and his son, Bill. Frank Walsh, a Texas oilman, moved his family from Houston to Sterling more than 50 years ago. Today, the Walsh family focuses on community philanthropy. The family has provided for a popular public swimming pool. It has also helped fund a cancer treatment center that will soon open at the local hospital. So it’s little surprise that, after watching Pawnee Pines quickly descend into the same financial mess that had brought down Sterling Country Club, the Walsh family came up with a community-based idea: A donation to Northeastern Junior College for the express purpose of acquiring the golf course and club facilities.

“My son Bill decided it would be best to give the club to the college, that making it public was one way for the place to survive. We also thought this would best for the town. Sterling has been a great place for us for all these years. Our children grew up here. Our grandchildren are here. On top of that, it’s a nice little golf course. It has meant something to the town, and we thought this could give it an advantage. The college pays no property taxes. That removes one major expense. And there may be other advantages. They have a number of ideas.”

Harbart stands at the window of his golf shop, overlooking the first and tenth tees. The course itself is impervious to the changes on the deeds, the tax structures and the access policies. It lays on the sun-baked hill, just as it has since the first nine holes opened in 1922. Today, when Front Range golfers think of the eastern plains, they may think of Tom Doak’s acclaimed links course at Ballyneal in Holyoke. Or they may think of the western Nebraska tandem of Bayside in Ogallala and Wild Horse in Gothenburg. Harbart wants to remind those same golfers that Northeastern 18 provides not just a glimpse into the history of the game in Colorado but also a good test of golf.

At 6,434 yards from the back tees, the course isn’t long, but what it lacks in muscle it makes up for in character. In keeping with the style of the 1920s, the small, push-up greens serve as the first line of defense. Grassy hollows and sand bunkers will challenge the poor wedge player, and the greens themselves have enough slope to be dangerous.

The most surprising element of Northeastern 18 is the subtle elevation change on the golf course. Each of the par-3 holes plays slightly uphill, adding a touch of uncertainty to the tee shots. The par-four eighth hole requires a blind tee shot over a ridge—an old-fashioned periscope set behind the tee box lets players gauge when it’s safe to hit—into a flat area, leaving a delicate pitch over a farmer’s ditch that abuts the front of the green.

The golf course retains much of its small-town club feel, but today “memberships” come in the form of annual passes available to town residents and ranging in price from $480 for and individual senior to $990 for an entire family.  Exclusivity—whether it was real or simply a perception held by members in the “old days”—has given way to economic necessity, social change and a new community dynamic.  The Phoenix has risen from the ashes, but in a form that perhaps no one expected.  And yet the history remains.

Harbart notes that Northeastern 18’s history is both its greatest asset and its biggest challenge. “It’s a big change to convert from a private to a public facility,” he says. “But I think as people in town get accustomed to the new setup—and with the involvement of the college and its support—we have great things on the horizon. The message I want to get to all the Front Range golfers: We are open for business and would love to have you.”

Northeastern 18
17408 Highway 14
Sterling CO, 80751
(970) 521-6889
The course is open to the public seven days a week
Green fee:   $25/18 holes
Cart fee:   $25