New director aims for upswing in golf

Carolyn Van Houten/The Herald
John Bertges taught a golf lesson to Allie Schnarr, 9, left, and her cousin Tyler Atkins, 8, both of Jasper, on Wednesday at Ruxer Municipal Golf Course. Bertges is the City of Jasper’s new director of golf, giving the city a teaching professional for the first time since the current Buffalo Trace Course opened in 1971. Bertges also has plans to add new events and activities to promote the sport’s growth in the area.

Herald Sports Editor

John Bertges is selling golf. Lessons, clinics, 18-hole rounds. You name it.

But, as much as anything, Bertges is in the business of selling the game itself. It’s why the 47-year-old golf pro started working in Jasper nearly a month ago. And it’s revealed in his face-to-face interaction with clients, including one man who visited the Ruxer Municipal Golf Course pro shop Saturday afternoon to pick up two buckets of balls for the driving range.

“My name’s John, by the way,” Bertges said, extending a hand.

“Rich,” the customer replied, reciprocating the handshake.

“You come here much?” Bertges inquired.

“A little bit...” the man said.

That’s the essence of Bertges’ mission, to lure those “sometimes” people into regular, golf-devouring patrons. Bertges was hired last month as the City of Jasper’s new director of golf, a position that’s been re-branded to be part politician, part teaching pro.

Hiring Bertges was part of the city’s movement to market the sport on a wider scope — Jasper Municipal Golf Course’s name was recently changed to Buffalo Trace in a move to market the course to more out-of-towners, and Bertges was brought in to drum up fervor for the sport a little closer to home.

It was time to bring on someone like the affable Bertges, said Park and Recreation Department director Ken Buck, noting that since the course now called Buffalo Trace has been open since 1971, there had never been a teaching pro.

“That’s what we were looking for: a lesson teacher and a marketer,” Buck said.

“Basically we need more people playing and more interest in golf. ... We just think golf can go to another level; the town’s grown a lot, and we’re going to experiment and see how this works out.”

The agent for change is Bertges, a Bloomington native who’s spent his career crisscrossing the country — and the globe — accumulating experience. He competed in the PGA’s minor leagues before steering his career toward teaching the game, training under former Senior PGA champion Tom Wargo in Florida and spending time at the renowned PGA West course in California where he saw famed pros such as Jack Nicklaus and Fred Couples honing their game. Bertges also coached college golf at Millikin University, helped launch teaching certification programs in China and hopped from South Carolina to Mississippi to Arizona and points in between to teach at vacation golf schools.

The wanderlust has taken him practically everywhere, but Bertges calls the relocation to Dubois County “the best move I’ve ever made.” For one, it’s close to roots for he and wife Dana and their two children. Dana, who John met at the Schnitzelbank while working at a golf school at French Lick in the early 1990s, is originally from the area and her 10 siblings are scattered nearby. Another lure for Bertges, who’s lived in Ferdinand the last 6 1⁄2 years while operating the On Target Golf School in Evansville that he developed with a few other teaching pros, is the potential he sees in the community.

Bertges goes down the list of sports he says are “huge” in Jasper — baseball, basketball, football, tennis — and wonders aloud: “Why can’t golf be as big as these other” sports?

“Maybe the reason is just something’s missing passionwise, or maybe someone that can help bring a little more passion to the game or make someone’s game a little more enjoyable than it was before,” he said.

Bertges has adopted something of a three-step system to accomplish that: Make folks feel welcome, make it fun and make their games better.

The handshakes help satisfy the first pillar. That tricky final step of mending crooked swings and putting yips requires more work but is attainable for anyone regardless of talent or experience level, insists Bertges, who’s given more than 30,000 lessons over the last 25-plus years.

While traditional lessons can flood students with an overabundance of steps — the stance, the hip turn, the back-swing, the follow-through — Bertges’ approach is to ingrain each step into muscle memory. It’s the methodology Bertges used to take Aaron Monson from an 80 golfer to the winner of the 2009 Indiana PGA Open, where he won the event as an amateur by shooting a 63.

“We do one thing and do it over and over, go on to the second thing,” he said. “You get good at golf the same way you get good at anything else, table tennis or air hockey: you repeat it until you can do it without fault.”

As for the fun part? Bertges is working on it.

He’s planned a Golf Fun Day and Night for May 30 at Ruxer, with putting and driving contests, free tips and clinics on the driving range, music and burgers plus a three-hole tournament after dark geared toward kids with glow-in-the-dark tees, balls and flags.

He’s already toured schools to try and kindle golf interest with kids. He plans on keeping the driving range open longer in the summer, wants to install new club cleaners and back racks at the municipal courses and, in a year’s time, has visions of live club-fitting being offered to golfers at the pro shop. Also in the works are camps and leagues for players of all age levels and abilities, as well as city tournaments in the summer for men, women and juniors.

“I’m moving as fast and as hard as I can,” he said of the activities.

It’s all in the name of denting at the number of 90 million. A PGA estimate says that’s the number of people who consider themselves golfers but don’t play anymore. One handshake, one lesson and one glowing golf ball at a time, Bertges wants to keep transforming the “used-to” golfers into regulars.

“I’m now rejuvenated and re-passionate again for the first time in a long time, because this is in my backyard ... and I just see a huge amount of potential,” said Bertges, adding that he was starting to consider career options outside of golf before moving to the Jasper position. “I see a lot of things we can do here for the city and that I can do to help people get better at the game.”

Contact Brendan Perkins

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