Clubhouse manager Ryan Hingston, former superintendent Bob Hingston and new superintendent Travis Williams are three big reasons for John P. Larkin Country Club’s recent surge.

During the weeks and months after the old Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company plant shuttered for good, Maxine Griswold stayed on her feet and filled her days waiting tables around Windsor, Vermont.

Griswold had celebrated her 53rd birthday less than a month earlier. She was happy and able to wait tables, but after so many years inside the plant she wanted more. Where was the thrill? Where was the fun?

Just a couple miles south of the plant, as it turned out, inside the clubhouse of a 9-hole golf course.

Over more than 30 springs, summers and falls, Griswold tended bar, collected green fees and generally kept the clubhouse in working order at John P. Larkin Country Club, a public course where a strong and errant drive can land in the Connecticut River and where the tee boxes and clubhouse alike filled up over the years with an incredible cast of characters. There were business leaders, of course, and small business owners, all of them churning and chipping alongside each other. There were the longtime regulars, too, who played three or four rounds every week, then headed inside afterward for a couple more. There was a retired arborist named Jacques who was dubbed Jocko (or perhaps Jacques-o) because everybody in Windsor seems to have a nickname. There were Griswold’s own sons, Dennis, an executive chef, and Don, a mechanic everybody called Grizzy who once considered golf to be “a stupid game” before he started fixing carts and received a set of clubs from his brother. There was Griswold herself, often clapping backs, grabbing behinds and imbibing in an occasional Scotch, to hear Grizzy tell the story.

And, in 1978, there was a young couple, just married and just arrived in Windsor, who joined the club — JPL for short, still another nickname — and started playing most Friday nights. They were in their 20s and already quickly becoming a part of the fabric of the club, a part of the next generation.

But after five or six seasons, they welcomed their first child, a son, and they played less and less often, and then not at all. Life interrupted their time on the links.

More regulars followed their exit, for all sorts of reasons, and JPL struggled. Like so many thousands of other courses across the country, its very survival teetered more than once.

Again and again, it managed to hang on.

Approaching its centennial, John P. Larkin is a community cornerstone for Windsor, the Birthplace of Vermont.
Photo courtesy of Travis Williams

Lifelong learner

Unless you happen to be driving in from Maine, New Hampshire, parts of northern New York or Vermont, or perhaps Quebec, you can follow Interstate 91 North all the way to the Hartland / Windsor exit to reach John P. Larkin Country Club. The course is about two and a half miles off the ramp and it can sneak up on you, a beautiful flash of green as you drive along U.S. Route 5.

Windsor is home to one entrance to what was, for more than 150 years, the country’s longest covered bridge. The Constitution of Vermont, the first document in U.S. history to explicitly ban slavery, was signed in the town back in July 1777 and gives the town its own nickname: the Birthplace of Vermont. Windsor is the kind of place where state championship high school teams receive a police and fire escort through the square, conquering heroes returning to flashing headlights and honking horns.

It is home to JPL, too, one of 21 9-holers and 66 total facilities spread across the Green Mountain State — and to Bob Hingston, the former Windsor High School athletics director and dean of students who started working at the club shortly after he stepped back from those positions in 2015. Hingston worked at a local hardware store and later in sporting goods before shifting full time to coaching but ask around and most everybody knows him as Mr. Windsor. He seemed to be at every Yellowjackets home game for 16 years. He could run for mayor if that post existed.

Hingston maintained a variety of playing fields, courts and surfaces during those years but he had next to no golf course maintenance experience when former JPL superintendent Steve Ashworth mentioned he could use more help outside. Hingston was just shy of his 64th birthday and had started working in the clubhouse earlier that summer, about 20 hours a week. He added some mowing to his schedule. The next summer, he was outside with Ashworth full time.

“Bob picked up things very quickly,” Ashworth says. “You sent him off to do something, it got done. You didn’t have to check it.”

Ashworth retired from the position in 2017 after two full decades at the club — he was the mechanic his first two years — to return to his family farm in Westmoreland, New Hampshire, where he spends days baling hay and tending to bees. The board hired Bo Taft, a talented young turf pro who had worked most recently at The Quechee Club in Quechee, Vermont. Hingston worked alongside Taft as he had Ashworth, soaking up enough knowledge of process and projects that when Taft received an offer he couldn’t turn down early during the 2019 season — superintendent at Hanover Country Club at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire — Hingston was able to step up to interim superintendent. On the brink of 68, Hingston was working more than 70 hours a week.

“Bo gave about a month’s notice so I started drinking up more knowledge from him,” Hingston says. “I knew about mowing, the importance of keeping grass at the right level, mowing in different directions for the health of the plant, watering. Steve was really good about teaching me what to look for on the greens — dollar spot, whether it needed more moisture — and I learned about fertilizers a little bit, but I was a novice for sure. I never thought I would have to run things.”

JPL is a small enough course in terms of acreage and budget that there is almost never money for a traditional assistant superintendent. That first season, Hingston filled his summer crew with three teenagers — a 17-year-old named Dylan DeSchamp who’s now a freshman studying turfgrass at Penn State, a 16-year-old named Caden and a 15-year-old named Cooper.

“The big challenge was there was some stuff I couldn’t have them do,” Hingston says. “Because of his age, I couldn’t have Cooper driving any of the big mowers, I couldn’t have him running the chainsaw when we were cutting brush. He could run a weedwacker and he could run a push-mower, but he had to do a bunch of the grunt work because of his age.”

Hingston promised Friday cheeseburgers from nearby Frazer’s Place if the teenage trio worked hard during the week — though he admits, “I was always going to buy them anyway.” At the end of the first season, Hingston lobbied the board for the three to receive more substantial cash bonuses. The board agreed.

A fan of collaboration and a builder of relationships, Hingston also developed working friendships with several area superintendents just as he had over the years with area athletics directors. That allowed for regular equipment exchanges and afforded JPL the use of a fairway aerator from neighboring Claremont Country Club, just over the river in Claremont, New Hampshire, and a verticutter from Granliden Golf Course in Sunapee, New Hampshire — both thanks to current Granliden general manager Andy Fowler. Hingston supplements his active, on-course education by watching Grizzy work on equipment and breaking down YouTube videos as if they were game film.

“Even at my age, you truly can be a lifelong learner,” says Hingston, who is the son of two educators, the grandson of another, and a graduate of Springfield College, where James Naismith created basketball and Amos Alonzo Stagg helped pioneer modern football. “You’re never too old.”

Developing the future

Hingston is old enough, though, to implement a succession plan for JPL. He will become a septuagenarian this summer, after all.

Prior to the 2020 season, the board hired Travis Williams, more than a quarter of a century Hingston’s junior, who had worked at Claremont as well as at two Colorado courses before a 12-year detour into carpentry. The pandemic delayed the formal superintendent transition by a season and is in full swing as tee sheets start to fill up next month.

Because of the addition of a second fulltime turf pro, the budget allowed for only one of the three teenagers to return last season. In love with turf, DeSchamp dived in while his classmates and former colleagues opted for summer spots with a local landscaping company and a family carpentry business.

“I started to learn how to use the greens mower the first week of my second summer,” DeSchamp says. “My third summer, I continued to mow the greens and I started to mow the fairways and work with Bob and Travis on irrigation.” He can add rough and tee box mowing, and equipment maintenance to his growing résumé, too.

At Penn State, his advisor “is a turf management professor and he was pretty surprised about how far along I’ve come and what I’ve done on courses. I think working at a small 9-hole course with a low number of staff helped. You have to know how to do everything.”

“Dylan is a stud,” Williams says. “He’s going to handle a private golf course someday. … He’s a great student, he’s great at what he does and he can do pretty much everything. And we have him for one more year.”

With Hingston, Williams and DeSchamp on the course this season, JPL should be able to continue a long turnaround that has improved playing conditions, further beautified a course that already has stunning mountain views — and helped add 36 new members last season, increasing the total to 143.

And there is work to do.

“The course is so quirky,” says Williams, who gained an interest in turf after watching his Dad, Larry, mow and stripe their nearby acre and a half plot throughout his childhood. “It’s the fine line between ‘you have to do things a certain way’ and ‘that’s the way they’ve always been done.’

“We have to fix the third green. It’s been every superintendent’s nemesis. We have to fix that this year. The soil is really bad and it just doesn’t grow grass on one corner. It’s embarrassing and it’s looked like that forever. We have to expand the seventh green, too, because that’s gotten shorter and shorter every year. And the eighth green, I have to get control on eight. It’s down in a hole and doesn’t get any air and the mold just takes over.”

“It’s not the longest course and it doesn’t have the biggest undulations in the green,” says Ryan Hingston, the 36-year-old son of Bob and his wife, Candy. Ryan returned to Windsor in late 2019 after six winters in the ski industry to live closer to the rest of his family and now manages the clubhouse. “But golf is a game where you don’t have to have all those crazy challenges in order for it to be a challenge. There are some small greens at JPL and it’s pretty wide open, but we still have a lot of high-level golfers come here and struggle a little bit. As long as you have a good environment and you’re around people you want to be around and everybody’s respectful, it’s still a great day on the golf course.”

Ryan would know. A Windsor native, he played the course probably thousands of times starting around age 10 — about a decade after his parents, once that young couple new to town who became Friday regulars — through high school. The course was a part of his life even when he focused more on baseball and football, playing in a combined three state championship games in those sports and winning one gridiron crown.

The course is still a part of life — not just for Ryan or his parents, but for anybody who wants to play nine or 18 holes.

Every local business is important in a town with fewer than 4,000 residents where every major employer is long gone — Cone Blanchard, a machine tool manufacturer, and the Southeast State Correctional Facility eventually followed Goodyear — and every tax dollar is important. JPL is almost a public trust, but it will never be run as a nonprofit, multiple people around the town say, because its property tax value and annual water bill are too valuable for the town to give up.

“It’s a working man’s course,” says Grizzy, a 17-year member and longtime mechanic who started working on the club’s equipment a couple years ago. “And the people who actually play there are very friendly people. Next thing you know, you have 20 or 30 people sitting on the back deck, having a good time, everybody knows everybody. It’s really nice.”

Everybody’s home course

What does the future hold for 9-holers in general and for JPL in particular? More than one-quarter of all the 14,336 golf facilities across the country contain a 9-hole course — 26.3 percent, to be exact — according to the 2020 Golf Facilities Report published by the National Golf Foundation. Couple that with the increase in rounds played and the corresponding rise of new and returning golfers and an industry more willing than ever before to cater to different skills and play preferences, and that percentage might go up over the next decade.

Photo courtesy of Travis Williams

“The last two, three years, the place has thrown money at the turf,” says Taft, the former superintendent who now handles campus turf at Dartmouth since the school closed Hanover Country Club. Taft is still tied to JPL, talking regularly with Hingston and Williams, and serving as a board member. “They realize we’re offering one thing: a golf course. So a lot of our money went into equipment, went into more chemicals and fertilizers. The place hadn’t had a roller for 20 years. Now we have a roller.”

And the increase in rounds played and members added portends at least another good year or two. And most of the familiar faces will be around.

Williams is the superintendent now, in name and duties, and he seems to have control of most of the quirks. DeSchamp will be back for his fourth and final summer working on the course before heading out for internships and, eventually, the start of his own professional career. The regulars, Grizzy and Jocko and the rest, will cheer him on and probably keep tabs. They might even give him a nickname of his own.

Ryan Hingston is centered on growing the club even more, building back the membership perhaps not to its peak of 400 or so but certainly closer to 160, 180, maybe even 200. Candy Hingston, meanwhile, plans to retire next summer from Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center, and Bob Hingston plans to finally scale back. Not that anybody believes he will, Candy included. “He will never stop working,” she says, “and I don’t want him to. That’s not good for him. That’s not who he is.” (The most popular scenario forecasts him brewing coffee and mowing greens from 5 to 9 every morning.)

Maxine Griswold, though, will be missing.

After more than three decades working in the clubhouse — and working well past her 85th birthday — she suffered a stroke last April and moved into a nursing home earlier this year.

“She ran the place like clockwork,” says Grizzy. “She lived for working there. My Mother ran that club.”

“When you think of the golf course, you think of Maxine,” says Taft, who handed his green fee to Griswold when he played the course growing up. “In Windsor, we live and die by people like Grizzy and Jocko, all the people who come and help us. It’s a close, tightknit community and it takes each one of us to help the place survive.

“Without them, we may not make it.”

But when everybody knows everybody — and everybody supports everybody — even the toughest jobs get a little easier.

Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.