By Kyle Darbyson
Through the highs and lows, Robert Elwinger has soldiered on at Over Lake Golf Course
It’s one thing to turn your waterlogged farm into an 18-hole golf course, but another thing altogether to run a course successfully for more than 50 years. If you’re Robert Elwinger, however, you do both—even without the use of one arm. This story might sound incredible, yet it’s just another chapter in the fascinating life of the bright, articulate, 81-year-old owner of Over Lake Golf Course in Girard, Pennsylvania.
Elwinger’s tale begins decades earlier, when his family owned a farm near the city of Erie. “We had a little fruit stand along the highway where we sold sweet corn, pumpkins and all sorts of vegetables,” he recounts. “It was a really special time.”
After serving in the Armed Forces, Elwinger returned to Erie in 1952 to help his parents work the land, a job he assumed he would have for the rest of his life. But when an accident robbed him of nearly all the use of his left arm, Elwinger realized the physical demands of farming would be too much. “My mom and dad were getting on in age, and we knew something had to give,” he notes.
So, without ever having picked up a club, Elwinger proposed converting the land into a golf course, an idea he believes “came in a dream.” His family agreed to the decision, but problems began to mount almost immediately. When Elwinger approached his local bank to ask for $24,000 to build the course, they responded by “laughing” and saying, “No way.”
The rejection forced the resourceful farmer to get creative. Elwinger couldn’t afford to hire an architect, so he joined the local chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and leaned on his colleagues for advice so he could design the course himself. “They explained drainage, routing, not facing finishing holes into the sun, things like that,” he says.
Without money, the only collateral Elwinger had was his word. “I approached a local contractor to form the greens and told him I couldn’t pay him, but he’d be the first person I paid when the course opened,” he says. Less than one year later, Elwinger paid the man in full.
Not surprisingly, the lean budget forced Elwinger and his family to do much of the work themselves. He and his dad seeded all the greens with hand rakes, dug six miles of drainage ditches, and laid drain tile every 50 feet in particularly wet fairways. The entire project took less than 12 months. “I like to say we went from pumpkins to golf in a year,” Elwinger quips.
Over Lake Golf Course opened its first nine holes in 1960, with green fees priced at $9. A few years later, Elwinger bought an adjacent 80-acre parcel, added nine holes, and hasn’t looked back since.
Anyone searching for folksy wisdom or knowledge gleaned over five decades of golf course ownership will be disappointed to learn Elwinger attributes his long-time success to one simple thing: hard work. But a closer look at his operation shows a few other things that have helped.
For starters, his bank’s original lack of foresight turned out to be a blessing, as it allowed Elwinger to navigate the early days of course ownership without the stress and obligations of debt hovering over him. “I’m not sure if I would have survived [had he had to service a loan],” he says.
His timing was good, too. “When I started out, there was one public golf course within 45 miles of me; now, there are 50.”
The barriers to entry were also less burdensome when Elwinger started in the golf industry in 1961. “My first greensmower cost me $375 or something like that. Now, we go with a Toro three-gang that costs close to $30,000.”
Though times have changed and the cost of just about everything has risen, Elwinger has managed to always keep his overhead low. “My full-time staff is three,” he notes. His wife oversees the clubhouse, runs carts and watches the bar during the day, while Elwinger and his seasonal help maintain the course.
This no-frills approach might not fly for a lot of courses built around superior service, but it’s allowed Over Lake to survive downturns, recessions and stiff competition over the years. Elwinger’s focus on premier conditions has also enabled Over Lake to stand out in a crowded market.
“Without a doubt it’s one of the best-kept courses in the area,” admits Rick Williams, general manager of the nearby Elk Valley Golf Course. “He just does it right.”
After years of 16-hour days at Over Look, most would expect Elwinger to take some well-earned rest, but this energetic octogenarian shows no signs of slowing down. “I still mow fairways seven days a week!” he proclaims.
What’s more, Elwinger has parlayed his financial success with the golf course into several other businesses and allowed him to buy what he calls “a nice play in the Florida Keys.” He spends winters there now, but every spring Elwinger heads back north to prep his labor of love for another season.
Kyle Darbyson is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.