More than 1,000 student-athletes will compete for six national championships when the NCAA, in conjunction with Bellarmine University and Greater Louisville Sports Commission, plays host to the 2012 NCAA Division II National Championships Festival on May 15-19 in Louisville, Ky.
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Editor's note: This is the first in a series highlighting individuals responsible for the staging of the Division II National Championships Festival.
Chris Wertz/Creative Street
By David Pickle
When student-athletes tee it up for the 2012 Division II Women’s Golf Championships, they will have the rare opportunity to share someone else’s life.
Owner Lawren Just had five children with her husband Elmore, but it’s not far-fetched to call Persimmon Ridge Golf Course the eighth member of the family. The course has experienced a loving birth, caring growth and a tragic death. If 774 acres can possess a personality, then Persimmon Ridge most certainly has one.
Persimmon Ridge, as the name suggests, is rooted in wooden golf clubs. In 1974, Elmore Just and partner Steve Taylor each invested their life savings of $3,000 in a new business. Elmore was of modest means but had worked his way to a Bellarmine degree as a member of the golf team. Taylor did not have a high school education, but he was a genius at making equipment. Together, they created Louisville Golf, which became one of the world’s largest manufacturers of wooden-headed golf clubs. The company continues to thrive, albeit in a different form with the industry-wide shift to metal heads.
The summer after Elmore Just died, his widow Lawren was walking through the dining room at Persimmon Ridge Golf Club.
“One of my members said, ‘Elmore got my golf ball on the seventh hole today,’ ” she said.
Lawren knew that the family cemetery was well away from the green.
“I said, ‘Oh, gosh, you hit that far right?’ And he said, ‘No, I birdied the seventh hole.’ And I looked at him kind of funny.”
The golfer didn’t know it at the time, but he had just started a tradition. Whenever a golfer birdies the seventh hole at Persimmon Ridge, they leave a ball on Elmore’s grave.
“I would walk down to his gravesite every day, sometimes more than once,” Lawren said. “It gave me inspiration to go on. I would notice that there were one or two golf balls, and then a week or two later there were three or four balls. Today, there are almost 1,000 golf balls on his grave. They just keep sinking lower and lower, and eventually they’ll probably get six feet down to his casket.”
In any event, Lawren is no longer puzzled when a member says “Elmore got my golf ball today.”
Her response comes with a single word: “Congratulations!”
In the 1970s and ’80s, however, Louisville Golf was a huge concern – a sufficiently big success that it allowed Elmore to pursue his dream of building his own course.
“He decided he was going to build a golf course that the average avid golfer, whether he was a line worker or whether he was a bank president or CEO, could enjoy,” Lawren said.
The dream depended on the land.
“We looked two and a half years for a piece of property because Elmore was a naturalist, and he wanted the golf course built into the lay of the land and not manufactured,” Lawren said.
When the realtor’s call came, Elmore was immediately intrigued.
“He came out, walked it, came home that evening and said, ‘Pack the kids up. We need to walk this land,’ ” Lawren said. “And for six months, we came out here with backpacks and diaper bags, and we walked the land seven days a week.”
Aerial maps and topographic maps were ordered, and in December 1986, the land was purchased.
“The more Elmore played on our dining room table with layouts of golf holes, the more he realized this was a truly great piece of property,” Lawren said.
That meant the Justs needed a truly great architect.
Like Elmore, Arthur Hills was (and is) a naturalist. Those two formed a special team beginning in March 1987. The course was built with reverence for the Earth, especially when it came to treatment of trees.
“Art said to the engineers, ‘I need a tree survey on this area of the property where the first 18 holes will be built,” Lawren said. “They asked, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I want a documentation of the location on an aerial map – the location, the species, the height and the diameter – of every tree 18 inches or larger.’ ”
The engineers were speechless. They had no idea how to price such a request and, besides, they didn’t even know the species of half the trees.
“I’ll do it,” Elmore said.
Elmore left Louisville Golf for six weeks to survey the trees. “We spent every day out here, seven days a week with an aerial map, dotting where we were standing,” Lawren said. “He talked into a Dictaphone and said, ‘This is a 200-foot sugar maple and it’s 24 inches in diameter and it’s at this location.’
“We put in a number, a dot on the map and we documented 457 trees with pictures, location and what they were. We sent that to Art. He had never had anyone be so thorough on a tree survey, but it was something Elmore enjoyed doing.”
The only question involved the construction of the second green, where Hills wanted to move more dirt than suited Elmore. “Elmore said, ‘Art, I told you I don’t want anything manufactured,’ ” Lawren said. “Art looked at him and said, ‘Elmore, you hired me to do a job. This is going to be one of the greatest holes on this property.’ And to this day, members love to hate that hole.”
The course opened in June 1989 and fulfilled its promise. Memberships sold quickly, and critical acclaim abounded. Golf Digest ranked it among the best courses in Kentucky, and it still rates No. 2 behind only Valhalla, site of a Ryder Cup and a PGA Championship (Lawren said many who frequent both courses prefer Persimmon Ridge).
Although Louisville Golf struggled for a while when metal heads became the norm, life was good for the Just family – until April 21, 2001.
Elmore was playing on a Sunday morning with three of his employees from Louisville Golf. He was 53 years old, and the picture of health. As always, he was walking.
“He noticed on the front nine he was struggling keeping up with his playing partners, which was really unusual,” Lawren said. “As he came off the golf course, he became ill, and I rushed him to the hospital. He was having a massive heart attack.”
After they stabilized Elmore, the doctors allowed Lawren to see him. Tubes were running everywhere as the panicked Lawren asked, “What happened? What happened?”
“Well,” said Elmore, “I shot a 38 on the front.”
A quadruple bypass did no good, and Elmore died the next day. Lawren, however grief-stricken, took comfort in his little joke at the end.
“That was one of the last things he said to me,” she said, “and golf was that important to him. I think if golf can be that important to so many people until the day they actually die, what a great game it is.”
And so, for the memory of Elmore and because she wanted to, Lawren fought to stay in the game.
Like Lawren, Elmore’s family was in shock. Four of his brothers worked at Louisville Golf; one of them, Mike, was selected as president (he continues in that role today). Lawren, who held Elmore’s stock in Louisville Golf, then turned her attention to the course.
She wasn’t ready to return to the office and face all the condolences, so her staff came to her at her home by the ninth tee.
“It was a difficult meeting,” she said. “I probably cried through more of the meeting than I talked, but my staff here is tremendous and I told them, ‘We’re going to move forward with this course. We can do it. This is what he wanted me to do.’ ”
To that point, Lawren’s role with the course had been limited to working with the engineers and developing the surrounding land. She owned a waste-water company and a real estate firm. Now she had a golf course and a club manufacturing company.
“It would have been really easy to say I can’t do it,” she said, “but that was never in our makeup. You don’t walk away from a dream. You pull up your boots by the bootstraps and you dig in and you keep going.”
Persimmon Ridge passed through the immediate crisis of 2001, but recent times have been almost as difficult. The real estate crash of the last five years has been especially vexing.
“Golf is paid for with discretionary income, and there’s not much of that right now,” Lawren said. “So as good as things were five or six years ago, we’re facing challenges again. But I’ve faced worse, and we’ll get through this just like we’ve gotten through other challenges.
“It comforts me to know I have a pretty good guardian angel watching over me.”
When the NCAA announced that the Division II National Championships Festival was coming to Louisville, Persimmon Ridge owner Lawren Just was given a choice: She could host the men’s or women’s championship.
She didn’t hesitate. She chose the women.
“I think it’s great for these young women to come out and see that Persimmon Ridge is owned by a woman,” she said. “Four of my management staff are women. One of my superintendents on the course is female.”
The point, Just said, is that women have golf roles that go beyond simply playing the game.
“It’s an important lesson to see that women can do a lot of things,” she said. “That glass ceiling that everyone says is there for women, I believe it’s still there but I believe a lot of women have broken through.
“I’m not really a women’s libber, I’m really not a feminist, but I am a hard worker. I think that’s an important lesson to young women: that if you work hard and you set your goals, there’s no reason you can’t achieve them.”
Just also believes in the relationship between community and golf. The advertising for the subdivision surrounding Persimmon Ridge even says “Not a subdivision; a community.”
Her late husband Elmore took that to heart when they were developing home sites. He would drop a ball on the course and then deliberately hit the biggest hook or slice imaginable to see where it would land. “He’d say, ‘I want homeowners to be able to be able to enjoy their backyard, and I don’t want golfers to feel like they’re going to tighten up because they’re afraid they’re going to hit a house.’ ”
The community relationship is mutual. Just knows all of the homeowners and has enlisted their help for the Division II Women’s Championship. In the event of bad weather, several homes along the course will provide shelter.
Just first tried the concept during the 2007 Women’s Trans National Championship and was overwhelmed with the response. A similar appeal to the homeowners this time yielded the same results.
“We have three or four people per golf hole who said, ‘We’ll do it,’ ” she said. “That just speaks so highly of the community feeling and the excitement that we have not just at Persimmon Ridge but that all of the Persimmon Ridge community has to bring these women here and compete in this event.”