For ten years, I was practically a Sipula, not in blood, but in every other way that mattered. For more than half a century, the Sipula family owned a 9-hole golf course in Ottawa, Illinois. The definitive history of the Sipula family, and of Pine Hills Golf Club, can only properly be written by a Sipula (pronounced SIP-you-luh). Their story is not for me to tell. I can only tell my small part of it, the ten-plus years from about summer of 1968 until summer of 1978, my coming of age years, and the formation of the Sipula dynasty, the creation of the Pine Hills corporation, and a few other events that I was privy to.
The Sipulas were good to me. I love them like I love my own family, maybe in some ways more. Every family has its skeletons in the closet, but if I know any, I will not be sharing them here. There is nothing salacious to tell, really. This is a story about growing up in a golfing family, something that maybe one out of a million kids have the privilege of doing.
How did I stumble into that rarified existence of practically being a Sipula? The golf course (Pine Hills) was located several miles south of Ottawa, out in “the country”. My family built a house a ten minute walk from the golf course, and we moved into that house on July 19, 1968. There really wasn’t much out there for a 11-year old boy to do. The hills were too steep to ride my bike, and the fields were all in corn or cow pastures. So I was drawn onto the course and into the clubhouse, and eventually into the history of the Sipula family.
I became the best friend of Billy Joe, the youngest son of the owner of Pine Hills, and soon I became the protege of the oldest son, Michael, who groomed me to become one of the club pros when I was old enough. I learned to play golf under the tutelage of some very fine teachers of the game, learned how to give golf lessons, how to repair golf equipment, and learned slowly how the business of a golf course works. Billy Joe was a year and a half older than me, and we became inseparable. Michael was 15 years older than me, and his influence in my thinking runs deep inside me to this day.
Their parents, Mike Sr. and Ellawyn Sipula, (Pro and Ma) became my second parents. There were two other Sipula siblings, Johnny and Jimmy. John and Jim were also much older than me, but still had a significant influence in my life.
Forty years later, my friends and family have no idea how close I came to living a very different life from the one I eventually adopted, this life of academics, of math, physics, engineering, and teaching, a life that I had all but ruled out in my middle teens in favor of playing golf and hopefully making it onto the PGA Tour. But nobody familiar with golf today will know my name, neither as a club pro nor as a touring pro.
What remains of the Sipula influence in my life today, forty years later? Much. My memories of those fateful ten years dominate the memories of my youth, of playing golf, of rubbing shoulders with the finest golfing people of a small town, the county seat, of learning business from perhaps the owners of the largest family-owned business in the Illinois Valley, and of growing up in all things Sipula.
My hope is that the Sipulas will look upon this story as a fond looking back at a simpler time, with mostly good memories. The Sipula dynasty continues to this day. The Sipulas no longer own Pine Hills Golf Club, but as a golfing family, it would be hard to find one with more scratch players, club champions, and experts in club management with the same last name. My last name is Johnson, but I still have my memories of what it was like to be a Sipula for that time.