When Wally Markham heard that he might have just won $7.5 million, he was playing cards at Smitty's, a dingy sports bar in downtown Waterloo, Iowa, that has hockey sticks on the walls and dollar bills tacked to the ceiling. The phone call came from Markham's neighbor, Craig McIntyre, who had heard on the news that the winning ticket in that week's Hot Lotto Sizzler had been purchased at the Kwik Stop on Texas Street, the same convenience store where Markham had been buying lotto tickets for years.
"Well, okay," Markham said nonchalantly. "I'll check the numbers when I get home."
Markham finished his game and bid his farewells. When he arrived at his house, he called McIntyre, who had located the six winning numbers in the Sunday paper.
McIntyre read. Markham listened.
Markham said nothing.
"So, Wally, how'd you fare?!"
"I won," Markham said flatly.
"That's all you're going to say? You won?"
If McIntyre had hoped for a more animated reaction, he needed to find another jackpot winner. Markham, who retired in 2001 after 36 hardworking years at the John Deere plant in Waterloo, has never been the type to do cartwheels on the lawn.
Four days later, Markham, then 65, and his girlfriend, Vicky Lindquist, drove two hours west to Des Moines to validate his winning ticket at the Iowa Lottery headquarters. Officials ushered the couple into a room where Markham answered a litany of questions.
"What did you buy that day?" an official asked.
Markham rattled off the lotto tickets he had bought — 22 in all.
"No, you bought something else," the official said.
"Oh, two 30-packs of Busch Light," Markham replied.
"They knew everything," Markham says now. "My address, my phone number, what I bought that day. They knew everything about me."
Well, not quite everything. At least one question remained unanswered: what Markham would do with his windfall.
La Porte City Golf Club, a hilly nine-holer flanked by cornfields 15 miles south of Waterloo, had never been flush with cash; it's tough to turn a profit when green fees start at $11 and six beers in a cooler are just a buck more. But since opening in 1927, the quirky layout with an oak tree in the middle of the sixth fairway had been a popular hangout in the city of La Porte (pop. 2,293). Even in hard times, the club had always managed to stay afloat.
That started to change in 2008 when a devastating flood ravaged much of eastern Iowa, submerging the course under so much mucky water that some flagsticks were barely visible. The swell took weeks to recede and the saturated layout didn't reopen until the fall, putting a serious strain on the club's coffers. Several months later, the club weathered another financial blow when a construction project on the road next to the property forced would-be golfers on a five-mile detour to access the parking lot. Some golfers stayed home. Others played elsewhere.
The reeling economy didn't help matters either. "It was getting to be a run-down club," says club manager Nancy Riley. "People were falling back on memberships and didn't really want to come out.
"It was almost like we had to have people buy beer before we could order the beer to get it in here. Even for basic supplies, we had to rob Peter to pay Paul."
Riley multitasked as best she could, occasionally hopping on a riding mower to cut the grass outside the clubhouse, which needed countless upgrades of its own. Some of La Porte's retiree members pitched in, trimming a tree here, mending a leaky toilet there. "Every time they'd come out, someone would say, 'Oh, can you fix this?' " Riley says. "They stopped coming. It just wasn't fun."
Bartenders were scolded for pouring too stiff a drink. The rickety maintenance equipment constantly required repairs. Board meetings devolved into squabbles. "No money and bills, bills, bills," says 87-year-old Wilbur Engelkes, a retired high school a member at La Porte since 1966, when the course had sand greens. "It couldn't have been any fun at all to be on that board of directors."
It wasn't much fun at the club, period. "There were so many times I'd come out here and I'd be out on the course by myself," says Craig Richmond, another longtime member. "It was like my own private country club."
But not in a good way. Empty tee sheets. Fierce infighting. Crippling debt.
La Porte City Golf Club was dying.
Markham is as rooted to Iowa as its cornstalks. He was born in Cedar Rapids, spent some time in Dubuque, then moved to Waterloo when his father opened a fast-food joint called Chicken on Wheels. Wally attended West Waterloo High School, where he was a star wrestler, then took a job shoveling sand in the foundry at the Deere plant, launching a career that would span nearly four decades.
When he joined La Porte City Golf Club in 1990, Markham wasn't much of a golfer.("Wasn't worth a s— then," he says, "and I'm not worth a s— now.") But he adored the game. He had two children from a marriage that didn't last, including a son, Adam, who had Down syndrome and died in 1992 at age 20. During the last couple years of Adam's life, father and son spent many happy hours together on the fairways of La Porte.
"Adam loved golf, really loved it," Markham says. "He wasn't a good player, but we were out in the fresh air and we'd drive around in the cart — matter of fact, he even got to drive the cart. That was a big deal for him.
"And then all of a sudden he started getting really sick…"
Markham's eyes well up. He grows quiet. He says no more.
As the years rolled by, Markham spent more and more time at the club, playing or visiting several days a week. He'd cut grass, fix doors, fill the bird feeders, whatever he could do to help. A couple of years ago, Doug Coffin, who works on the grounds crew, blew out his Achilles. "He had a wife and kids and he was wondering whether he was going to get paid or not," Richmond says. "Wally took it upon himself to step right into Doug's shoes and he did his job for him so Doug could keep getting paid. That told me a lot about what kind of person Wally is."
Markham may be a softy at heart, but you wouldn't guess it. He curses like a trucker, growls like a chainsaw, and downs Bud Light as if it were Powerade. He has thick arms, silver hair, and a neatly cropped mustache. He jokingly refers to himself to as "Mr. Wonderful" and often employs folksy sayings to get a point across. Ask Markham a question that he deems to have an obvious answer and he might say, "Does a big brown bear bellow when you bat him in the balls?"
Above all, though, Markham's friends say, he is loyal and protective of the things he loves. Which is why La Porte's demise so troubled him.
"Wally cares deeply about this place," says Russ Bartz, a La Porte member who worked with Markham at Deere. "It really bothered him that a golf course that was so important to the community wasn't what it could be."
By November of 2011 money was so tight at the club that it was taking out loans just to pay its December bills. If the club was to survive, it didn't just need a new owner, it needed somebody with deep pockets and a genuine desire to see the place thrive. Somebody like Wally Markham.
Markham actually had visions of buying his beloved club long before he hit the jackpot. He had socked away a tidy savings in his 401(k) and toyed with the idea of making an offer. He knew he would be a caring proprietor. So did Markham's friends. The board, however, needed convincing. A couple of other potential investors had come forward and some board members feared that the bargain-bin asking price — about $150,000 — would motivate buyers to turn a quick buck rather than turn the club around. "They were afraid Wally was going to turn the land into high-dollar housing," says Tim Connor, who served on the board until 2010.
One proposed solution involved Markham paying off the club's debt while the board stayed put. Markham balked. If he was going to buy the place, he was going to run it. Markham had the resounding support of the membership, and in late November 2011, at the best-attended board meeting that anyone could remember, the board acquiesced. Markham was in.
It's a steamy Thursday morning in July, three months after the club's grand reopening. White-haired men sip coffee at crowded tables in the clubhouse, readying for a league match. The Golf Channel plays on a flat-screen television above a stone fireplace. Downstairs, where a new bathroom and offices are under construction, the buzzing of power tools fills the air. Markham peers up at a damp spot on the ceiling where a new furnace has just been installed. "Son of a bitch is already leaking," he says.
Markham notices every glitch on his new investment, but the enhancements he has helped finance are far more eyecatching: lusher fairways; new landscaping and stonework outside the clubhouse; a new fleet of carts; and, for the grounds crew, a new tractor and mowers. He gave Riley, his manager, who had been making $7 an hour, a raise. Two months later, he gave her another one. "She's a godsend," Markham says. "Some nights she'd go home at 2 o'clock in the morning and she'd be back here at 5 in the morning."
The most obvious sign of improvement sits out front: the new parking lot. What was once a dusty expanse is now glistening blacktop. That might not sound like a big deal but it was to the residents of La Porte. When word got out about the new lot, locals came out in droves for a drive-by viewing. "There was a parade of cars," Markham says. "I just kept thinking of Field of Dreams with all those cars coming in. It was just like that."
New business has poured in, too. The club has added 70 members since last year and revenue has tripled, thanks in part to a $400 junior membership that Markham introduced to attract young families. Markham also did away with social fees; anyone can now drop by for a drink, and plenty do. The once-sleepy après-golf crowd has turned lively. Dozens of revelers now pack the patio, eating, drinking and singing along to tunes from an old-time jukebox. (Neil Diamond's Sweet Caroline is a favorite.) Markham might buy a round or two, and members play chipping games and corn toss deep into the night. Markham's nickname for his new playground: "Augusta North."
"We all won," Riley says. "I think that's plain and simple: we all won the jackpot."
It's not all one big party, of course. Running a golf course is serious, stressful business. Markham frets over dollar spot on his greens and watercress on his fairways. He sweats the cost of irrigating his land in the hot, dry Iowa summers. He faces the endless question of what to renovate next. There's a reason Jack Fleck, the 1955 U.S. Open champion from nearby Bettendorf, was floored when he heard on a recent visit to Waterloo that Markham had purchased a golf course.
"He bought a what?" Fleck said, according to Markham. "He's crazier than s—."
"He can call me whatever he wants to," Markham says. "But all I can tell you is that the city of La Porte has a golf course. That means something. It means a lot."
Markham wasn't at Smitty's, his go-to watering hole, on a recent afternoon, but a few other patrons were. A woman sat at the bar feeding dollar bills into a gaming machine. Five older men filled stools around a table. Directly above their heads, pinned to the ceiling, was the jumbo check that the Iowa Lottery presented to Markham after his win, a supersize memento of his good fortune.
One of the men, 73-year-old Ed Schumann, rose and walked to the bar to fetch a vodka. Schumann played on Tour in the Sixties and served in the Army under his Tour-pro pal, Orville Moody, before taking the head pro job at Sunnyside Country Club in Waterloo. In 1973, Schumann built a practice range in town. He's seen interest in the game flourish and now, he said, wane. He said kids aren't as driven as they once were to learn the game. "We can't get them out of bed," he said.
Schumann's business felt the pinch, forcing him to sell his facility to a real-estate developer in 2012. The old pro knows better than most, then, what Markham's investment has meant not only to La Porte City Golf Club but also to the game in general in their corner of the heartland.
"What Wally did…" Schumann began, staring down into his glass. "What Wally did was a wonderful, wonderful thing."
This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Golf Magazine, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Golf Magazine and to learn about Golf Magazine All Access.