May 22—Wildwood Golf Club, one of Middletown's truly hidden gems, is celebrating its 100th anniversary, and the general manager credits the members and their volunteerism for keeping the course open when other courses closed due to dwindling golfers.
"We made it," said Jordan Lawson, 38, general manager at Wildwood, an 18-hole golf club tucked away in Middletown neighborhoods and protected by vast tree lines. "We made it through the Great Depression, World War II and recessions. We have battled to get here."
Wildwood, then called Middletown Community Golf Club and owned by Armco, opened as a nine-hole course in 1922, and now, 100 years later, the future looks bright as the club embarks on its second century.
Lawson, hired eight years ago after working at city owned Weatherwax Golf Course for 17 years before it closed, said Wildwood's golf memberships have grown to 300 with additional social members.
He has talked to the board about "capping" the membership to keep Wildwood from outgrowing its old-time charm.
While his board and members praised Lawson for his leadership, he doesn't like taking the credit. That belongs to the members, some of whom have paint brushes and hammers in their hands more than golf clubs.
The members have been instrumental in Wildwood renovating its pro shop, clubhouse, swimming pool and men's locker room, according to Lawson.
"The members that are here own the club," he said while sitting in the clubhouse that recently was upgraded with new ceiling tiles and flooring. "When it comes to volunteer work, I'll put us up against anybody."
Charlie Weidner, 82, a Wildwood member since 1970, agreed. "It's our club," he said of the members. "This is our place."
Weidner said when his son was 8, he'd drop him off at Wildwood. Eventually, his son would hook up with some old-timers who drove him around in their carts.
"People took care of the people who were here," he said.
Wildwood has remained relevant, Weidner said, because the members are "just friendly and everybody is the same. I wouldn't have stayed anywhere else. Every day I come in here, I see somebody I know."
Throughout the years, Weidner frequently has seen a member of the Morris family either in the clubhouse or course. Luther and Barbara Morris bought a family membership for themselves and their children, Mike and Marianne, who played golf professionally. Barbara Morris, 86, has belonged to Wildwood for 70 years, the longest of any member.
"It was the perfect place to raise kids," she said. "When they were here, I didn't have to worry about them."
When Lawson signs up a new member, he doesn't pretend Wildwood is something it's not. He tells them Wildwood is exclusively private, but "a family friendly golf club."
Paul Mosko, a member since 1985 and board president, recalls a time when there was a picture of members' kids playing in one of the sand traps. The course superintendent was questioned about that photo by other course superintendents.
He told them: "We're not a country club. We're a golf club that parties like a country club."
It didn't take Lawson long after he was hired to notice the facilities at Wildwood were "very dated." That included the bunkers, cart paths, swimming pool, clubhouse, lockers, parking lot and front steps.
"It needed new life," he said. "It's charming to be old, but not when it's all broken down."
During one three-year stretch, the course spent $700,000 on capital improvement projects, he said. Right after upgrading the sand traps and cart paths, membership grew by 60, according to Lawson.
"We really paid attention to what people wanted," he said. "It's about improving the product."
Lawson, hired as head professional, now serves as general manager. He quickly realized Wildwood couldn't survive with volunteer board members working in the kitchen and behind the bar.
"You need one person steering the ship," he said.
The bar business went from losing $60,000 a year to making $50,000, Lawson said.
Mosko said Wildwood has struggled to pay off its debt, but now, due to growing membership and volunteer labor, is in "a good financial position."
Many of those new members live outside the Middletown community, Lawson said. Wildwood attracts golfers from southern Dayton and northern Cincinnati communities and has one member who drives from northern Kentucky three days a week.
"We are where the action and the fun is," said Lawson, who joked he's like a circus ringleader. "We have events, get drinks in their hands and have a good time."