by Ken MacLeod
Like peanut butter and jelly, it’s hard to separate the contributions of Joe Walser and Ernie Vossler and how they blended their abilities for the greater good.
The two club pros who worked their way onto the PGA Tour, then combined forces to build one of the greatest golf development companies in the game, will join the Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame during its 2017 inductions Oct. 1 at Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club.
Their legacy in Oklahoma will always be the creation of Oak Tree National and the 36 holes across the street at Oak Tree Country Club.
Oak Tree National continues to be relevant on the national stage, recently hosting the 2014 U.S. Senior Open, while the country club is a hotbed of young talent that has made Edmond nationally famous for producing elite golfers.
Yet the contributions of Walser and Vossler and the effect they had on their contemporaries goes much deeper than course development. They made their impacts as teachers, friends and shining examples of how to conduct yourself in business. Here’s a look at each individually and some of their accomplishments together.
Talk about humble beginnings. The infant Ernie Vossler was left unannounced in a basket on a doorstep of a well-off oil executive in Fort Worth, Texas. This gentleman knew the Vossler family down the street, a stable family in their mid-50s that owned a plumbing company and had no children. They accepted him, named him and raised him as their own. No one ever found out who his birth parents were.
By the time he reached the age of 5, Mrs. Vossler had gone blind, and young Ernie would hustle home after school to help her around the house before going off to his various athletic endeavors. He was an excellent tennis player, winning a state doubles championship, and a good baseball and basketball player as well, but golf wasn’t in the picture until a neighborhood friend named Dan Jenkins put a club in his hand and began to drag him out to the local municipal course, the infamous Goat Hills.
Yes, that Dan Jenkins. The man who immortalized Goat Hills and went on to become the most well-known and talented sportswriter in the country for decades takes pride in launching Vossler’s career in golf.
“I recruited for the Paschal High School golf team in Fort Worth,” Jenkins said. “We needed a fourth player and Ernie was already a good basketball, baseball and tennis player. We’d known each other since junior high. I said, ‘Ernie, we’ve got to have a fourth player on the team.’ He said he’d only played golf a couple of times in his life. ‘Well, I just recruited you for the golf team.’
“Before I knew it he was breaking 80. He was just a natural. We played and won the city championship twice and by then I knew he had the bug. I knew he was going to be a pro some day because he had a great talent of being able to keep the ball in play. He was a lot like Tom Kite or Zach Johnson.”
To reach his potential, Vossler had to learn like many young golfers to control his temper. Jenkins remembers him breaking a club over a middling shot one afternoon at Goat Hills.
“He broke his 6-iron in the middle of the fairway, I guess because it didn’t go in the hole. He had reached the point where he thought everything should go in. He slammed the club down and it broke in two, the steel shaft went flying through the air and we all ducked and hit the ground. That’s the only time I saw him lose his temper. He learned to control it once he got older and was a city champion and a state champion before he turned pro. He was a great, great competitor and always hit the right shot, the shot he had to hit.”
Vossler gave up all his other sports except golf and began winning events all over Texas. After briefly trying plumbing as a career, he turned professional and was more than competitive on the PGA Tour, winning three official PGA Tour events with a fourth win in the Panama Open. He also got married and began a family and always maintained that when his eldest reached the age of 12 he would come home from the tour for his family’s sake. Fatefully, he was selected for the job as head golf professional at Quail Creek Country Club in Oklahoma City. Vossler was the head golf professional who influenced the first 12 years at Quail Creek.
Judy Vossler, who went on to work in the family business and now is the senior vice president of administration for the Palm Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau, was the first child, born in 1949, followed by Eddie in 1950, Andy in 1952, Ernie (Buddy) in 1954 and Cary in 1962.
While the children were young and his playing career was still going strong, Vossler got in the habit of going to Palm Springs each winter to play in the “winter league” events there and elsewhere in California, following the example of his idol and friend Ben Hogan. Once settled at Quail Creek, he invited another young pro he’d met on tour to join him on these western swings, and that’s how he and Joe Walser began taking Oklahoma families to the desert, a tradition that continues today.
Vossler had more in mind on these trips than playing in the Bob Hope Desert Classic and enjoying the weather. He was intently scanning the desert for development opportunities, learning the grasses, the terrain, weather, travel patterns and studying the infrastructure of the growing cities of Palm Springs, Palm Desert and Indio.
“Dad was a piece of work,” Judy said. “He was very unassuming and would stand in the background until someone recognized who he was, but he was really a character. He was an idea man and they came non-stop. Also, he was brilliant with numbers. He could look at a financial sheet and was very intuitive with fabulous common sense. He didn’t finish college, but was highly intelligent in the things he needed to know and the skill set for his golf and development careers.”
Joe Walser Jr.
The steadying influence in the partnership to come had a more conventional upbringing than his mercurial partner. Joe Walser Jr. was born and raised in Oklahoma City, was a champion golfer at Capitol Hill High School, dashing off to the driving range between stints at the family-owned Walser’s Grocery, and went on to play for Labron Harris Sr. at Oklahoma State. His early career included a brief stint as a school teacher after a stint in the service as a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army at Fort Benning. He played the PGA Tour beginning in in the 1950s and, like Vossler, gave up that life as the three children (Steve, Susie and Jeff) of he and his wife, Pat, grew older. All of his children would up making great contributions to Landmark Land Co.
Walser started his club professional career at a course in Altus, then was hired for two years by his friend Vossler as an assistant golf professional at Quail Creek. He then went to Lake Hefner and eventually became the head professional at Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club.
Walser won both the Oklahoma Open and the Oklahoma State Amateur as a player as well as many other notable tournaments. He quickly established a reputation throughout the state as a friendly, trustworthy and helpful professional, one dedicated to his profession, his craft and the game. Older professionals in the state such as fellow Oklahoma Golf Hall of Famers Alsie Hyden and Jerry Cozby rave about his relationships with fellow pros and customers.
Yet, like Vossler, Walser had a roving eye for what was next in the golf industry. In 1971, the two formed a company named Unique Golf Concepts and got involved in a development in Greensboro, N.C., where they recurited Pete Dye.
Another moment of fate. Walser got a call from high school acquaintance Jerry Barton, who had gone on to a successfull financial career, was just coming off a year as chief of staff for the governor, and had decided that real estate, in particular, real estate communities involving golf courses, was where the future was. He didn’t play golf or know anything about the game or business, so he called “the only golfer I knew.”
The three met and they asked Barton to meet with Dye. Barton was shocked that golf course design was actually a field of endeavor, but quickly became impressed with all three and soon offered to buy out Unique Golf Concepts. The genesis of Landmark Land Company was formed.
Building a golf course, let alone a community, in Edmond was quite a risk in the early 1970s. Edmond was a bedroom community of about 10,000 (now close to 88,000). Walser and Vossler had purchased the land after looking closely at other sites. Dye was turned loose to discover a golf course.
The course was going to be named Deer Creek Country Club after the small community nearby. Dye finally yelled to Walser, “Why don’t you name it Oak Tree. You’ve got a million of the damn things in here.”
Barton watched in wonder as Dye, with Walser and Vossler’s input, created what became one of the most iconic and hardest golf courses in the country.
“We had no money and the only thing we knew was to make the golf course as good as it could be. We had no credit because Ernie was putting any extra money I had into the projects in Carmel and LaQuinta,” Barton said. “Don Mathis wasn’t a very good student because he never went to class, but he was very smart and played in honky tonk bands around town. He had also started a little furniture store. I called him up and he said, ‘Let’s see what I can do.’ ”
With an infusion of cash from Mathis, the men-only club was finished, memberships went on sale and splat, no one would buy them. Even at $1,900 each.
The next year Barton jacked the initiation up to $10,000 and sold 100. Pretty soon it was $20,000 and everyone wanted in. Run by Landmark with legendary figures such as Hugh Edgmon, Chris Cole and Johnny Pott along with Walser, it became a bastion for oilmen, law sharks and other rugged individualists.
Another stroke of Landmark genius was inviting professionals to live in the community, use of a membership and represent Landmark on the PGA Tour. Pretty soon the Oak Tree Gang of David and Danny Edwards, Bob Tway, Gil Morgan, Willie Wood, Scott Verplank, Mark Hayes, Doug Tewell and others was probably the largest group from a single course on tour, all wearing the logo.
Morgan, who met Vossler back in the mid 1960s, took lessons from only him until he passed away. One of the best ball strikers in the game’s history credits Vossler with teaching him all the shots.
“He taught me everything I knew about the mechanics and what I needed to do to hit different types of shots,” Morgan said. “He was a tremendous help in my career all the way through. And he was so unselfish. He never charged me for a lesson. He was like a second father to me. He treated me so well it was embarrassing at times.
As Oak Tree Golf Club got cooking and work began across the street on Oak Tree Country Club, Vossler had moved to Palm Springs to head up Landmark’s rapidly expanding developments in the Coachella Valley (see story Page 42). Walser and Vossler had hit their stride, with Vossler coming up with an idea a minute and Walser playing his cautionary role.
“Ernie was a horse that wanted to race 100 miles an hour,” Barton said. “He had tremendous enthusiasm and intuition and believed in himself absolutely. Joe would say, ‘Tell me again pro, how are we going to do this?’ We never did anything Joe didn’t want to do. Some of Ernie’s ideas were great and some weren’t and he couldn’t tell the difference, but Joe could.”
As the string of success continued in the desert, the 1991 Ryder Cup was awarded to Landmark and was initially to be held at PGA West. One has to remember that prominent in the PGA at that time were both Jim Awtrey, the executive director who had lived with the Walsers for a time when he was head coach at the University of Oklahoma, and Mark Kizziar, a former club pro at Adams Golf Course in Bartlesville who had risen to president of the PGA of America.
Awtrey remembers that suddenly it dawned on everyone that a Ryder Cup in September could be a disaster from a spectator standpoint and it was moved to Kiawah Island to be played on the yet-to-be finished Ocean Course by Dye. (See page 43)
“That was a lot of 20-hour days getting that ready,” remembers Alice Dye. “It was a real rush job. But Joe and Ernie stayed out of his way and let him get it done. They had a great relationship.
“In the beginning at Oak Tree it was the same way. Pete was so imaginative and creative and Ernie and Joe let him be that way. They came out occasionally and said something if they didn’t think a hole looked right. But basically they let him work.
With Barton leading the financing, Vossler charging full steam into new projects, Walser picking the best of those and Dye providing the designs, they changed the face of golf in the Coachella Valley (story page 45).
“They were completely different personalities,” said Chris Cole, a former head golf professional at Oak Tree among many other Landmark duties. “Ernie was very regimented and most things were black and while, where Joe saw a lot more shades of grey and was just so personable.”
Judy remembers attending Monday meetings in LaQuinta where Ernie would toss out ideas and then invite comment from the 10 or 12 key members of the team assembled.
“Dad was a visionary, a gambler in the best sense of the word, a risk taker and not afraid to get out on a limb,” Judy said. “Joe was slower to react and a deeper thinker about the ramifications of the ideas. He had an amazing ability to pull Ernie back to center.”
It was a good, somewhat glamorous life, with Arnold Palmer or Robert Wagner dropping by for lunch, until the Resolution Trust Corporation decided that the savings and loan Landmark Land owned and was using to finance various projects could no longer list real estate as an asset. A long, complicated war with the government ensued that eventually cost Landmark nearly all of its flagship properties. The companies later reorganized, with Barton leading one version of Landmark on the east coast and overseas while Vossler revived the company out west, to be eventually rejoined by Walser after helping Deane Beman at the PGA Tour get the PGA Tour’s TPC properties up and viable.
Barton led a long lawsuit against the government and finally won, but it was a hollow victory.
“I lost $500 million and got back $21 million,” Barton said. “But we were the only savings and loan that sued the government and got a check. I was very proud that we were completely vindicated.”
Today, Andy Vossler operates Landmark Golf as a boutique golf course management firm from a second-story office in a shopping center in Indian Wells. The walls are lined with historic pictures from the halcyon years. The landscape shifted considerably during the years spent fighting the government and opportunities are not what they were. The Coachella Valley now has 121 courses and more courses close in the United States each year than open by a wide margin.
“We were the best golf course development company there ever was,” Barton said. “The last year we operated we made $65 million net profit. The book value of Landmark in 1974 when we built Oak Tree was $3 million. In 14 years, we had a net gap book value of $500 million.”
“Those were two very special people to not just me, but to a lot of people in the golf industry,” said Edgmon, who was president of Oak Tree from 1981 to 1995. “They had the vision, the insight, the stick-to-it-ness to take the ordinary and make it very special. Those were the best years of our lives.”
See more about their legendary course development here – Visionaries in the desert