Did you know we have a celebrity in our midst?
It’s true: A couple of days a week—but never on Sunday—golf icon Jack Van Ess steps on the course at Egypt Valley Country Club for a round or two. At 91, that’s quite a feat, though Van Ess seems as spry today as he was back when he was winning championships. Friendly, energetic and full of love for the game, he was eager to chat with us about his distinguished career.
How did you get into the game of golf?
“My uncle gave me a Brassie, a 2-wood club that was used as a driver at the time. I had one club and I did everything. I putted with it, I drove it; it didn’t make any difference. After time, my uncle gave me another couple of clubs and I started playing more. My dad never played; I just did on my own. And I never had a lesson. “When I first started, I just had that one club—and sure, I wanted more. I made a hole in the ground with my heel and that was the hole; it wasn’t really golf, but it was golf for me.”
What has kept your drive for golfing all these years?
“You know, if you’re a golfer, that’s it. It’s crazy. People just love it. When they get started, like I did, they just want to play all the time. I used to play Indian Trails. It wasn’t very far. In fact, I worked there for a while. I went to Indian Trails and then I finally joined Green Ridge. That was 62 years ago. “That’s basically it: I just love the game. I seem to do pretty good at it—everyone told me that anyway.”
What was your transition between getting those first few clubs and becoming pro golfer?
“We went to the Burton Heights Christian Reformed Church and they didn’t do anything on Sunday—it was a day of rest. We went to church twice a day. Some guy at my dad’s company, where I worked, too, was a golfer and he took me to golf with him one day. He came back and told my dad, ‘He’s awfully good at it.’ So, I got started. “I never really played in a lot of golf in tournaments because they were always on Sunday—and I told my dad I’d never play on Sunday. I was leading some tournaments by a lot—one was as many as 10 or 12, I think—but I never finished because someone else took my place. That’s the way it was, and I’ve kept that.” What do you love about golf? “It’s hard to explain. You can’t stop playing. You play lousy and you can’t wait to get out the next day to improve. It’s a challenge. Some people pick it up right away and some people don’t. Everyone likes to play to beat the other guy. “I also love to watch the young kids at Egypt Valley come out with their bag. They’re all excited—and some of them are really good.”
Why did you choose Egypt Valley?
“Green Ridge was where I first joined when it was over on Alpine. They sold the property and built a new course, which, today, is Egypt Valley. I won the club championship 10 times, but I haven’t lately because I’m 91. Though I do stay active and try to get to the club a couple of days and try to play at least nine holes.” What do you feel has changed in golf since you first started playing? “Distance. The golf ball is not even the same. I read in one of Ben Hogan’s books that a 6-iron used to hit about 140 yards; now, a 6-iron hits 200-some. The golf courses need to be changed, I think because the ball is going too far. Jack Nicklaus wants them to change, too—because it’s just too far. Some courses, the ball is just gone. That’s the change I’d like to see, but you can’t just say, ‘Now I’m going to give you a Wiffle ball to play with!’”
What is your greatest accomplishment in golf?
“Well, being in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame. And big tournaments I got into. I played against Arnold Palmer and I had him by one shot after two rounds. The next round he beat me and was leading after then. I still qualified for the Sunday round, but I called and told them I would not be there and flew home. “Everyone was betting on whether or not I would stay to play Arnold Palmer, and some people won a lot of money because I was at home!”
How did you feel when you were inducted in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame?
“I was in the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame and I never really dreamt I’d be in the State. I knew a lot of guys who were in there and I was even with a lot of them. When I found out I was inducted, I felt great. I was amazed. I was at the Augusta National, where they have The Masters, and they called me right on the golf course to tell me. I said, ‘You’re kidding me!’ I was dumbfounded; just dumbfounded.”
He never had a lesson, he never played on Sunday, but Jack Van Ess still became one of the greats. If you’re out on the course when he is, you’re in the presence of a Grand Rapids legend—and all-around great guy.