ST. CHARLES – Jim Wheeler is finally ready to turn over the Pottawatomie Golf Course clubhouse to somebody else. He’s earned the rest.
After 31 years as Pottawatomie’s golf professional, Wheeler acknowledges feeling fatigue, and it’s easy to see why. Those 14- to 16-hour days each summer have a way of wearing a man down.
“The sun comes up early, so I make sure that everybody who comes here, it’s none of this where you go out and play and come back and pay,” Wheeler said. “I want to be able to greet anybody who plays, so I’m here by 5 o’clock.”
Wheeler has spent most of every day between March and December manning Pottawatomie’s clubhouse from sun-up to sun-down, arriving by 5 a.m. and not heading home until 9 p.m. during peak months.
“I’m here because I want to be here,” Wheeler said of his marathon hours. “I’ve enjoyed this profession. It’s been a wonderful life for me.”
Wheeler’s reign at Pottawatomie will end on Feb. 28, just before the start of the new golf season. The course’s next golf pro has yet to be named, but Wheeler said he would like to help acclimate his successor.
He’ll have plenty to teach.
Wheeler has his hand in all that goes on at Pottawatomie, but takes a special interest in ensuring customers at the public, nine-hole course go home happy. His give-and-take with Pottawatomie regulars helped him make the adjustment to St. Charles after growing up in Peoria, then spending one year at Inverness Golf Club in Palatine before taking the Pottawatomie job in 1980.
“For me, meeting friends was automatic, because all the people that were coming here,” said Wheeler, a former golfer and basketball player at Western Illinois University.
Wheeler’s short list of elite Pottawatomie golfers through the years includes Rich Balla. Balla eventually joined Kishwaukee Country Club in DeKalb, a private, 18-hole course, but said he still has a hard time steering clear of Pottawatomie –álargely because of Wheeler.
“Even though I left Pottawatomie seven years ago, I still feel like I’m a member down there because you walk in there, and everyone knows everyone,” Balla said. “It’s that family atmosphere that Jim being there so long solidified.”
Balla is a past champion of Pottawatomie’s annual men’s match play tournament. In addition to the highly popular, three-weekend men’s event, Wheeler organizes a ladies tournament, senior tournament, junior tournament and Little Guys and Gals tournament for small children – one of Wheeler’s favorites.
Anticipation of those tournaments each year have helped keep Wheeler energized.
“I tried to do them professionally and make it so that it’s important and make [golfers] feel important when they’re coming to these events,” said Wheeler, who listed Don Hancock, Tony Burnell, Kenny Vanko, Ralph Johnston, Jr. and Jon Walker among the other premier local golfers he has watched over the years.
Thirty-one years at a golf course guarantees a boatload of funny stories, and it was in fact a boat that might account for the quirkiest of them all. Wheeler, 65, isn’t sure on the year, but recalls one wild day when an out-of-control boat careened all the way to the fourth tee.
“The golf course was open, people were playing, and here comes a boat,” Wheeler said.
Pottawatomie’s proximity to the Fox River hasn’t always been a laughing matter. Wheeler considers depending on weather for a given golf season’s success one of the few frustrations of the job, and that held especially true during a handful of floods.
“The years where the river has flooded us to the point that it has stopped us is very disappointing. ... You can be the best manager in the world, but the weather can shut you down,” Wheeler said.
If anything aside from his family rivals Pottawatomie as Wheeler’s passion, it would be high school sports in St. Charles. Wheeler is a fixture at St. Charles East and North sporting events, and naturally, his support of the local golf programs is unquestionable.
“He takes a real active interest in all the programs at East and North, boys and girls,” said North boys golf coach Rob Prentiss, who considers Wheeler “a local treasure.”
“I remember seeing him out at regionals and sectionals when it’s a nasty day out there, and he’s out there supporting the kids. He’s just always been there.”
Come March, life will go on at Pottawatomie, which has been around since 1939, but Wheeler’s absence will sting for many in the St. Charles golfing community.
In his retirement, Wheeler plans to enjoy his overdue free time with wife Patti, and visit their two daughters and grandchildren in Ohio. He intends to continue giving golf lessons, play a little more himself, and no doubt check in on Pottawatomie from time to time.
When he does, for a change, he won’t have to beat the sunrise.
“Do I go to the extreme? Yes, I do go to the extreme,” Wheeler said. “But I just felt like that’s part of doing the job.”