Wharton: Playing golf with an icon
It's difficult to know what to expect when meeting an icon such as Utah golf pro Ernie Schneiter, Jr., for the first time.
Now 83, Ernie could pass for 70 and easily can beat younger golfers.
As a competitor, he won numerous tournaments including the Utah and Idaho Opens and has seven holes-in-one to his credit. That's not as many as his legendary father, Ernie, Sr., who recorded 23. But to those of us seeking our first, that seems impressive.
He is a golf course designer, having rebuilt the front nine of Schneiter's Riverside and designed the back nine. He worked with sons Brett and Jon to come up with the layout for Schneiter's Bluff in West Point.
In an era where most public courses are owned and operated by cities and counties, he and his family actually own Riverside and The Bluff. Though his two sons and daughters Julie and Lori do most of the day-to-day work, Ernie remains a presence.
When I sat down to interview Schneiter recently before playing the front nine at Riverside with him, the first thing I noticed was how many golfers walked over to our table to simply say hello. Even young women from the Ogden girls' golf team who were playing in the state tournament that day joked with him.
The soft-spoken pro smiles easily. Arlen Peacock, a great Utah golfer in his own right, wrote this about Schneiter when Ernie was inducted into the Utah Golf Association's Hall of Fame:
"I think we are giving him this award more for the way he handles his daily activities than for anything else. He is just such a remarkably friendly person that it is a joy for all golfers to be able to spend a few minutes with him. That is really his trademark."
It's probably no accident that the city of Riverdale honored him two years ago by renaming the road in front of Riverside as "Ernie Schneiter Drive."
Ernie started getting serious about golf when he was 9 at Ogden's El Monte, where his father was the pro at the time. He got his first job as a pro at Tooele's Oquirrh Hills as a 19-year-old and worked with his father as an assistant at the Ogden Golf and Country Club before stints at the Blue Lake Country Club in Twin Falls, Idaho, and at Ben Lomond Golf Course, before taking over ownership of Riverside when Ernie, Sr. died.
"We're mostly working people," said Schneiter, who offers high praise for his children.
While being a golf professional seems like it could be enjoyable, people forget the ridiculously long hours course pros put in, often on busy weekends, and sometimes staying from dawn until dusk.
That work is also reflected on the course itself. Ernie and his crew planted 3,000 trees at The Bluff. When I-84 cut up Riverside in 1972, the entire course had to be redesigned. Playing the front nine, Ernie showed us where the Weber River once flowed and talked about how it had to be changed. Some of the trees at Riverside are more than 100 years old.
I was honored when Ernie joined my brother and I, who had never played his wonderful course, for nine holes. He remains a 10-handicap golfer and says he usually shoots about 40 on the front nine. On the second hole, a short par 4, he drove the green and sunk a 15-foot putt for an eagle, leaving my brother more than a little impressed. He said one of the things he loves about golf is that "each shot is a new experience."
What made the round fun, though, were the stories Ernie told about the course, the times the Weber flooded, how proud he was of his kids and the obvious pleasure he took when my brother or I made a decent shot.
"I like it!" he smiled each time we did something well.
To be honest, at the end of a very memorable round with a Utah golf icon who is as humble and friendly a person as you could ever hope to meet, it was easy to say to Ernie Schneiter, Jr.:
"And we like you. Thanks for taking the time to play a round with us."