EAU CLAIRE — The courses Josh Walberg has helped maintain in his career could double as a golfer’s bucket list: Ballyneal in Colorado, Sleepy Hollow in New York, Hazeltine National in Minnesota and Bully Pulpit in North Dakota.
Golf course maintenance has been his job for the past 18 years, but to him, having cared for the work of Tom Doak, Charles Blair Macdonald, A.W. Tillinghast, Michael Hurdzan, Jay Morrish and more, the game has become more than work. “Golf is a passion,” he said.
As first assistant superintendent most of his 18-year career, he believed he was ready for the next level. He and fiancée Ally Weyer have taken it up a couple of notches. On March 1, they purchased the nine-hole, public Princeton Valley Golf Course on Eau Claire’s northeast side.
Walberg, who grew up in the Twin Cities in the suburb of Rosemount, will get that head superintendent job and a whole lot more. Weyer, a Loyal native who graduated from UW-Stout, will manage the bar and grill and help in the pro shop. PGA professional Steve Szydel is returning to oversee golf operations.
Princeton Valley doesn’t have name recognition like most of the places Walberg has worked, including the Eau Claire Golf & Country Club, but the only names that matter now are on the deed. They can’t wait for the season and this new chapter in their lives to begin.
On Monday, with sunshine and upper-50s weather but frost still in the ground, golfers pounded balls off mats in the parking lot into the driving range. The course could open this weekend.
“It’s been my dream for a long time to do something like this. It’s surreal,” said Walberg after finalizing the sale, which had been in the works for 14 months.
“We want to put a lot back into the course and are excited to be part of the golf community. A public golf course is the heart of a community,” he said.
They bought the 64-acre property from real estate developer and longtime owner Neil Haselwander of Eau Claire. He and brother Charles opened it in 1976 as the centerpiece of an upscale housing development in a wooded valley. A plan to add a second nine never took root.
As houses filled Princeton Avenue, which now encircles the course, he rented the facility to many operators over the years. In 2020 the course was managed by Green Golf Partners, a division of Troon.
Walberg was at ECG&CC as an assistant superintendent for three years beginning in 2017 after he and Weyer moved back to the Upper Midwest to be closer to family and friends. They heard rumors Haselwander might be ready to sell and began talks.
“Neil wanted to preserve it as a golf course,” Walberg said. “We want to honor the family and what they’ve brought to the area and continue the tradition of providing a quality course.”
Haselwander said in a letter to patrons that the sale “represents the end of a long and wonderful run for our family at the club,” according to the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.
Weyer earned a business administration degree in 2012, with an emphasis in hospitality, from UW-Stout. She had been assistant manager of a clothing store in Eau Claire, Plato’s Closet. She also has experience bartending and food service — it’s how she and Josh met.
“I’m new to golf. This will be a new venture, but I’m excited about working for ourselves, meeting new people and hearing their stories,” Weyer said.
With the sale so close to the start of the season, they are focused on getting the course and the 50-seat restaurant ready, hoping to make subtle improvements as they go.
They’re not sure yet when the restaurant and bar will open, depending on the pandemic. They expect the deck, which also holds about 50 people, to be a popular option this year.
Their goal: A place where customers will feel at home for a meal, casual round, league play or a bucket of balls and a course for all skill levels.
“Golf is about having fun and enjoying who you’re with. It’s about getting away. People don’t give themselves enough time for self-reflection,” Walberg said.
The routing of the par-36, 3,330-yard parkland-style course follows the north-south valley. It was designed by the late Dr. Gordon Emerson of Spring Valley, who liked a risk-reward hole. At Princeton Valley, it’s the downhill, 306-yard sixth hole with a peninsula green and just enough opening to tempt the big hitters.
The course isn’t overly tight but it's no pushover, either. Four holes have uphill approaches. Water comes into play on both par-5s, including the 534-yard ninth with two ponds. The ninth plays toward the setting summer sun and clubhouse, where the back deck offers a scenic view.
“It’s a beautiful course. It has great bones, and the routing is great,” Walberg said.
Plans for improvements include cutting down some of the original trees, which have impeded playability in places; re-leveling tees, and possibly adding tees to provide more options for all playing levels and those seeking a different second-nine challenge.
Bunkering at Princeton Valley is minimal, but Walberg helped build the Doak-designed, minimalistic Ballyneal in Colorado and worked at Hurdzan’s Bully Pulpit in North Dakota, so that’s just fine with Walberg. “I don’t like nonsense bunkers. Simple is better,” he said.
Walberg graduated in 2003 from Colorado State University with a degree in landscape horticulture. One of his internships took him to legendary Sleepy Hollow, a Golf Digest top 100 course designed by Macdonald and later Tillinghast. Another internship was at Hazeltine in Chanhassen, Minn., host to major championships.
“I learned the beauty of golf, knowing what flows and when it’s a good routing,” said Walberg, who describes himself as a self-taught 8- to 12-handicapper. He started playing golf at age 6 when he received a set of clubs for his birthday.
He originally wanted to build courses. After his first job at Ballyneal, he spent a year with Niebur Development of Colorado Springs, Colo. He was assistant construction superintendent and plotted the design for The Club at Old Hawthorne near Columbia, Mo.
Then he decided the semi-nomadic course construction lifestyle wasn’t for him. Stints at Bully Pulpit and six years at River Valley Ranch, a Jay Morrish design in the mountains in Carbondale, Colo., followed.
Carbondale is where Walberg and Weyer met. One life change has led to another, and they’re ready to dig in, together.
“There’s some work to be done,” Walberg said. “We’ll put some juice into the course, but we’ll keep it simple — simple and good.”