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July 2017

It’s a Family Tradition

itsafamilytradition.jpg‭By Steve Donahue

The legacy of the Gabriel family is alive and well at Cloverleaf Golf Course, which carries a long, storied history in the St. Louis area. Though family members have come and gone over the years, their impact remains everpresent at the 18-hole, daily-fee facility

Cloverleaf Golf Course is the personification of a family golf operation. The Alton, Illinois, daily-fee is the oldest family-owned and operated, 18-hole course in the St. Louis, Missouri, area, and was one of only five local courses constructed between 1931 and 1951.

Its birth dates to the Great Depression, but the Gabriel family purchased the property on which the course sits in 1913, and established the Gabriel Dairy Farm. Their large home—built in 1849—is now the No. 1 tee, and the dairy barn is the current clubhouse. The home was an inn for travelers, including overnight guest Abraham Lincoln.

In the late 1920s, Paul Gabriel decided to turn the dairy farm into a golf course. On Memorial Day 1931, the first nine holes opened. The second nine, including its signature island green, opened in the mid-1990s.

“Since the course’s 1931 opening, family members have always worked here. But now there’s only one, Paul’s daughter, Nancy Lawson, the owner,” explains clubhouse manager Vern Bilbrey, a Cloverleaf employee since 1994 and considered family. “Nancy is 82. She purchased the business part of the golf course from her sister, Susan Phillips, but they still own the land together. Nancy’s son, Brian, makes lots of decisions but doesn’t live here. He’ll move back in less than two years. He’s kind of managing the place now. They want to keep the family involved and continue the Cloverleaf legacy.”

Golf was new to the area in Cloverleaf’s infancy, so Paul ensured the business succeeded by always finding clubs for interested customers. Money was so scarce during the Great Depression that Paul would often barter so people could afford to play. People began lining up to play at 4 a.m. To accommodate customers, Paul’s parents began sleeping in the clubhouse, even cooking breakfast for them.

Paul died tragically in June 1963, when he was pinned beneath his tractor after the earth collapsed following an overnight rain while mowing around the irrigation pond. Paul’s wife, Dorothy, then managed the course until an illness rendered her unable to do so. Since Dorothy’s illness and eventual death in 1996, Nancy and Susan continued the family business which, in its 86 years of operation, has roughly hosted more than 2.5 million rounds, including between 20,000 and 25,000 last year, estimates Bilbrey.

Cloverleaf was a walking course for its first 60 years or so, adding a fleet of “30 or 45” riding carts in the early 1990s, before expanding the fleet to 60 shortly thereafter.

Cloverleaf continues to remain relevant because it delivers a solid golf experience.

“Golfers always say our greens are some of the area’s best,” Bilbrey boasts. “We’re very competitive. Our rates are near the low end as compared to our competition. We get a lot of clientele from North County and have a few longtime regulars from St. Charles County. If you look at cars [in our parking lot] on any given day, you’ll see a really good percentage of Missouri plates.”

Cloverleaf’s Unlimited Golf and Permanent Reservation programs have been very successful over the years. What’s more, Cloverleaf was one of the first area courses to institute Unlimited Golf, which allows all-day play. Many others have followed suit.

“Some courses put a time constraint on golfers during the week,” notes Bilbrey. “We don’t. I’ve seen people play 54 holes in one day. It doesn’t happen very often. Less than 25 percent play more than 18 holes.”

Cloverleaf’s Permanent Reservation program encourages people to play multiple times during the week for a slightly-less-than-normal fee on the day they have their permanent time, and they can play any time during the next seven days until their next tee time and play for half price. Previously, people played at Cloverleaf but might have played somewhere else once or twice weekly.

“Getting them to play here two or three times a week instead of just once has been great for us, and has been pretty popular because it’s a big savings for them,” says Bilbrey.

Last year concrete was poured for an outdoor patio—a rare upgrade. The roof is being installed this year. But the club doesn’t hold many weddings or outings. “We don’t have the facility to do that,” says Bilbrey.

That might be an area Brian Lawson will seek to change. In the meantime, Nancy—who lives alongside No. 8 fairway—still pops into the golf shop occasionally to tend to some business.

“She comes in at least three days a week after 1 p.m., after the mail comes,” says Bilbrey. “She stays for a while, writes and signs checks, goes to the bank and then home.”

Steve Donahue is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.

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