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September 2017

Russian Intelligence

By Steve Donahue

Mad Russian Golf & Country Club is thriving once again under the savvy leadership of the Ehrlich family, which has cultivated a sense of pride at the Milliken, Colorado, daily fee

The history of the Mad Russian Golf & Country Club is anything but dull. This tale begins with a Milliken, Colorado, cattle farm owned by ornery Russian Ted Blehm, who transformed it into a golf course that bellied up, then saw another farmer, Bob Ehrlich, buy the land and create a successful, family-owned course, then lease it for a decade to folks who ran it into the ground, forcing the owner to fire the lessee and retain course control eight years ago. Since then, the course has experienced a renaissance led by the owner’s daughter who, besides still working 80-hour weeks at the club to restorenormalcy, owns and designs her successful women’s contemporary golf clothing line, ellabelle, which sells in clubs nationwide and will be showing at its third PGA Merchandise Show in 2018.

“I was raised to work hard, do many things and all at the best level possible,” says 43-year-old Heidi Ehrlich, the owner’s daughter, director of golf, apparel entrepreneur and overall jack-of-all-trades. “I’ve turned the golf course around from when we took it back from our lessees so the blood, sweat and tears have been paid back. Our golf is seasonal and ellabelle is year-round. Fortunately, ellabelle’s production and the PGA Show are in our off-season, so doing both is a little hectic but so far manageable. All good things require effort.”

That also pertains to Mad Russian’s saga, which began in the late 1970s when Blehm, the Russian cattle farmer, was denied membership at Greeley Country Club because of his personality. In response, he built his own 18-hole course, naming it Jack Rabbit Trail Golf Course, along with an 18,000-square-foot clubhouse and a circular house that rotated 360 degrees. “It’s like a UFO,” Heidi quips.

Unfortunately, Blehm’s dream was shattered—and shuttered—by the dismal early 1980s economy. Ehrlich, who knew Blehm, purchased the property and quickly began making improvements. He and his crew mowed weeds, located sprinklers and created a new layout that opened on August 1, 1987. Each year on that date, the course celebrates Mad Russian Day.

“My dad named the course Mad Russian after Ted because Ted’s dream just didn’t work out for him at the time,” Heidi explains. “Fortunately, 30 years later it did work out for us.”

The Ehrlichs ran the course until 1999, when the lessee offered to do a 25-year lease.  “Ten years later, we took it back because the course wasn’t being treated well,” Heidi recalls. “The course is like my dad’s fourth kid. It’s a beautiful piece of ground, and they live on it, so they couldn’t stand to see what was happening to it.

“When we took it back, it wasn’t in good condition,” she adds. “When we leased it, we had won numerous awards for best conditioning, best places to play, things like that, but [the lessees] just turned it around because it was the wrong kind of staff and nobody cared.”

Since Ehrlich regained the reins, Heidi estimates she has spent seven days, 80 hours a week on-site making sure everything is done with pride, and that her and her family’s personal touches are evident. “We’re back and we pride ourselves and we’re setting that tone,” she says.

Besides Heidi, her father and mother, who’s the food manager, other family member club employees include Robert’s nephews LeRon Ehrlich and J.C. Courrejou, who are the superintendent and assistant superintendent, respectively.

“When it’s your own it’s different than when people work for you,” Heidi says. “I cultivated a staff that almost all has been here since the beginning and they’re all like part of our family and we treat each other as such—not as a workplace, but as part of an extended family. It takes a while to turn everything back around, and I can’t take credit for how great the grounds have turned around and how fantastic they look.” She credits LeRon and J.C. for that.

“I knew it would take longer to use word of mouth, but it means more to hear other people say ‘Go play this golf course because it’s in great shape’ than for me to say it,’” Heidi says, adding rounds are in the mid-20,000s. “We’ve double-digit grown every year. We even try to keep the same staff on the same days so regulars get to know everybody in case they need and want different things.”

Looking ahead, the Mad Russian has another 50 plotted acres laid out for nine more holes. “That’s another possibility if that’s where we want to get to be,” Heidi says.  

Steve Donahue is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.

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