Jan Tellstrom was 61, had a job he loved and, were it not for a fateful phone call seven years ago, would likely have retired as the PGA head professional at Smock Golf Course.
The call was from Dave Harner, director of golf at the French Lick Resort in southern Indiana. Big things were happening in the economically depressed area. A wealthy philanthropist was leading a multimillion-dollar development, of which casinos were a central part.
But so were golf courses, the main one being a spectacular new Pete Dye-designed course called, well, the Pete Dye Course. It needed a head pro.
Harner and the developer, the late Bill Cook, wanted Tellstrom to be that head pro — something Tellstrom didn’t find out until he accepted Harner’s invitation to visit the nearly completed course in 2008.
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As the two men stood overlooking the majestic 8,100-yard course, nestled in the hills of the Hoosier National Forest, Tellstrom recalls their conversation.
“I said, ‘How do I fit into this?’ He said, ‘We want you to be the head pro at Pete Dye,'” Tellstrom said. “And I said, ‘Who hires somebody 61 years old?’ He said, ‘Mr. Cook.’ I said, ‘There are 20,000 pros in this country. You’re sure you don’t want somebody younger?’
“And he said, ‘As a matter of fact, we don’t.'”
So in February 2009, Tellstrom — a longtime Greenwood resident who had served as Smock’s head pro since it opened in 1976 — became the first head pro of what is widely regarded as one of the nation’s best courses.
Picturesque, with 40-mile panoramic views of southern Indiana hill country, the Pete Dye Course is rated 17th in Golf Digest’s list of “America’s Greatest Public Courses.” Later this month, it will host the 76th annual PGA Senior Championship.
Tellstrom, 67, who has won multiple PGA awards throughout his career for merchandising, teaching and course maintenance, will play a central role in hosting the event.
In January 2014, he ascended from the job of head pro to the the position of golf professional emeritus. In his new role, he is one of the chief ambassadors for the Pete Dye Course. He does everything from speaking engagements to selling to marketing and to promoting the course’s high-profile events, such as the Senior PGA Championship and recent tournaments like the Legends Tour Championship and the USGA Men’s State Team Championship.
“We have nine projects that we’re working on simultaneously, through this year and 2016 and a little bit into 2017,” Tellstrom said. “I’ve been a PGA member now for over 40 years, and to be a part of something like this is really special.”
Although he had no plan to leave Smock, Tellstrom was literally made an offer he couldn’t refuse: To be the first head pro at a course that was listed by Golf Digest as “America’s Best New Public Course” in 2009. Besides the aesthetics, he was sold on the higher calling of the entire French Lick redevelopment, the goal of which was to revitalize an economically depressed community that had suffered for decades under the crush of high unemployment.
“That was the hook to me,” Tellstrom said. “Mr. Cook wanted to build an economic engine. His hobby was fixing stuff, old cars, old buildings, that kind of thing. He loved that. But if it didn’t pay for itself, he wasn’t interested.
“So he wanted to build an economic engine that would provide 1,000 jobs that would last 100 years. I thought, man, I want to be a part of that, I want to be a part of something bigger. That was the draw for me.”
That and, of course, the magnificent Pete Dye Course itself, which has a weekend greens fee of $350, plus a $30 caddie fee.
An accomplished photographer with an eye for art and an affinity for nature (he’s a member of the National Audubon Society), Tellstrom fell in love with the course the first time he saw it. But he couldn’t relocate from Greenwood to French Lick unless someone else he knew fell in love with it, too.
That would be his wife, Marsha.
Tellstrom recalls a conversation with her when he took her to the course for the first time.
“Unless you’ve been in the mountains, nothing looks like this in Indiana,” Tellstrom said. “She said, ‘What do they want you to do?’ I said, ‘They want me to be the head pro.’ She said, ‘Do they know how old you are?'”
They did, and it was irrelevant. They wanted Tellstrom, Tellstrom wanted the job, and seven years later he has no regrets about taking it.
At 67, he’s more enthusiastic about his work than ever.
“Playing Pete Dye, it should be on everybody’s bucket list. It’s a better golf course than Pebble Beach,” he said. “I don’t want to take anything away from the Pacific Ocean and the beautiful shoreline there, but the truth of the matter is, this is a way better golf course. It looks harder than it is. It’s a fair golf course. (Pete’s wife) Alice Dye cautioned me on making sure that no one called it easy. It’s not an easy golf course, but she said it’s fair and manageable and playable.
“Even if (visitors) can’t afford (to play it), what I’d like them to do is come visit it and see it. It is one of Indiana’s treasures.”
Name: Jan Tellstrom
Occupation: Golf professional emeritus at French Lick Resort
Previous occupations: Served as Frenck Lick Resort’s first PGA head professional from 2009 to 2014; served as head pro at Smock Golf Course from 1976 to 2009
Awards: Indiana PGA’s Golf Resort Merchandiser of the Year, 2012; Indiana’s PGA Golf Public Merchandiser of the Year, 2009; Indiana’s PGA Golf Professional of the Year, 2007; Indiana’s Horton Smith Award, 2005; recognized by US Kids Golf as one of “America’s Top 50 Kids Teachers” in 2005; presented “The Earl Woods Trophy” in 2000, Golf Digest’s Junior Development Award.
What: Senior PGA Championship
Where: Pete Dye Course at French Lick Resort
When: May 19-24, beginning with pro-am on May 19 and 20; play runs from May 21 to May 24