MIDDLETON — In the 24 years he spent reviving Pleasant View Golf Course, Ted Donker focused on the fun.
He parked plastic alligators in its ponds. He made up golf games for children attending his successful junior programs. He put on outings for members offering lots of prizes from his pro shop.
“I wanted to run it like I’d want it run if I was a member there,” said Donker, 65, a PGA golf professional who retired Saturday after making Pleasant View into one of the area’s most popular golfing destinations — and a profitable one for its municipal owner. “We always seemed to make money, so I think we did OK while I was here.”
The Oshkosh native is leaving the golf course in a much better situation than what he inherited in 1991 when it was owned by CUNA Mutual and suffered from subpar maintenance equipment, disorganized leagues and a dilapidated clubhouse.
Under Donker’s watch, the course added nine holes, bringing the complex to 27 championship holes and a par-3 course. It also built a 4,500-square-foot clubhouse, which general manager Jeremy Cabalka is turning into a year-round revenue generator by scheduling company parties and meetings, school banquets and other events through the winter.
In an era when many golf courses are losing money and can’t get golfers in the door, the course is highly profitable. Net operating revenue has exceeded operating expenditures by over $400,000 in each of the past three years and could go over $500,000 this year, said Cabalka, who is the new face of Pleasant View with Donker’s departure.
Those numbers thrill officials from the city of Middleton, which bought the course from CUNA Mutual in 1993. The income has been used to pay off the debt on the course so it will be debt free in 2018 when the city makes its last payment for the $1.7 million nine-hole addition that opened in 2002, said Middleton finance director John Lehman. The city already paid off the $7.7 million it borrowed to buy the golf course and the $1.2 million for the clubhouse that opened in 2007.
“Many municipal courses are debt-free but they are operating in the red. The difference is that Pleasant View is very much operating in the black and is about to be debt-free. If that’s not a good thing, I don’t know what is,” Lehman said.
Madison’s four city-owned courses have performed much worse recently. Data from the city show that those courses made money in 2012 but operated at a loss in 2013 and 2014.
After watching hundreds of golfers flood his course during last week’s unusually warm weather, Cabalka estimated that 60,000 rounds will be played at Pleasant View this year. That would be 15.4 percent more than in 2014 and almost certainly push the course’s net profit over last year’s $484,606, Cabalka said.
“My vision is, ‘How do we make this the most efficient golf course?’” said Cabalka, 37, who also is a PGA professional and is adding Donker’s old duties to his GM duties. The Middleton native honed his craft working at Grayhawk Golf Club, a successful public club in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“You can’t just cut expenses. You have to really chase the revenue part, and to do that you have to be creative,” Cabalka added.
In the ’90s Donker himself did much of the physical work of improving Pleasant View, adding bunkers, planting trees and showing maintenance crews how to define fairways and tees. Two decades later, Cabalka has given the place another jump start this year with orders to reshape and improve the greens, add more trees to create more fairway definition and further emphasize customer service.
He is awaiting Middleton’s approval of a course events and marketing manager to lead the effort to make the clubhouse more profitable. There are also plans to expand and improve the clubhouse’s patio area to keep people around after their rounds or the end of a party or meeting. “We have one of the best views in the Madison area, so we have to exploit that,” Cabalka said.
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Even with the future changes, it will be hard not to see Donker’s fingerprints all over Pleasant View’s success.
In contrast to the city of Madison’s current setup, Donker is a city of Middleton employee and did not get any income from golf cart rentals or concessions. His only source of extra income related to the course came from the pro shop, he said.
Pleasant View was the first course in the area to offer reduced rates to golfers who played regularly there but couldn’t afford a season membership. Donker said he picked up that idea from Milwaukee’s courses.
The number of leagues grew at Pleasant View, too, during Donker’s time, and the additional nine holes gave the course flexibility to accommodate league and non-league players. He also added starters and rangers to quicken the pace of play.
Prior to his move to Middleton, Donker worked for several years as an assistant pro at Blue Mound Golf and Country Club in Wauwatosa and developed a strong reputation as a player and teacher. That continued at Pleasant View, where his teaching focused on simple instructions that his students could easily remember.
“To this day, members from Blue Mound still drive over to get lessons from Ted,” said Chris Schwab, the food and beverage manager at Pleasant View. “He always has stories to tell about them. Ted’s stories are always the best.”
Donker saved his best teaching efforts forchildren. His junior program was the most successful in the area and regularly drew more than 200 children annually and reached 275 this year, he said. Young golfers learned fundamentals and played in scrambles and best-ball events along with Donker and his assistants. They played on the par-3 course most of the time, but Donker put them on the regular course, too, and shortened the tees. “It was like an on-course playing lesson,” Donker said.
Middleton High School’s boys and girls golf teams won multiple state titles during Donker’s time at Pleasant View, which was the home course for both teams.
“He grew that junior program to where it is today. He definitely made an impact. Everybody remembers Ted,” said Halverson, who also is the coach of the Middleton girls team that just won the WIAA Division 1 state golf title.
“He saw the joy in the kids’ eyes every day with the games he created for them. It was important for him to see people enjoying the game like he enjoyed it. He was always having fun with them,” added Halverson, 34. “That’s Ted. He just wanted to fit in with everybody. He never wanted the spotlight.”
Donker regularly departed from the unofficial dress code for golf pros, wearing sweatpants to work and golfing in shorts. But his impressive play on the golf course set him apart.
Donker scored his 11th hole-in-one on Oct. 30, when his 4-iron tee shot bored through the wind and settled into the hole on the 172-yard No. 5 on Pleasant View’s Prairie Course. Two years earlier, to the day, Donker had aced the same hole with an 8 iron.
“All that shows is that I’m getting older,” said a laughing Donker.