WeaverRidge's owners love golfers more than golf

By Ron Cobb, Contributor

PEORIA, Ill. - For the average golfer, owning a golf course would be a dream come true. But Jerry Weaver isn't your average golfer. In fact, he's not a golfer at all.

"I haven't played yet this year," he said on an afternoon in mid-June. Weaver and his wife, Nancy, played their first 18-hole rounds on the day before their golf course, WeaverRidge, opened in Peoria in 1997.

"I wondered what all those golf clubs were for," Nancy said. "I kept using the same one. It wasn't pretty."

Neither one was bitten by the golf bug, although Jerry did remark once that he was almost a golfer "because I like to drink beer and ride in a cart."

The Weavers are perfectly content to let others enjoy the exceptional golf course they built on farm land that the family owned. Nancy tends the business side of the club. Jerry prefers the social atmosphere inside WeaverRidge's 33,000-foot clubhouse. You'll find him there most days greeting familiar faces in the restaurant.

Golf? Jerry can take it or leave it. But golfers?

"I love 'em," he said. "Our guests arrive, they're smiling and happy. They see our clubhouse, and we look more like a private facility than a public course, so they're excited.

"People like to come in and visit with the owner and have him buy them a drink once in a while. I've been known to buy a lot of pops - whatever they're drinking. I like talking to people. That's why I don't golf a lot."

Accolades began to roll in a year after WeaverRidge opened. Golf Digest ranked it No. 2 on its 1998 list of best new upscale public courses in the country. A year later, Golf Digest gave it a No. 6 ranking among all the golf courses in Illinois. Jerry Weaver is only half-kidding when he says the golf course turned out so well because he didn't know enough about golf to interfere with designers Michael Hurdzan and Dana Fry.

In their 384-page book "Selected Golf Courses," Hurdzan and Fry describe being pleasantly surprised at the land they had to work with. "It was not the typical flat farm land that we saw as we drove from Chicago to the site. In fact, we had no idea just how pretty Peoria and the area around it really is, compared to what we imagined," they wrote.

Far from being flat, the varied topography of the Weavers' land presented numerous possibilities.

The golf course that emerged offers dramatic elevation changes on the back nine, including a 100-foot drop on the par-3, 228-yard 12th hole and another drop nearly as precipitous from the tees on the par-5, 556-yard 18th. The golf course's other main feature, besides bentgrass from tee to green, is Big Hollow Creek, which crosses the fairway on Nos. 10, 11 and 18. Wide fairways help golfers keep their ball in play. The course's best defense is its 97 bunkers, most of them around the greens and many of them quite deep.

The Weavers evolved into golf-course owners in a roundabout way. They'd heard that a buyer was looking for land for a golf course, and they knew their land was well-suited. The parties met, but a potential deal fell through. By then, though, the idea had gained momentum, and the Weavers carried it through in partnership with Diane Cullinan, owner of a Peoria real estate firm. The Weavers later bought Cullinan's interest in the golf course. They devoted 220 of the 370 acres to golf and left 150 for home sites.

Today, the Weavers run a family operation, with a son, daughter, son-in-law and daughter-in-law working at the course. Two other Weaver children are involved in the family's numerous restaurants in the Midwest, including 27 Taco Bell and KFC franchises in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.

Their expertise in the field may explain why WeaverRidge's restaurant is so popular. On any given day, more than half of the customers are likely to be non-golfers. Sunday brunches ($14.95) draw 200 to 350 people, Jerry Weaver said.

"We average 29,000 to 30,000 rounds a year," he said, "and we generate more from food and beverage than golf."

Initially, there was some doubt whether WeaverRidge could make it in Peoria with its high greens fees -$78 Monday through Wednesday (including cart) and $89 Thursday through Sunday. The doubt has since been dispelled. Golfers can save some money through packages with Peoria hotels,including the Par-A-Dice Hotel and Casino, the Mark Twain Hotel, Hotel Pere Marquette, Holiday Inn City Center and SpringHill Suites by Marriott.

"What we've done here has far exceeded expectations," Jerry Weaver said. "And I've got the best job in the world. It's a great place to come to work."

The Weavers, who spend their winters in Florida, may yet catch the golf bug. They both say they need to take lessons. But neither is in a big rush to dust off their golf clubs.

"He took the clubs to Florida two years in a row," Nancy Weaver said. "I couldn't take many clothes because he had the whole trunk filled up. We never played."

Where to stay

Mark Twain Hotel
225 N.E. Adams
Peoria, Ill.
(309) 676-3600

Par-A-Dice Hotel & Casino
21 Blackjack Blvd.
Peoria, Ill.
(800) 727-2342

Holiday Inn City Center
500 Hamilton Blvd.
Peoria, Ill.
(309) 674-2500

Where to eat

2607 N. University
Peoria, Ill.
(309) 688-8200

F. Scott's Whiskey Bar & Grill
114 S.W. Jefferson
Peoria, Ill.
(309) 676-7530

Jim's Steak House
110 SW Jefferson
Peoria, Ill.
(309) 673-5300

Off course diversion

The Spirit of Peoria is an old-fashioned paddlewheeler that offers sightseeing cruises on the Illinois River, departing at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays in summer. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $7 for children 4-12 and free for children 3 and under. A family pack is $35. Call (800) 676-8988 or go to spiritofpeoria.com.

Fast fact

Golfers driving to the course on War Memorial Drive (U.S. 150) must take a slight detour because of construction. The route to the golf course is well-marked by signs.

Ron Cobb, Contributor

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