Richard Field was tending to Sawmill Golf Course, as he's done for 30 years, when a regular approached recently with thanks. The golfer, an older gentleman who doesn't move so quickly anymore, thanked Field for building a course where he could play at his own pace. Where he still could enjoy himself.
Field, who built Sawmill almost entirely by hand, smiled at the thought.
"This might sound corny," Field said, "but that's worth a lot."
Sawmill Golf Course, which celebrated its 30th anniversary July 4, has established itself among the great stories in Lehigh Valley golf. Born and built by one man, the course just outside of Stockertown in Plainfield Township has bucked most every mainstream convention of the golf business. And done so successfully.
Sawmill does not take tee times, does not enforce cart-only hours and offers an open pricing structure: Pay one price, play all day. If there's room, golfers can play alone. When it's busy, regulars group themselves to reduce traffic.
Now 86, Field is on the course seven days a week, refining the property he opened in 1987. He graded the fairways, dredged the bunkers and built the greens.
Field built a loft onto the property's old farmhouse, carefully constructing around the existing chestnut beams, that serves as a banquet hall. He also planted a memorial garden to his late wife Lorraine, who died away in 2013.
Richard and Lorraine Field were partners in everything, from their fuel-oil business to raising their three kids to building their golf course. After the course's second nine holes opened in 2001 (also on July 4), a developer offered the Fields $3 million for the property.
They thought about it but declined.
"Mom agreed with everything," said daughter Nancy Rose, manager of Sawmill. "She stood there that day and said, 'What would you do without this golf course?' Dad said, 'I'll go build another one.' And she said, 'Oh, no you're not.' That was the one time she said, 'That's where I draw the line.'"
In the 1960s, after becoming a pretty good player at Green Pond Country Club, Field decided he wanted to build his own golf course. He purchased about 100 acres of run-down farmland in Plainfield Township in 1965, then spent 12 years figuring out what to do next.
Field designed the first nine holes by himself, guided primarily by a 50-page course-construction book produced by the National Golf Foundation. The process took a long time and was interrupted in 1977, when his oldest son Richard Jr. was killed in a car accident by a drunk driver.
The family forged on, however. Field bought used farm equipment, including a front loader, and rebuilt those pieces before taking them to the land. He planted trees in the backyard of the property's house, then replanted them onto the course, with his family's help. His kids spent a summer hand-picking rocks off the fairways, because Field didn't want players striking them and ruining clubs.
"I remember reading 'The Good Earth' in high school and thinking, 'This is my life,'" Rose said.
Field learned everything about golf course design and construction on his own. He studied routing, so players weren't hitting golf balls at each other. He researched topsoil, turf and sand, fitting each element into the property.
Field learned how to deal with planning commissions and zoning officers, how to build greens to USGA specifications and how to keep golfers from playing without paying. He changed the initial route, moving the first tee behind the clubhouse, where staff could keep an eye on players. Security cameras do that now.
When he opened the first nine holes in 1987, Field did so debt-free. Players from a local bank league told him that, had he financed the course, all 18 holes would have been opened by then.
"No banker was ever going to put my back against the wall," he said. "Ever. I'd do the same thing again."
Field is proud to say that the first contractor he hired was to help him with roofing and siding on The Loft, Sawmill's breezy banquet facility. He did seek out a course designer for the second nine holes, however, hiring Jim Blaukovitch, the Quakertown course architect who later designed Southmoore, Whitetail and Riverview.
Blaukovitch laid out some of the course's characteristic holes, including the 12th, a short par 3 with an elevation drop, and the 13th, a par 5 that marches straight up a power line. Field built everything, including the sand traps that Blaukovitch added to the course.
In 2010, Field had a health setback, was hospitalized for surgery and spent six months recuperating at his daughter's house. When he recovered, Field returned to build bunkers. He's working on the parking lot now.
"I'm still enjoying it," Field said. "I wanted to build a golf course not for the money but for the love of the game. And for the joy of doing it."
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