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JOHNSTON: Saying goodbye to Hawthorn Ridge
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JOHNSTON: Saying goodbye to Hawthorn Ridge

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ALEDO — Back in the mid 1970s, one man had a vision for this rural community and made it happen.

On Wednesday, the sun may have literally set on that dream.

When the final putts dropped and the lights went out in the clubhouse, Mitchell Warwick’s expression to make Mercer County a better place for its residents will diminish a bit.

Hawthorn Ridge Golf Course, a staple in the golfing community since opening in 1978, will apparently be no more.

Gary and Judy Baker, the fourth owners of the property, are expected to close on the sale of the property Thursday.

The expectation is that the new owner has plans for the acreage that do not include it remaining a golf course.

For Paul Flint, that reality hits hard as his uncle, Mitchell Warwick, built the course.

Flint had fond memories of doing “grunt work” around the course when it was transformed from farm land into one of the top courses in the bi-state region through the 1980s.

“It’s going to be crazy,” said Flint, an avid golfer, of thinking about the old family farm no longer being the facility Warwick toiled to build in the middle of cornfields. “It’s sad; there’s a part of me that knows all the connection to the family farm is going to be gone.”

Flint was among the final men's league group to play on Wednesday. Others trekked to the course for one final round. One Hawthorn regular, Bob Stockham, played 45 holes on Wednesday to say goodbye to the facility.

The one thing Flint is glad to know is that the land will apparently not be returned to farmland. That was one stipulation Baker had in the sale. What it becomes has not been made public yet by the local businessman taking it over.

There is plenty of speculation as to what might happen to the property and some even hold out hope that it remains a golf course as there are some zoning issues to be worked out.

Still, the memories of it being a highly-rated golf course that drew thousands of players from across the Midwest and served the Mercer County area so well may be all that are left for the golfing public.

But those memories are special — just like the course was for so many years under Warwick’s watchful eye.

“For me as a kid, I didn’t realize what had dropped in my lap,” said Matt Ewing, the 1984 Illinois High School Association individual state golf champion who led the then Aledo Green Dragons to the state title that year.

“Myself and two or three of my friends played every day. There were five, six, seven of us, that played every weekend. That place kept us out of a lot trouble.

“Honestly, that’s what Mitch’s vision was for the place.”

According to Flint, Warwick kept playing golf until he passed in 2002 at age 83.

Ironically, he never golfed until he built Hawthorn Ridge — the back nine being constructed on the family farm, the front nine on adjacent property he purchased. The house that once sat between the 16th green and 17th tee was where Flint’s grandma and grandpa moved in 1914 after they married and where Mitchell Warwick grew up.

“He was interested in sports,” Flint said of his uncle. “But he never played golf in his life when he built the course. He bowled and was a big supporter of local sports. He never married, but he went to a lot of local sports games just to support the community.”

Which was his plan for Hawthorn Ridge — to help the community.

A lot of people pitched in to make it happen.

William J. Spear, who also designed Highland Springs in Rock Island and Bettendorf’s Palmer Hills Golf Course, stepped in to aid in the design. Flint recalled that a number of members of the Hergert family helped build and groom the course and also run the clubhouse when it opened.

And when it did open, it became something the community rallied around.

That was how Warwick rolled. Flint said that his uncle spearheaded the building of the first bowling alley in Aledo in the 1960s. When that was done, his attention turned to the golf course.

That, admitted Ewing, changed a lot of lives. That makes its closing tough on him, too. But being a farmer he also has a practical side and understands the economics of it.

So did Baker, who also farmed and came out of retirement to keep the course open for four more years. He and his wife, Judy, purchased the course from another local state prep golf champ — Chuck Fiser — who had owned it since 2003.

“Assets can be replaced, so I’ll withhold judgement,” said Ewing, hopeful of a major economic impact from whatever operation lands there. “On a personal and biased note, it breaks my heart and is devastating.”

He saw how important Hawthorn Ridge was to the community and the school golf teams and it hurts knowing that is lost.

On the bright side, though, the Mercer County golf programs have found a future home. According to Golden Eagles’ girls coach Aaron Heartt, the programs have been offered the opportunity to play at Oak View Country Club, the 9-hole course in town.

“At least we still have a home course to go to,” said Heartt, who has built a dominant program. “It’s going to look different and there will be some limitations, but it’s a home course.”

It will be tough to know Hawthorn Ridge may no longer be part of the Q-C golf landscape. As Ewing said, there were a lot of memories made there — even some that don’t need to be printed in the local newspaper.

It was a course that many held dear, which brought a number of people out in the last few weeks to play Uncle Mitch’s dream one more time.

The final rounds were on a course in rougher shape than when it was a nationally rated layout.

But the memories of terrific rounds of golf with great friends will always remain.

As Judy Baker admitted, “it is bittersweet” to say goodbye.

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