Love at first putt
Leo Chesser had never stepped a foot in Nevada County, let alone played a round of golf, when he and his wife drove up from Danville to visit his sister-in-law in Grass Valley for a weekend back in 1977.
As the couple headed up the hill on Highway 49, a sign for Alta Sierra Country Club caught Leo’s eye.
“I just happened to be carrying those sticks in the trunk,” Chesser said, with a smile spreading beneath his pencil-thin mustache, “just in case.”
The next morning he took a solo trip back down to Alta Sierra and shot a round of golf that would change the course of his – and his wife’s – life forever.
“I fell in love with this course,” said Leo, who has twice shot his age since turning 90 last month. “It’s my type of course. It’s a figure-eight layout with no parallel holes. It rewards a straight shot, with out-of-bounds on each side. If you’re not keeping it in the fairway, you’re going to pay a penalty.
“I shot an 83 that day. I could almost tell you what I did hole by hole.”
After his round, Leo raced back to Grass Valley and asked his wife, Laura, if she’d like to look at a few houses. After rounding up a Realtor, the Chessers criss-crossed the Alta Sierra area with a sudden sense of adventure. They looked at a home on Norlene Way and another on Susan Way, before finishing up the tour at a brand new house on the 16th tee.
“We bought the same day,” Leo said. “We’d never been here before in our life, but you couldn’t get us to go anywhere since.”
‘It was our club’
Leo’s love affair with Alta Sierra is apparent. A real pride rises in his voice as he talks about the course, the club and the members – who eventually became the owners back in the ’80s. He and Glenn Dumas, a vice admiral in the Navy, served as vice president and president, respectively, of ASCC’s first board of directors.
And early on, while the board was looking for a general manager, Leo leaped into the role on an interim basis.
“Four and a half years later,” he said, “I had to resign, just to get back to playing some golf.”
That first year, in which saw 80 inches of rain fall on western Nevada County, it quickly became apparent that the club’s roof needed repairs. But because the members had pooled their money together just to purchase the club, there wasn’t any money in the coffers and there wasn’t much coming in the door.
“In February (of ’86), there were only three days that it didn’t rain,” he said. “We had more buckets on the floor than customers.”
So Leo twisted the arm of a retired roofer he knew, and then did the same with a few fellow members, to put a new roof on the club. His rag-tag group of 10 guys on the roof every morning at 6 a.m. saved the club considerable money, doing the job for around $13,000 – about a third of the price quoted by a contractor.
“It was our club,” he said. “Oh, what a difference that makes when you own it yourself.”
Getting to work
Leo was used to getting his hands dirty. Growing up in southern Illinois, he got to work early in his life simply out of necessity. Though, as a young boy, he had hoped to one day attend Georgia Tech to become an engineer, his dreams were all but tossed out the window when his dad died during Leo’s freshman year of high school.
“My paper route was most of our income,” he said. “And my mother used to make oatmeal cookies that I sold on my route. They would just melt in your mouth.
“My dad was a builder and contractor, so at 12 I was on the roof helping a painter. And when dad died, I knew there was no way I could go to college.”
Instead, he became an apprentice plumber, starting at $3 a week in 1936.
It was a few years later, while visiting Laura’s parents in the Berkeley area, it became clear that California was the place they ought to be.
“She didn’t say it was where we should be,” he emphasized, “she said ‘this is where we’re going to be.'”
He went to work at the Kaiser Shipyards – started by the same Henry J. Kaiser who later created Kaiser Permanante – in 1942, building tank landing ships, miniature destroyers and cargo ships in the war effort.
After the war, he and his brother-in-law opened a fountain lunch shop in Berkeley – which, incidentally, helped lead him to his second love.
Love at first putt
“I knew on the first putt I ever made I was stuck in this game,” he said. “Something just happened and I couldn’t get enough of it.”
That was 1952 and many, many tee times ago.
At the height of his play, he was a seven handicap and shot his best round of 77 in 1979. He also has scored seven holes-in-one, which is one short of Jeff Little, who for the past 15 years has often served as his partner in tournament play.
“A couple of months ago, I almost had another one,” Leo said. “It was on hole 10 – four inches away, pin high, to the left … but it didn’t go in.”
That’s not to say the guy can’t still swing the sticks with the best of them. He plays three days a week, unless there’s a tournament weekend on tap. Last weekend, he shot a 90 alongside Little at the Nevada County Country Club Invitational. But that wasn’t the first time he has shot his age. He first pulled off the feat after celebrating his 80th birthday.
“I shot 93 on my birthday (in June),” he said. “We celebrated on our Men’s Day, when more of my guys were here (at ASCC). Our chef made a great birthday carrot cake. Magnifico.”
A week later, he carded a 46 on the front nine and a 44 on the back to match his age once again. Though he’s Alta Sierra’s oldest playing member, he currently carries a 22 handicap and remains as competitive as ever.
“I don’t like to play unless we’ve got a game up, even if it’s only a quarter. I want something to play for,” he said. “And they hate to hand that dollar over to a 90-year-old man.”
His first love
As of this month, Leo and Laura Chesser have shared 69 years of their lives together in marriage.
Yet one thing the former Laura Deane doesn’t share with her husband is his love of the game.
“She tried it once,” he said. “She got into a sand trap, picked up the ball and threw it at me and said ‘I’m through with this silly old game.’
“But I married such a sweetheart of gal. She never says a word about me playing.”
And though she favors a good game of bridge over a round of golf, Laura showed her love for her husband and his fellow club members years ago after they obtained ownership of Alta Sierra. A former secretary, Laura came over to the club office to “help make it go” as they got their club off the ground.
They met in their teenage years back in Illinois, but were anything but high school sweethearts as they didn’t even date at the time. Yet the way their life together unfolded, it only confirms what Leo knew when he bought the $10 suit he was married in back in Terre Haute, Ind.
They were meant for each other.
She loved the climate of California climate and he loved the fairways of Alta Sierra, where they raised their daughter and enjoyed the gift of a granddaughter.
Still, their years together haven’t been without an occasional slice or hook. It’s just that there have been three secrets to their success.
“You don’t argue over money,” he said. “You never go to bed angry.”
And the third?
“I married a sweetheart of a gal. I’m lucky to have her.”
To contact Sports Editor Brian Hamilton, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4240.
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New season. New co-head coaches. Same expectations.