Kelly Kuchelmeister has been the superintendent at Sinnissippi Golf Course in Rockford, Ill., since 2017. The nine-hole course, designed by Tom Bendelow, is more than 100 years old. Photo by Maddie Appino/Rockford Park District
A softball story about Kelly Kuchelmeister depicts why she is so important to a golf story in Rockford, Ill.
Several years ago, Kuchelmeister was a third baseman for the Kaukauna (Wis.) High School Galloping Ghosts (yes, that’s really the mascot). An opponent ripped a grounder in the hole to Kuchelmeister’s left. “She took off after it,” says her father, Scott, who witnessed his daughter sprawled out to grasp the ball. “It was in her glove, and in her momentum, her glove went around her back, and she switched the ball into her other hand and came up and threw out the runner. She attacks whatever is thrown at her that has to be done.”
That’s one example of Kuchelmeister’s apparent knack for being in the right place at the right time — and that trait is serving her well right now.
Kuchelmeister, a six-year GCSAA member, is superintendent at Sinnissippi Golf Course in Rockford, Ill. The nine-hole facility is one of five golf courses in the Rockford Park District. Its potential closure, though, was an ongoing topic until that conjecture was halted for the time being last October. Sinnissippi GC has struggled recently to be profitable, but it was given a reprieve when the park district announced it would keep the course open through 2020 before reassessing.
Kuchelmeister welcomes the task of making the course sparkle with the clock ticking on its future. “I don’t feel pressure or panic to put out what we do. Our product speaks for itself,” Kuchelmeister says. “All superintendents in general have high standards, and I’m so proud of my crew. We constantly try to improve what we have here. As always, we’ll try to be better.”
Whether that will be enough to save Sinnissippi GC remains to be seen. According to an October article in the Rockford Register Star, Sinnissippi GC was on pace to lose more than $119,000 in 2019, and, overall, park district golf operations will lose more than $652,000, according to the district. Community members opposed to shuttering Sinnissippi GC launched a “Save Sinnissippi” campaign on Facebook. In early October 2019, nearly 200 people attended an open public meeting to let their voices be heard on behalf of Sinnissippi GC.
Those who oversee Kuchelmeister view her as integral in making the facility successful. “She’s absolutely the right person at the right time to be leading SGC,” says David Spencer, director of operations for the Rockford Park District. He also noted, “Kelly epitomizes a whole-team attitude, and in situations where resources are stretched, it’s that characteristic that sustains high-functioning organizations.”
Kuchelmeister was shaped in the business by people such as superintendents Glenn Bereiter at Aldeen Golf Club in Rockford and Tom Schmidt at Countryside Golf Club in Kaukauna, whom she worked for immediately after high school. She earned an associate degree focused on golf course grounds management and sustainable horticulture from Kishwaukee College in Malta, Ill.
Kuchelmeister was one of the first women to work on the grounds for Schmidt. It didn’t take long for him to see she was a natural. “She excelled from the beginning. She mowed. I was in the shop, sharpening blades. She wanted to try, wanted to learn,” Schmidt says. “She was always smiling, in a good mood. Put everybody in a better mood, it seemed like. In her situation now, I’m sure she’ll do whatever she can to make it go. I would have total faith in her.”
Sinnissippi Golf Course is one of five golf courses operated by the Rockford Park District. The city is located in northern Illinois, on the banks of the Rock River. Photo by Ben Wiegel/Rockford Park District
Ann Bloomfield, general manager of Rockford Golf, values Kuchelmeister’s outside-the-box thinking to attract people to Sinnissippi GC. Kuchelmeister initiated “Bites and Bogies,” where food trucks occasionally come to the facility on golf play days. “She always impresses me with what is next on the list for her, and she always has her sights set on making things better,” Bloomfield says. “I think 2020 is going to be a monumental year in a lot of ways. I know she will be a huge part of Sinnissippi’s success for 2020 and beyond.”
Nine years ago, Kuchelmeister started her career with the Rockford Park District at Aldeen Golf Club before moving to the district’s Alpine Hills Golf and Practice Center, where she grew-in a five-hole learning course. “I took nothing and created it into something. A lot of hand-feeding, fertilizing and being able to grow from the tees on up. It gave me confidence if I ever kill something on my golf course that I could grow it back,” she says.
Nick Benedict, in his third year at Sinnissippi GC and Kuchelmeister’s assistant, wouldn’t doubt it. “She’s taught me just about everything I know in the field. She’s open-minded with us, not a my-way-or-the-highway approach to leading us,” Benedict says. “We’re at a point we need somebody who knows what they’re doing. We need to knock it out of the park. We’re motivated to do our part.”
The thought of closing Sinnissippi GC — the oldest public course in the area, having opened in 1912 — is heartbreaking for Kuchelmeister, who won an equestrian grand championship in her spare time away from Sinnissippi, where she has been the superintendent since 2017. It’s no wonder, then, that she’s pouring her heart and soul into preventing its demise. And, as she did on that softball field, Kuchelmeister will take a stab at it with relentless passion. “A lot of people have stepped up. They value it and see Sinnissippi as something to fight for,” Kuchelmeister says. “We’ll help fight for it. We’re up for the challenge.”
Howard Richman is GCM’s associate editor.