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This piece is presented by GreatLIFE Golf & Fitness.
Galen “Duff” Vavra didn’t start playing golf at a high level until he moved to a house along the Central Valley Golf Course in Hartford.
Vavra, 47, started playing golf as a grade-schooler in Wessington Springs, but he didn’t play in high school or college.
“It was pretty much when I moved to Sioux Falls (in 1992) that I started to play,” he said. “Once I moved to Hartford in 1999, I got competitive.”
He also became successful.
Since he started playing regularly at Central Valley, which is part of the GreatLIFE Golf & Fitness Club network, he has won 16 course championships and several other tournaments at area courses. His record at his home course includes club championships as well as victories in men’s open and pre-senior — age 40 and older — tournaments.
Vavra works in northwestern Sioux Falls, so he has a relatively short commute to his home near the 15th green. He is the vice president of procurement and IT at Sonifi Solutions, a company that provides services such as internet and TV entertainment to guestrooms in the United States and other countries.
He currently is a scratch golfer, meaning he plays par golf. At times, he has had an official handicap as low as plus 3, which in golf lingo means three strokes under par. That’s a score most recreational golfers in the Sioux Falls area can only dream of reaching.
Vavra is a big man who hits the ball straight but, he said, only for average distance. The strength of his game is the accuracy of his short shots and putting. “Around the green and putting is where you save your shots. That comes from playing more and practicing more,” he said.
He especially likes playing golf late in the season.
“My favorite golf is in August and September – late-year golf. I love to play in the fall,” he said. “That’s when courses are at their best.” The weather tends to be nice in the fall, too.
As a GreatLIFE member, he has a lot of options to play different course. GreatLIFE’s website, joingreatlife.com, lists 25 courses in the tri-state Sioux Falls area.
Two Sioux Falls courses – Willow Run and Bakker Crossing – are part of the GreatLIFE network. Hartford is one of the closest out-of-town options for golfers in Sioux Falls, but there are several other nearby courses.
GreatLIFE leased Central Valley for the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons and bought the course in 2016. The organization rebuilt the clubhouse, which opened in the spring.
Vavra has served on Central Valley’s board for about 14 years. But with GreatLIFE operating the course, the board members no longer has much to do, Vavra said.
Central Valley was struggling before it became a GreatLIFE course, he said.
“We knew we had a great product. It (the challenge) was just getting people out to play.”
Since GreatLIFE took over management and promotion of the course, play has increased almost 2 1/2 times – from 12,000 rounds a season to 28,000, said Mike Smith, the longtime course superintendent.
The demographics of who plays golf in Hartford has shifted to a younger, more family-oriented crowd, he said.
Smith is in his 37th year of overseeing the maintenance of the course and other facilities on the property. The course was nine holes long when he started. He oversaw the addition and construction of a second nine in 1989 and 1990.
When he started working at Hartford, old-timers told him that maintaining good putting greens would cover up other course faults, he said.
“That philosophy has never changed, even though the golf course has matured. We don’t have many faults anymore,” he said.
Smith and Vavra are friends and have played a lot of golf together through the years. Smith said he doesn’t win very often, though.
“If you beat him, you’ve beaten one of the best around,” Smith said.
“What makes Galen interesting is that he’s a self-taught player. He didn’t play as a kid. He took it up late in life and really learned the game. Nothing was ever given to him. He’s learned and practiced and figured it out,” Smith said. “He’s very impressive.”
Smith keeps the course in “phenomenal condition,” Vavra said. “Our greens are some of the best in the state.”
Vavra plays the majority of his rounds at Central Valley and considers it a “technical” course.
“It’s not long. It’s in very good condition, and it has a lot of trees,” he said. In addition, water comes into play on about six of the 18 holes. So accuracy matters.
It’s a good course for anyone from beginners to experienced players, he said, and it’s a pretty easy walk for golfers who prefer to carry their bag.
“In my opinion, the secret to playing Central Valley is having no penalty strokes and being a good putter because the greens are sloped and usually pretty quick,” Vavra said.
Social opportunities, such as men’s nights and ladies’ nights, also are attractions. His wife, Lisa, also golfs.
“There are always guys looking to play,” Vavra said.
Galen “Duff” Vavra didn’t start playing golf at a high level until he moved to a house along the Central Valley Golf Course in Hartford. Now, good luck trying to beat him.