John Barovich, who died last Friday at the age of 92, rarely let a day go by at Hilands Golf Club without hitting a golf ball or two.
"There will be a lot less action on the driving range without him around," Pete Grass, course superintendent at the private Billings course, said this week. "He would hit well over a thousand practice balls a day. Just kind of like a machine … boom, boom, boom."
With that kind of regimen, Barovich, who lived in a condominium near the course's ninth tee, was — without a doubt — the most visible of Hilands' 275 members.
"He's left a huge void," said Scott Cain, who is the general manager and director of golf at Hilands. "He had such great enthusiasm for golf and it showed in trying to get better and improve his game …
"We were always talking golf. He was always asking questions," said Cain, who has been at the course for nearly two years. "He was always trying to get better even at 92."
A memorial service for Barovich will be held today at 2 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ at 310 North 27th Street.
"He played golf last Thursday," noted Grass. "He did what he loved right up until the end, which is pretty amazing for 92."
What was also remarkable over the years was Barovich's penchant for being at the course nearly every day around 6:30 a.m. to practice hitting, chipping and putting.
"He had a steel wedge that was actually concave because of the number of balls he had hit," said Grass. "He had basically worn a hole in his wedge, which is probably really hard to do."
That persistence on the practice range will definitely be part of Barovich's legacy at Hilands.
"He told me it was kind of like therapy," said Grass. "After his wife passed away … it's kind of like, well what else do I have to do?"
The lanky Barovich, who was a Hilands member since 1960, was an all-state 6-foot-3 center for Bearcreek High School in the early 1930s and went on to play basketball for Montana State University. He was the 1979 club champion at Hilands and won the Montana State Seniors Golf Tournament in Bozeman in 1982.
"He was one of the most lovable SOBs you'd ever know," Grass said.
Grass smiled when he said that because while Barovich was known as one of the first golfers at the course each day, he also had a reputation for being a bit defiant when it came to adhering to course rules.
"John was a person that just loved to defy rules, but never maliciously," said Grass, who has been at Hilands since 1975. "He would never go take a wedge and start whacking divots out of a green or something like that. He just loved to push the envelope a little bit."
Starting with his constant companion, a tiny dachshund named Nuisance.
"Most of the time he had his dog Nuisance with him, which is kind of comical because technically dogs aren't allowed on the course," said J.J. Barney, who works in Hilands' pro shop. "Just because John was such a longtime member we didn't really put too many restrictions on him."
Barovich lived an extraordinary life away from the course. He was a winning high school coach, a top insurance agent and flew his own airplane for years — even walking away from a few crashes.
And while he won trophies for knocking the ball around the links, he could also be a bit of a rebel on his home course.
According to one account, Barovich, years ago, had to serve a 30-day suspension at Hilands for peeling off his shirt while golfing on a hot summer's day.
There were some early violations involving his dog being out on the course, and Barovich also got a kick out of playfully hitting wedge shots close to employees mowing the fairways and greens.
"You'd look up and he'd be grinning at you," said Grass.
City police also gave him a warning or two about driving his golf cart the wrong direction down Poly Drive — and there was the time when he ripped into a politician visiting the course.
"Whatever was on his mind he said it," Grass said.
Around 10 years ago Barovich wanted a bridge built across the canal near the sixth hole at Hilands, but board members balked at paying for the project thinking — in part — he was just looking for quicker access to the course from his condo.
Barovich promptly went out and solicted $10,000 in donations from other club members and got the distinctive covered bridge built.
"He was definitely our most colorful character," said Grass. "Everybody knew John."
Barovich played two or three times a week on the club's nine-hole course, and — before his health began to decline — he sometimes made six or seven trips to the driving range or putting green during the course of a day.
"The amazing thing about John is that he never took a divot. He could hit from the same spot for an hour, and you almost couldn't tell he'd been there," said Grass. "He kind of like prided himself on that. He didn't go out there and just send the turf flying."
Besides practicing, his usual morning ritual also included drinking coffee and reading the newspaper in the clubhouse. If the weather wasn't nice, he'd analyze his form by swinging in the clubhouse's mirror room.
"He was always really genuine and always gave a firm handshake and a smile no matter how he is feeling," said Barney. "He just seemed like a really good guy. I think his age just finally caught up to him.
"I think he just had too much fun in his years," Barney continued. "He lived a long time and it seemed like he enjoyed every single day. It's pretty cool."
Added Grass, "I'm sure there will be a group of members that will find some way to immortalize his presence here at the course."