‘Up and Down’ the Iowa Golf Scene – Nervig Reflects on Decades of Service to The Iowa Masters
A Masterful Performance
When Ames native John Nervig first teed it up in the Iowa Masters golf tournament, Harry S. Truman was completing his second term in the Oval Office, a polio epidemic was gripping the United States and gasoline averaged $.20 cents per gallon.
This summer, the 85th edition of the Iowa Masters will be contested at Veenker Memorial Golf Course in Ames. Remarkably, Nervig has been part of the action for 70 of those events, first as a player, followed by a tournament director/co-director and now as an honorary official.
The 86-year-old Nervig first played the Masters in 1952. Starting in 1958, he reeled off 50 consecutive years of playing in the tournament, a record that stands alone today. He has the distinction of participating in 52 overall Iowa Masters events, a record he shares with long-time friend and former Iowa State Cyclone basketball and broadcasting legend Gary Thompson.
“There’s something special about the Iowa Masters golf tournament,” said Nervig. “It’s a combination of a challenging golf course, great tradition, well-run tournament featuring volunteers and staff who love the game and players who love to compete and renew the great friendships developed over the years.”
Established in 1938, long-time Iowa State Sports Information Director Harry Burrell capably managed the Iowa Masters for 40 years. In 1988, Burrell turned the reins over to Nervig and his fellow Ames native and good friend George Turner. Together, they co-directed the tournament for more than 30 years until Turner’s passing in 2019. They formed an extraordinary tournament staff, including clubhouse manager Tess Balsley, club professional Greg Dingel, former greenskeeper John Newton and the late Jerry Martinson, volunteer chair who also served as co-director for many years. A veteran committee included the likes of Mike Casey, Mike Purcell, Sean Flanders, Grant Walker and the late Jim Curell. On the tournament’s 75th anniversary, and in recognition of decades of service, Turner and Nervig received honorary life memberships to Veenker.
One of Nervig’s proudest achievements in his seven decades of involvement in the Iowa golf scene is being named the 2011 recipient of the George Turner Distinguished Service Award by the Iowa Golf Association.
“It was a fantastic honor to receive this award named after my great friend,” Nervig said. “All of the friends I have made through my years of volunteering have more than paid me back for the hours I have given.”
He also served several years as a member of the IGA Board, including President from 1985-87. In addition to playing many rounds with the iconic Turner, they also formed an intramural basketball team in the early 1950’s that scrimmaged the Iowa State freshmen squad during those days when first-year players were ineligible for varsity competition.
Nervig notes several changes over the years, both in the course layout and the tournament format.
“Veterans recall the tiny clubhouse and holes one and eighteen set apart from the rest of the course,” he noted. “Then the 13th Street road project came through that caused some hole redesign.”
Also gone are the five-hour plus rounds, aided by more volunteers, spotters, and a reduction of the field from 224 players to 156 players.
Although he played golf as a youngster, making many trips around Ames’s 9-hole Homewood layout, it took a significant health issue to reroute Nervig’s primary interest. He was a founding member of the Ames Merchants fast-pitch softball team and was a solid hitting and fielding third baseman. As a young man, Nervig was stricken with a case of Colitis, serious enough to cause a three-week hospital stay in Iowa City and two major re-sectioning surgeries. The subsequent Crohn’s Disease caused some life changes, including giving up softball. He turned his full attention to golf.
“I really didn’t think I’d live to see 30 years of age,” Nervig said. “But the silver lining in all this was the fabulous connections made through the game of golf.”
Nervig was a highly competitive golfer, winning three Ames City Championships and charting a pair of top 10 finishes at the Masters, including a 54-hole total of two-over par 218 in 1972. He also claimed at least 20 titles during the now bygone era of small town one-day golf tournaments, capturing titles in places like Nevada, Jewell, Story City and Ackley, where he once fired an 18-hole score of 59. Nervig was among the favorites in those venues, except when Eldora’s Ivan Miller was in the field. Billed as “The King of the Minnows” for winning more than 100 of such events, Miller was recently inducted into the Iowa Golf Association Hall of Fame.
“When Ivan was in town, we all knew we were playing for second,” Nervig recalled.
Nervig retired in the year 2000 following a 42-year career with the Iowa Department of Transportation in Ames. He and his wife, Patti, raised three sons.
He offers this parting advice.
“The game of golf is a lot like the game of life. You have far more good days than bad days and just give it your best effort.”
“Up and Down” the Iowa Golf Scene
A regular feature column written by IGA Foundation board member Mark Gambaiana, Up and Down the Iowa Golf Scene is designed to take the reader beyond the headlines and scoreboards to share stories of those who help make Iowa golf so rich and rewarding. Profiles will spotlight those who advance the game through volunteerism, service, extraordinary achievement, competition, human interest and the many other dimensions of golf in Iowa.