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Lee Benson, deseret news
Gordon O'Neil founded Uinta Golf in 1971. In 1998 he sold the business to Sean Smith. On May 1 the popular Utah golf retail store is slated to be sold to Edwin Watts Golf.

SALT LAKE CITY — Sean Smith is happy, but he's sad at the same time.

He's known the taste of bittersweet before, and now he's sampling it again.

Sean is the current owner of Uinta Golf, the biggest little golf retailer in the West, but as of May 1, when all the t's are crossed and the contracts are signed, he'll be the former owner. All five of Uinta's stores, from Ogden to St. George, are about to become part of Edwin Watts Golf, a chain located primarily in the Southeast and Midwest but with plans to expand to the Rockies and beyond.

For Sean, the good news is he's happy Uinta is going into the hands of a company with one of the best reputations in retail golf, and that virtually all of Uinta's staff of 65 people will be retained.

The sad news is that he won't be one of them.

For the past 131/2 years, he's poured his heart and soul into what he describes as "basically just a big toy store," and now, despite his love for golf and the golf industry, he's getting out while the getting out's good.

He cites statistics that show 46 percent of America's small golf retailers have shut their doors since 2006. The struggling economy accounts for some of that, but the bigger reason is the big-box golf retailers that have such buying power they're putting the Ma-and-Pa stores out of business. It's the Walmart effect, with a graphite shaft.

"It's going to take awhile to adjust," says Smith, but, then, he knows all about that. In 1996, when he was 25 years old, the Utah grocery chain his grandfather Dee Smith started, Smith's Food King, was acquired by a national chain and he found himself with a nice payoff — he started in the company as a bagger and ended up on the board — but nothing to do.

He went back to school for a while, but when his kids asked him what he did for a living he decided it was time to do something for a living, so in 1998 he dipped into his nest egg and bought Uinta Golf, which at the time was a chain of one located on 2100 South just below 700 East in Sugar House.

But what a chain of one. You could roam the fairways of Utah and rarely find the golfer who wasn't familiar with Uinta.

The company officially dates back to 1971, when Gordon O'Neil and his wife, Lillian, first hung up a sign in front of their house that said "Uinta Golf." But the roots really go back to 1970 when O'Neil, a natural-born entrepreneur straight out of a Dickens novel, bought his wife a starter set of golf clubs that he saw in a mail-order catalog. The price: $39.

O'Neil liked to buy and sell stuff long before there was an eBay or ksl.com, and when he realized that he could avoid paying shipping if he bought in bulk, he ordered six starter sets. When they arrived he ran ads in the paper and within a week he'd sold all six, including Lillian's.

O'Neil thought, "Wow, that went well," and started buying and selling more golf items. He was no golf nut himself. He played the game on weekends occasionally, but nothing serious.

But there were plenty of golf nuts out there, he soon discovered, and in the spring of 1971 he decided to purchase 144 dozen Ram golf balls — again, buying in bulk meant free shipping — for $1,000. Then, for good measure, he bought another $2,000 worth of Ram products.

"We were trying to buy us a cabin in the Uintas," recalls O'Neil of the impetus for his wheeling and dealing, "so we named it Uinta Golf. We were going to do it for a summer or two and put money down on our cabin."

Instead, Uinta Golf became their cabin. To make a very long and very successful story short enough to fit into this column, Gordon and Lillian moved the golf business out of their basement two years later, operated out of rental space on Wilmington Avenue for a few more years, and in 1978 moved to 2100 South and built their building.

Year after year, decade after decade, the golf faithful beat a steady path to Uinta's door.

"Over the years, the story developed that I created it because the pros were gouging at their shops, but that wasn't the case," insists O'Neil. "We just gave our customers what they wanted and tried to always have it in stock so they didn't have to wait."

After 27 years, O'Neil sold the store to Smith, "so I could give myself an opportunity to do something else."

Like Smith, he has a bittersweet feeling about Uinta going to Edwin Watts.

"I think the world of Sean; I wish he'd kept it," O'Neil, 69, says. "But I can see why he's selling, and the Watts group has a reputation that's really great."

On his watch, Smith expanded Uinta by adding stores in Sandy, Ogden, Orem and St. George, but decided it wasn't going to be enough to compete with the super retailers in the long run.

"It needed to be part of something bigger," he says. "I'm confident the future is so much more secure."

Both Smith and O'Neil cite the same formula for Uinta's enduring success: quality employees and loyal customers.

"We've always had the greatest employees," says Smith, "and in contrast to groceries, where maybe half the shoppers in the store aren't happy to be there, here, they're all happy."

Many of Uinta's holdover staff will see increased responsibilities with the changeover. Joe Judd, Smith's popular longtime general manager, will now be district manager for Edwin Watts.

At 41, Smith isn't sure what he'll do next, but he's sure he'll find something new to sell. "Retail is all I know," he says, "and I love it."

As for the Uinta name, at least it will remain. For the first time in acquiring a business, Edwin Watts has announced it will keep the local brand.

As of May 1, it will be Edwin Watts Golf Uinta.

"I'm not sure the Uinta will last very long," muses O'Neil.

But isn't that what he said the first time?

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Monday and Friday.

Email: benson@desnews.com