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A Golfer's Memoir | T+L Golf

Martin O’Neill Illustration

Photo: Martin O’Neill

Elsewhere in these pages I make mention of a golf course that I, as a boy of twelve, helped build. Although it seems far-fetched that a youngster could have played a major role, I was, in fact, the motivating influence behind that venture.

Here’s the background. Charles E. Van Loan, one of the great chroniclers of sporting events of his day, had written a book entitled Fore!, which was published in 1915. I received a copy as a gift from a wealthy neighbor who wintered in Pasadena, California, and who was familiar with golf. That wonderful book was my introduction to golf, and I am sure I was one of only a few in our town who had any idea what the word "fore" meant.

The game intrigued me, so with two dollars in my pocket I rode the blinds of the Soo Line Railroad to St. Paul, Minnesota, a distance of thirty-six miles. ("Blinds" was railroad language for the accordion-pleated closures between passenger and Pullman cars. We kids used to hop on as the train was pulling away from the New Richmond water tower and hide in these closures, out of sight of the railroad authorities.) My destination was the Spalding Brothers sporting goods store, which in those days was furnished almost like a modern-day nineteenth hole or club room. At Spalding I bought a hickory-shafted cleek with a leather grip for ninety cents, four golf balls for sixty cents, and a book, Spalding’s How to Play Golf, which cost twenty-five cents. That left twenty-five cents for lunch, which was ample.

In his middle years, Dad told a different version of how he acquired his first clubs. The clubs and the instruction book, he told my brother, Tom, were in the window of the New Richmond hardware store, and he traded his bicycle for them. The two versions are compatible if we make a distinction between "club" and "clubs." He may have traded for the hardware store clubs after first practicing with the cleek.

As for the wealthy neighbor, my sister, Terry, professes bewilderment. "New Richmond wasn’t the sort of place where rich people lived," she says. "Daddy, of course, was orphaned and living with relatives, so anybody who traveled may have seemed rich to him."

I rode the blinds back to New Richmond and raced to a cow pasture near our house. There I tried to hit balls, referring constantly to the instruction book, which I propped against a fence post. I did this for days without much success, until one day my wealthy neighbor, who had actually played some golf, climbed over the fence, took my club and hit several shots. These shots—straight and incredibly long—were a revelation to me. When it was my turn again, I must have employed the imitative technique that all youngsters are born with, because I also hit an incredible shot. The sound at impact, the speed, the flight of the ball—all are still with me today.

In time, my efforts in the meadow attracted the attention of some adults in the community, who also became interested in the game. These adults acquired eighty acres of farmland at the edge of town and made plans to build a nine-hole golf course.

Dad leaves out some important details. According to the late Judge Joseph Hughes of New Richmond, my father laid out his own three-hole course in the meadow, expanding it in later years to five holes and finally to seven. Various townspeople, seeing the fun the youngster was having, climbed over the fence and gave golf a try. Some of them, however, may have strayed to other tracks. In his 1992 monograph, The New Richmond Golf Club: A History, Donald Reppe asserts that in 1921 a resort owner named Richard Schmick built a short-lived six-hole course on the southwest shore of Bass Lake, six miles from New Richmond.

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