A Golfer's Memoir | T+L Golf
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.
The course designer was no Robert Trent Jones. The fellow we hired was just a Saturday Afternoon Architect, one of those self-promoting quacks who designed sand-green golf courses for small towns. He charged practically nothing, and that’s precisely what his services were worth. He usually mailed the interested town a postcard to announce his coming (and to be sure the mayor or city clerk would be on hand to pay his fee). After a quick, critical glance at the acreage, the "architect" would take off at a brisk pace, placing a stake here, another one there, and so on, until all eighteen stakes were in the ground. He would then double back to where the mayor was waiting, explaining that the red stakes marked the proposed tee locations and the blue stakes the locations of the greens.
"That will be fifty dollars," he would say. "Here’s my card."
It was no trick at all to lay out five or six such masterpieces in a single weekend. Hence the name.
When it opened, our new course had concrete tees, wooden tee boxes and hard-sand greens. It was the contractor’s decision on the tees and greens. He had some experience with concrete (on tennis courts) and oiled sand (on macadam roads).
There were no trees or hazards.
The fairways and rough were pasture grass, and since we had no mowers—just grazing cattle and sheep—the grass was usually pretty high. When a ball in play was lost, we lay down and rolled around in the area until the ball revealed itself with a poke to the shoulder blades. (Our lady players were not above rolling around in the grass in this fashion. A Silver King golf ball cost a dollar, which was a lot of money in those days.) We had no clubhouse and no sanitary facilities except for an old Chic Sale two-holer in an adjacent pasture.
The New Richmond Golf & Country Club officially opened on April 17, 1924. The "tee boxes" were lidded containers holding moist sand, a pinch of which was used to tee up the ball for driving. Chic Sale was a hayseed comedian of the 1920s who wrote a best seller about privies. The livestock, of course, defecated where they were standing, belying Dad’s claim that the course presented no hazards.
Sand greens were common then, particularly in small communities. Sand greens were very cheap to build and even cheaper to maintain. The typical green was circular, about twenty feet in diameter, and crowned slightly for drainage. The hard macadam base was topped with oil-treated sand, which we periodically dragged with a burlap sweep to ensure a smooth, level surface. Each green was also provided with a small hand sweep, which we used to eliminate footprints. The cup was cut in the center of the green and never changed. That meant that the longest putt was approximately ten feet and absolutely straight. You were expected to one-putt every green; all you had to do was square the putter blade to the hole and knock it in.
If putting was easy, iron play was demanding. You could not hit an approach into a hard-sand green and expect it to hold. Any errant shot that landed directly on the green came off as hot and hard as if it had rebounded off a sidewalk. (One such shot, ricocheting off our ninth green with the velocity of a bullet, crashed through the windshield of a parked car and killed a dog.) The only possible approach was the pitch and run. If you could get your ball to trickle onto the green and stop, you were almost a cinch to get up and down.
The cracked windshield is believable, but the dead dog is probably a Jack Garrity embellishment. A dog of that era would have been out on the course with the golfers, not panting on the front seat of a Model A.
I am speaking, of course, of hard-sand greens. I realize that there were soft-sand greens, which had to be hand-dragged and smoothed out before and after each putt. These courses were common in Kansas and Missouri, and I played many of them in later years. Most sand-green courses were nine-holers, rarely exceeding 2,500 yards, but there were notable exceptions in cities like Minneapolis and Chicago, which had eighteen-hole hard-sand courses measuring almost six thousand yards. In Pinehurst, North Carolina, the early resort courses—including Donald Ross’s inimitable Pinehurst No. 2—had sand greens.
Sunday was golf day. In those days, everybody worked six full days—even the children, who usually had summer jobs almost as demanding as those of their elders—so there were few opportunities to play during the week. But on Sunday we could play from sunup to sundown, as long as there was no snow on the ground. There was no formality about starting times. At dawn, those who were ready just stepped up and belted the ball down the first fairway. We usually played nine holes in less than an hour and a half, and there were no tie-ups so typical of today’s play: no practice swings, no temper tantrums, no showboating. We just hit the ball in the general direction of the flagstick, pitched up to the green and putted out.
We had no access to food or drink on the course, so we all brought sandwiches and cookies. We also had an artesian well with winch, rope, bucket and dipper. Bad weather was no deterrent, and on many a Sunday we played six, seven or even eight rounds, stopping only when it was too dark to follow the flight of the ball.
Among our golfers there was a refreshing lack of distinction as to age, wealth, social position or professional status. Everyone was on a first-name basis, and there was a genuine warmth that only a closely knit, neighborly community can generate. For example, I, a teenager, often played with the finest trial lawyer in the state, a banker who owned much of St. Croix County, an aging grocery clerk, an executive vice president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, an automobile mechanic, a young chemical engineer who was destined to become chairman of the board of one of America’s great corporations, and a retired school teacher. We were all brought together, once a week, because we shared a love of golf.
In the early 1980s, when Dad’s name appeared in a Sports Illustrated column I wrote, he got a long-distance call from an old schoolmate who had worked at his side in a cranberry bog. "You old sonofabitch," Dad bellowed into the mouthpiece. "What have you been doing all these years?" The caller replied: "I’m a retired admiral."
As I mentioned, the New Richmond Golf Club was on eighty acres enclosed by four boundary fences.
Forty-five acres, according to Reppe.
At the perimeter and outside the fences were a corn field on the south, a wheat field on the west, the Soo Line Railroad tracks on the north and another corn field to the east. The concrete tees of the first four holes were set up in the right angle of each of the four corners, with each fairway laid straight along the fence line to a sand green four hundred yards away. Play proceeded counter-clockwise with out-of-bounds always on the right—just three feet away.
You can appreciate how such a layout could influence the playing styles of the club’s 168 neophyte golfers, all new to the game and knowing nothing about shotmaking. Each player, with an out-of-bounds fence staring him in the face, set himself to hit the ball far to the left. Nobody but an idiot would try to knock it two hundred yards along the fence line and hope to keep it out of the succotash.
Dad used the term "succotash" for deep vegetation. Rough bordering a fairway was "spinach."
Every golfer in our enlightened age knows what happens when you set up to the left of the target and let fly—the mother of all slices. Soon, 166 of the members were hitting the wildest banana balls in Wisconsin. The other two members were left-handed, so their stock in trade was a big hook.
Some fifteen years later, when I returned to New Richmond as a young adult, I found that the golf course had changed. The acreage was the same, but the members had built a brand new layout with grass greens, bluegrass fairways and tees that were like carpets. More importantly, they had revamped the four perimeter holes. Instead of progressing in counter-clockwise fashion, with out-of-bounds to the right, the new design set up the first four holes in clockwise sequence, with out-of-bounds fences to the left.
The roster of club members had changed over the years, but since it had stayed about the same numerically, it was illuminating to note that 166 members now hooked their tee shots. And the two left-handers, who were still with us, now sliced!
Dad was something of an authority on the golf swing. While waggling the club at address, he usually said something like, "I’m using Swing Number 24-B; just take the club back inside, pause at the top, and then bust the hell out of it with the right hand."
I revisited the old hometown again in 1961, after an absence of thirty years. My oldest boy, Tommy, was a rookie tour player, and I was in the Twin Cities to watch him play in the St. Paul Open. My thirteen-year-old, Johnny, was with me, and he wanted to see the golf course I had played when I was his age. So we drove the thirty-six miles, detouring through the beautiful St. Croix River valley, where lakes glistened and evergreens covered the hills.
The New Richmond Golf Club had a new clubhouse, and the original nine holes had been rerouted yet again, so you played counter-clockwise around the property.
The new nine-hole layout was also longer, thanks to the purchase of twenty-seven acres of adjacent farmland, and had eighteen tee boxes. (The club by then had officially dropped the "& Country" from its name.) It was designed by Willie Kidd, the head professional at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minnesota. The new clubhouse, sad to say, burned down in 1967. "Jay Severson was the pro of record at this time," Reppe writes in his history, "and was heard to comment that ’certain insurance agents in New Richmond were astonished that the membership all seemed to have lost brand new equipment at the time of the conflagration.’"
Johnny and I played together in the sun of late afternoon, and for me it was both nostalgic and unsettling. The second hole, which in 1919 could only be reached in two under the most favorable conditions, seemed to have shrunk, even though the sign at the tee still read, Hole No. 2: Par 4, 405 yards.
A diagram from the 1960s puts the hole at 360 yards. If there are other errors in Dad’s account of this round, I can’t correct them. My only clear memory of the afternoon is of the clubhouse bar, where Dad shared stories of old New Richmond with the bartender and a couple of his high school classmates. I sipped Cokes and listened, looking away only to watch the Hamm’s Beer commercials on the black-and-white television on the wall. The Hamm’s jingle, which played over the antics of a cartoon bear, featured Indian drums and the lyric, "From the land of sky-blue waters . . ."
I looked up the fence-lined fairway in total disbelief. The second hole held a special place in my memory, and over the years I could summon up just how the hole had played under varying conditions. Way back when, it was one of the longest par-four holes in Wisconsin. And one of the most difficult.
Forty years later, here was my old friend—not nearly as robust as I remembered.
Dad’s sentimentality was not restricted to golf holes; old movies and old songs also brought a tear to his eye. But he needn’t have worried about his boyhood golf ground. With the acquisition of another tract of land in the 1980s, the New Richmond Golf Club expanded to eighteen holes. The tree-lined, 6,726-yard par-seventy-one course is now one of the most challenging in Wisconsin, with a course rating of 72.7 and a slope of 133. Membership is semiprivate.
I have a faded newspaper clipping before me as I write. The headline reads, Fourteen Year Old Schoolboy Plays Long Second Hole in Three Under Bogey. The story continues: "an unheard of feat locally, and, we are told, a rarer achievement than a hole in one. The two strokes recorded here were pivotal and certainly a contributing factor in his well-earned victory in the All-County Tournament." (My two for the hole was not reported as an eagle because the term was not yet in vogue; or if it was, we had not heard of it. Nor of a birdie, either.)
There were no faded clippings among Dad’s effects. Either he quoted this article from memory—he had a lawyer’s gift for detail and could rattle off passages by his favorite writers—or he made the story up. I’m disinclined to believe the latter, because when Dad embellished a tale it was always to make someone else look good or to entertain, not to brag.
They say as you get older your recollections get sharper. The people and events of yesteryear come alive in your garden of memories. As one in his seventy-fourth year, I feel qualified to speak. I do seem to recall with perfect clarity events of sixty years ago. If I have gotten a date wrong or neglected to mention some kindness shown me long ago, I am truly sorry. My intention was simply to provide an account of golf’s beginnings in St. Croix County.