Albert Lea, Part I: Back to the ’50s, and a naked truth

A couple of nuggets of Minnesota golf history:

Albert Lea was one of Minnesota’s first cities with a golf course.

Albert Lea Country Club was established in 1912.

Careful. Don’t link those two sentences too closely together. You could be jumping to a conclusion.

If you read carefully, you’ll note that I never wrote that golf in Albert Lea started in 1912. Because it didn’t. But that’s another matter for another day. I will explain — just not now.

Regardless of its status in city golf history, Albert Lea Country Club, born 1912 passed away 2006, holds a position of prominence as a pioneering Minnesota golf course. It ranks roughly among the first 20 to 25 organized sites in the state upon which were struck glorious drives and fat approach shots. In southeastern Minnesota, only Winona, Rochester and Faribault had golf courses before Albert Lea Country Club opened for business, pre-World War I, in a clubhouse that was a converted horse barn.

Albert Lea Country Club, postcard dated 1954. The green to the right of the clubhouse was No. 6. Property of Joe Bissen.

Albert Lea Country Club survived — nay (misspelled and probably misguided horse barn reference there), thrived — through 95 years. Its shortstop was long one of southern Minnesota’s prime tournaments, at one time attracting fields approaching 200 players. (One notable winner was 1957 champion John Eymann of Forest City, Iowa, who golfed cross-handed.)

And like any golf course worth its weight in either gold or just plain auld sod, Albert Lea Country Club created memories.

Most of the posts on this web site revolve around golf courses that were abandoned in the first half of the 20th century. It is admittedly biased reporting — I prefer to focus on lesser-known clubs and courses from long ago, those that vanished because of tolls taken by the Great Depression and the advent of World War II.

The 1950s? Hardly a notable era in terms of shuttered Minnesota golf courses. But that isn’t to say there aren’t tales to tell.


“One of the things about the 1950s is that you didn’t need a whole lot of money to play golf,” Dex Westrum, who spent much of his youth on the grounds of Albert Lea Country Club, said in a recent phone interview. “Guys were playing in Army fatigues and white T-shirts. For people that were just hackers, they could buy five irons, two woods, a putter and a cheap 50 cent golf ball and have a wonderful time. Now they’ve got to spend thousands of dollars.”

Westrum is a retired college professor who lives in South Milwaukee, Wis., and is the son of the late Lyle Westrum. The latter was the professional at Albert Lea Country Club for a short time in the 1950s after having caddied there in the 1930s, going off to World War II, then returning after the war and turning professional upon finishing second in the Albert Lea shortstop. Lyle Westrum, his son noted, also had been a prominent Albert Lea hockey player and all-conference fullback in football.

Young Dexter Westrum followed his father onto the golf course in the 1950s. Among his memories of Albert Lea Country Club:

“After the war, there was a great interest in golf,” Dex Westrum said, “and a lot of women, if they wanted to spend time with their husbands, they took lessons. He (Lyle Westrum) had 12 to 15 lessons a day, and most if not all of them were to women. Men would prefer to do it their way.”

Albert Lea CC’s many sand bunkers presented hazards for its golfers. The driving range presented a hazard for young Dex.

“Lesson balls had to be shagged, and I was elected to stand in the practice fairway collecting balls in a shag bag while the people took aim at me,” Westrum says in reading from a passage he penned for “Minnesota Memories 2,” written and compiled by Joan Claire Graham. “Once in a while I would lose sight of a ball in the sun and get hit. But fortunately, most people couldn’t hit the ball straight until the lesson was over.

“I received 40 cents for a half-hour lesson, which resulted in quite a sum by the end of the day. I immediately spent half of my earnings at the Ben Franklin store on new comic books. I eventually had more than 300 comics, which my mother threw away shortly after I left (Albert Lea).  …”

Westrum recalled a relaxed atmosphere surrounding golf in the 1950s, with ladies days on Tuesdays and Wednesday men’s days including steak dinners after a round of golf.

Another notable experience took place every year on the Albert Lea CC grounds.

“The highlight every summer was the Fourth of July, because the country club was where the fireworks were shot off,” Westrum said in reading from “Minnesota Memories 2.” “The whole town turned out, cars lining up on old Highway 13 along No. 3 and the driveway along No. 4. People sat elbow to elbow along No. 7 hill. …

“Best of all, there was free ice cream for all the kids. … It was rich and it was cold, and one dip was plenty. In the morning, caddies would find cardboard remnants of the fireworks. Sometimes they found them in the bushes by the clubhouse. One year, there was a bunch of stuff on the clubhouse roof.”

Dare it be said that one of Westrum’s ALCC memories tops all others.

“The Edgewater (Cottage) was so close to No. 7, it provided my father with a challenge on the morning after the high school prom in 1961,” Westrum wrote for the memories book. “He went to take the dew off the greens so they could be mowed when he discovered two naked teenage lovers on the green. Fortunately, he was more than a hundred yards away when he saw them. He didn’t want to embarrass them or himself, so he went back to the pro shop, picked up his wedge and practice ball bag and returned to hit balls at them from a safe distance until they woke up and ran on.”

Albert Lea Country Club fostered some excellent players in those days. The 1952 Albert Lea High team won the state championship (as did the 1982 team). Individual state champions from Albert Lea included Clayton “Bumper” Westrum (Dex’s uncle, 1950 and ’52, and later the designer of the Northern Hills course in Rochester),  Craig Clauson (1954), Dex’s teammate Dick Jones (1962), Mark Knutson (1973) and Chad Adams (1989). On the girls side, Donna Boom won a state title in 1994.

The old Albert Lea Country Club course required shotmaking. Dex Westrum relates a memory from the shortstop:

“Neil Croonquist (former University of Minnesota standout and two-time State Amateur champion) and some of the other guys who were playing decent amateur golf in the Twin Cities, they came down and they did not tear that Country Club course apart,” Westrum said in the phone interview. “It wasn’t long, but it was really hilly and had very small greens. You miss the hole by 30 feet in Minneapolis, you got a 30-foot putt. You miss the hole by 30 feet in Albert Lea and you’re in the trap.”

One year, Westrum said, “Neil Croonquist was medalist with 69; nobody else broke par. … Bud Chapman … a hell of a good player. He came down to the Albert Lea shortstop, and he qualified for the fifth flight. That was the year the wind blew and it took something like 83 or 82 to make the championship flight. He came back the next year and won the tournament to distinguish himself, and he never came back.”

The Albert Lea HS team that Westrum played on as a junior and senior featured Jones and four others who could break 40 for nine holes, he said. “So we were a formidable lot. In fact, I don’t think we ever lost a home match. … Teams would come and play us, and they just couldn’t handle the uneven lies. There were hardly any holes where you were going to hit off a flat surface.”

Dex Westrum shows fine form in playing a shot from one of the “yawning traps,” as he referred to them, as a youth at Albert Lea Country Club. The bunker was on No. 6; the shot was observed by Dick Davies Jr., and Westrum says it finished within a foot of the hole. (Photo courtesy Dex Westrum)

Westrum went off to college, then to a teaching career that covered 50 years, 10 schools and five states. His final memory of Albert Lea Country Club comes from the pages of “Minnesota Memories 2”:

“On my first visit back to Albert Lea Country Club after I heard the course was going to be destroyed, I took my 7-year-old son … for a walk on the old holes 7, 8 and 9. Stakes all over the landscape marked what I assumed were planned housing sites. This is where I was  a little boy and where I was a high school kid.

“I tried to explain what the holes looked like in the 1950s and 1960s and that the course had been one of the most distinctive nine-hole layouts in Minnesota. It had small greens, narrow fairways and sand traps you could get lost in.

“I never saw the additional nine or played another version of the course after the final high school meet of the 1963 season against Red Wing.”


Next: Two other lost courses in Albert Lea, including the very first.

 

 

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Joe Bissen is a Caledonia, Minnesota, native and former golf letter-winner at Winona State University. He is a sports copy editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press and former sports editor of the Duluth News-Tribune. His writing has appeared in Minnesota Golfer and Mpls.St.Paul magazines. He lives in St. Paul, MN.  Joe's award-winning first book, Fore! Gone. Minnesota's Lost Golf Courses 1897-1999, was released in December 2013. Click here to order

6 thoughts on “Albert Lea, Part I: Back to the ’50s, and a naked truth

  1. Joe, Dex’s Uncle Bumper Westrum was my old boss at Northern Hills in Rochester, as we built that golf course. He was a terrific player and person. Bumper had an Army injury that he never fully recovered from. In addition to Bumper’s two Minnesota State High School Championships, he received a full ride golf scholarship to the University of Florida. Les Bolstad called Bumper one of the finest Minnesota High School golfers that he ever saw, which is high, high praise. Dex wrote a novel a few year’s ago titled Elegy for a Golf Pro, which is supposedly written somewhat about Bumper.

    1. I had no idea, Dan. What a terrific coincidence. If I remember correctly, Dex Westrum also told me Bumper once was low amateur in the St. Paul Open at Keller, at age 17. … Quick Internet check confirms — low amateur in 1951, with a score of 292 (average of 73 per round). You probably saw that, too. I was really happy to have gotten in touch with Dex. Great storyteller. He and I are exchanging books.

      1. Joe, Bumper Westrum was my uncle he was married to my moms sister Dee. He gave me a sawed off 6 iron when I was six years old. I carried that club with me constantly on my grandparents farm and so started my love affair with golf. I’m not sure of the year but I remember him talking about loosing to Gay Brewer in the US Junior Amatuer Championship. He was a heck of a player right up to the end.

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