All posts by Joe Bissen

About Joe Bissen

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 White Bear Lake, MN.  Joe's first book, Fore! Gone. Minnesota's Lost Golf Courses 1897-1999, was released in December 2013. Click here to pre-order now.

Lost, north of the border

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Four-hundred forty-six miles from home, and I stumble upon a lost golf course. Seriously, I almost literally stumble across it.

You know what they say about truth, fiction and strangeness …

Taking a break over the past week from work and casual pursuit of more Minnesota lost golf courses, I was transported along I-94, I-29 and then Manitoba 75 — across Minnesota, up the topographical flat-top haircut otherwise known as northwestern North Dakota and into the land of bilingual road signs otherwise known as Canada. (“What the hell does ARRÊT mean? Damned if I know; I’ll just keep driving.”)

No, I’m not planning to write a book about the lost golf courses of Canada. How much time do you think I have on my hands?

But Canada — more specifically, Winnipeg — had been beckoning for the better part of a year, since the day the Women’s World Cup schedule was finalized. Yes, I have turned into a soccer geek, a transformation for which I will not apologize, and my daughter and I were not about to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the U.S. Women’s National Team open its quest for a world championship.

I will spare everyone the gory details of whether the U.S. can escape unscathed from the Group of Death or whether right back Ali Krieger is fit to cut off the Swedes, much less the speedy Nigerians, from gaining the corner on the American defense. You don’t want to know about that, right? RIGHT?

OK, then, I’ll focus on golf.

Anyway, shortly after arriving in the World Cup host city, we had been told by a Winnipegger of a way to park free and take a short walk to Investors Group Field, the sparkling new home of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football team (Minnesota connection: Bud Grant coached the Blue Bombers from 1957-66 and led them to four Grey Cup titles). Just north of the stadium was a large area of green space, posted as property of the University of Manitoba. We skirted the green space on the walk to the stadium, and then, after the Americans’ rousing (adjective courtesy of biased U.S. fan) 3-1 victory over Australia, we decided to take a shortcut through more of the green space on the walk back to our parking lot.

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Walking on a gravel path and emerging from a line of trees, I looked a few feet to the right and noticed a small area, maybe 100 by 200 feet, that was slightly elevated. Turning to the left, a large field opened before us, the grass and weeds having grown about a foot high. The field was framed by a thin line of trees on the left and another line of trees on the right.

“Whoa,” I said. “That looks like an old golf course.”

I seriously did not want to say that. The experience of having visited almost 30 lost-course sites in Minnesota taught me to be skeptical. Many of the Minnesota sites I have walked upon look like golf courses but in fact are just open space or farmland or woodland — not lost golf courses.

But even my daughter, who had been on lost-courses forays with me, allowed that, yes, this piece of Canadian sod did indeed look like an old golf course. There were other pathways through the grounds, some of them featuring small, arched, concrete bridges. I pointed out that, about 350 yards or so up what looked like the fairway, there was a patch of different-colored grass, browner than the rest. It reminded me of the site of the lost Whitewater Valley Golf Course in southeastern Minnesota, where the old greensites feature non-native grasses that, when grown over after the course closed, look distinctly different from the rest of the grass.

Tee box. Fairway. Rough. Treelines. Cart paths. Green.

“That REALLY looks like an old golf course,” I said, and my daughter could not disagree.

We walked a bit further and struck up a conversation with a Kenyan family that had relocated in Winnipeg a year and a half earlier. (“How do you like Winnipeg?” I asked. “TOO COLD!” the father replied emphatically.) We talked about the soccer game and other things, and then I decided to risk making a fool of myself, though that isn’t something — and you can ask my daughter this — I hadn’t done a thousand times before.

“Do you know whether there was a golf course here?”

“Yes, there was,” the man said.

Aha! My eyes hadn’t betrayed me. It was a lost golf course. Seems I can’t escape them even if I want to.

Back in the States, I learned more about my “discovery.”

This was not just any lost course. The tract of land north of Investors Group Field, now owned by the University of Manitoba, was the longtime home of Southwood Golf & Country Club, a significant and historic Canadian golf club.

From what I can gather, and without being willing to sacrifice the entirety of my remaining vacation trying to sort out overlapping and sometimes-contradictory information on the Interweb, here are a few tidbits about Southwood, its predecessors and its present state:

— The club dates to 1894, which makes it practically prehistoric in North American golf terms. Its original incarnation was known as either Norwood Golf Club or, according to the website Golf Manitoba, “the Winnipeg Golf Club with a nine hole golf course located in Norwood.” As far as I can tell, Norwood is a neighborhood in Winnipeg, perhaps a mile or two north of the original Southwood grounds.

— “A few years later, in the early 1900’s,” notes the Southwood Golf & Country Club website, “the Winnipeg Hunt Club was established. … With the demise of the hunt, in 1918, seven golf holes were built and the Club became known as the Winnipeg Hunt Golf Club. The popularity of golf was quickly taking hold in Manitoba and in 1919, an amalgamation was proposed between the committees of the Norwood Golf Club and the Winnipeg Hunt Golf Club.

“Additional land was acquired from the Agricultural College (site of the University of Manitoba) and the proposal was made and accepted to form the Southwood Golf Club in 1919.”

— Norwood/Winnipeg GC, then nine holes, was Winnipeg’s first golf course, according to Golf Manitoba. And, notes the Southwood website, “As a descendant of the Winnipeg Golf Club (a.k.a. Norwood Golf Club), established in 1894, the Royal Canadian Golf Association recognizes Southwood as the oldest 18-hole golf course in Manitoba.”

— Talk about architectural chops; Southwood has them. “The original course,” reads Southwood’s website, “was designed by Willlie Park, Junior from Musselburgh, Scotland, winner of the British Open in 1887 and 1889. The course was re-designed in later years by Stanley Thompson and was the acclaimed architect’s first 18-hole design in Canada.” (More Minnesota connections: Park routed Minneapolis Golf Club in St. Louis Park in late fall 1916; Thompson designed North Oaks Golf Club in 1950-51.)

— In 2008, the University of Manitoba purchased “the Southwood Golf Course,” according to a university web page, “and acquired the lands in November of 2011.” Since then, as is typical with Minnesota lost courses, Winnipeggers have engaged in a vigorous public debate over the ultimate fate of the Southwood grounds. The university would like to develop much of the 120-acre site as mixed-use housing and retail.

— Though the Southwood plot qualifies as a lost course, Southwood Golf & Country Club is not dead. The club moved to a site five miles (‘scuse me — 8 kilometers in Canadaspeak) south and reopened in 2011. From the club’s website: “Poised graciously alongside the meandering LaSalle River and Trappist Monastery Provincial Heritage Park, the 18-hole course was designed by renowned Canadian Architect Thomas McBroom to the highest standards. The spectacular natural and historic surroundings provide a perfect setting. Tree groves, river valley and historic ruins have been left largely untouched, while natural contours of the land are maximized to create distinct landmarks, shadows, hills and ridges. An additional 9 holes are planned for the future.”

— Southwood hosted the Manitoba Open 11 times. Among past champions of the tournament are two-time PGA Tour winner Dave Barr and — two more Minnesota connections — Ev Stuart of Duluth in 1956 and Dayton Olson of Minneapolis in 1963.

So, that’s the story of the “newest” lost golf course I have visited. Now, would you like me to tell you about impending new developments in Winnipeg, i.e. why Team USA will thrash Sweden 4-1 on Friday in its second group game?

Didn’t think so.

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Glenwood Park, Minneapolis, circa 1917 – and a golf tangent

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This is, admittedly, something of a neither-here-nor-there post, considering I usually write about golf. But tangentially – one tangent reaching about seven-tenths of a mile to the north, another a similar distance to the east – I ran across something today that struck some chords.

Skimming through a box of postcards at an estate sale in Plymouth, I spotted the card pictured above. The inscription reads: “1679. Birch Pond, Glenwood Park, Minneapolis.” The postcard was originally issued by the Board of Park Commissioners, Minneapolis, and the photo was taken by Hibbard & Company.

Birch Pond still exists. Glenwood Park does, too, though you might not recognize it by that name. The park, near the western edge of Minneapolis, was established in 1889 and originally named Saratoga Park. The name was changed to Glenwood Park in December 1890 and then, after further parkland was acquired by the city of Minneapolis, to Theodore Wirth Park in 1935.

Similarly, Birch Pond was not always Birch Pond. It was known as Devil’s Pond until getting officially renamed by the Minneapolis park board on June 6, 1910. (Hey, I don’t know any of this stuff off the top of my head. All info was culled from posts on Minneapolis Parks websites and/or by the city’s estimable parks historian, David C. Smith.)

I bought the postcard because A) I found it to be an intriguing, century-old piece of Minneapolis history, B) I knew it had tangential connections to golf and C) because it was cheap — 25 cents after the usual second-day, 50-percent-off estate-sale discount.

About the tangents:

Most likely, there were no golf courses in the area at the time the photo for this postcard was taken. (The photo presumably was taken after 1910, when the pond was renamed Birch Pond, but before September 1917, the postmark on the back of the card.) But nearby, there was one recently departed course and, probably, another waiting in the wings.

Two-thirds of a mile to the east-southeast, in Minneapolis’ Bryn Mawr neighborhood, on and near the intersection of modern-day Penn Avenue and Cedar Lake Road, lay the ruins of the recently closed Bryn Mawr Golf Club, which shut down in 1910 as residential growth in western Minneapolis squeezed it out of existence. (Bryn Mawr GC, in two separate incarnations, had spawned Minikahda Golf Club in late 1898 and spring 1899 and Interlachen Country Club in 1910. It’s covered in Chapter 29 of my book, titled “Minneapolis Mystery.”)

And seven-tenths of a mile north of Birch Pond lay the land upon which Theodore Wirth Golf Course would be built, starting in 1916 and featuring clay tees and sand greens. (Best guess is that the postcard predates 1916 and the opening of the Wirth course, though that’s strictly a guess.) Only the course was not known at the time as Wirth; it was known as Glenwood until 1938.

If all the naming and renaming and opening and closing is confusing to you, don’t feel alone. I can never keep this stuff straight without thinking seriously about creating flowcharts and databases and whatnot for reference’s sake. Don’t even get me started on the original name of Bryn Mawr Golf Club, or I might have to go into some long-winded discussion about which Minneapolis Golf Club was which, and where it started, and where it ended up, and about a hundred thousand more tangents and permutations.

A better suggestion: Log off the computer and go play nine or 18 at the former Glenwood Park. The memory of Theodore Wirth would thank you.

Lost golf courses, on the air: Talking with a Twin

On the morning of May 2, I had the pleasure of talking about lost golf courses and “Fore! Gone.” on KTWN-FM, better known as Go 96.3, also known as the Minnesota Twins flagship radio station. Rod Simons, host of a Sunday morning sports show on KTWN, kindly invited me to talk about lost golf courses and my book with him and former Minnesota Twins catcher Tim Laudner, who not so coincidentally happens to be a low single-digit handicap golfer who knows a fair share about the history of the game in the state.
Click on the arrow below to listen in:

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We talked about Westwood Hills in St. Louis Park, where Sam Snead Gene Sarazen visited with a couple of McNulty boys, sons of the club’s owner and manager (photo courtesy Jim McNulty) …
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… and we talked about Joyner’s in Brooklyn Park, the course Laudner grew up on. This is part of all that’s left of Joyner’s.

Back in time II: Town & Country Club, 1899

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A few weeks ago, I posted an old photo of Town & Country Club, from the 1898 book “City of Homes,” and speculated that it might be Minnesota’s first golf photograph with a verifiable date. Is it? Was it? I’m still stumped, but I haven’t heard of or come across anything verifiably older.

Last week, however, I Googlified (that’s a short, highly technical term for “discovering via the Internet”) a handful of photos that we’ll call close runners-up, plus an interesting and very old account of T&CC, Minnesota’s first golf course.

Times — and views — were different then, judging by the description of what was then the second hole:

“From a point near the green of this hole may be obtained a wonderfully beautiful view of the whole of Minneapolis and the country surrounding it on each of three sides and for more than fifteen miles in every direction, as well as of the great bend of the Mississippi River.”

So states a paragraph in “Golf,” a magazine touted as the “official bulletin, U.S.G.A.,” in its January 1899 issue published out of New York. That issue features St. Paul’s Town & Country Club as its opening story, immediately following a section of ads for the likes of Slazenger golf balls, John D. Dunn’s “celebrated One-Piece Drivers and Brasseys,” and winter vacations in Bermuda.

The story is simply titled “The Town and Country Club of St. Paul.” It features 17 paragraphs of information about the golf course’s organization and layout (only nine holes in 1899; it expanded to 18 in 1907). The story also features four photographs, leading with a full-page photo of the clubhouse and ladies’ putting green and including a panoramic photo from No. 9, a hole dubbed “Westward Ho!”

As much as I would like to post the photos here, I don’t believe Google would approve, at least not if I interpret their rules of use correctly. But if you’re a fan of way-early golf in Minnesota, the story is worth a look. You can find it here: Town and Country Club, St. Paul

Oh … what’s with the photo at the top of the post? It’s an old Town & Country Club candy dish I found last fall at a Twin Cities estate sale, with the modern 18-hole layout featured on it.

And below is a photo of modern-day T&CC, taken at the very dawn of the 2015 golf season:

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Heron Lake: Lost course, found scorecard

Check out the old-time golf scorecard …

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The card is from Heron Lake Golf Club, a lost golf course in Heron Lake, a small town in Jackson County, southwestern Minnesota. The club was organized in July 1925, with the course presumably opened at that time or shortly after. The golf course, on the north side of town and occupying land that includes the current Laker Field baseball park, survived until at least 1934.

In a sense, there is nothing spectacular about the scorecard nor what it reveals. Heron Lake Golf Club likely was a typical small-town Minnesota course of the 1920s and ’30s: nine holes, par 29, total of 1,697 yards, with seven par-3s and two par-4s. The longest hole was the 335-yard second, the shortest the 130-yard fourth. The course had sand greens, also typical of small-town Minnesota courses of that era.

But if the scorecard isn’t spectacular, it is at the least old. And for area residents, some of the names of the committee members listed on the card most likely will resonate. The first person on the list, H.B. Triem, designed the golf course, as well as a now-defunct course in Lakefield that opened the next year.

The image was passed along by Michael Kirchmeier, director of the Jackson County Historical Society in Lakefield. Mike was a great help to me in researching southwestern Minnesota courses, 10 of which are covered in Chapter 42 of “Fore! Gone.”, titled “Silos and Flagsticks.” You can find out more about some of these courses by visiting the historical society (or, of course, reading the book).

Anyone interested in reproducing the image should please contact Kirchmeier first.