Tag Archives: Tom Vardon

Little Falls Country Club: A historical mulligan

Here, summarizing and paraphrasing, is what the Internet has to say about the history of a certain central Minnesota sporting venue:

“Little Falls Country Club” … “opened in 1930” … “designed by Jim Dahl.”

That’s the Cliff’s Notes version.

Cliff didn’t take perfect notes.

Now, I admit I am no expert on the history of Little Falls Country Club (given almost equal billing as Little Falls  Golf Course on web sites and in promotional materials). And because Little Falls does not have a lost-course connection, maybe I should keep my grubby lost-course paws out of this.

Sorry. No.

While snooping around and working my way up toward Minnesota lost golf course No. 150 — almost there — I came across a few old newspaper stories dealing with the origins of golf in Little Falls.

Little Falls CC, opened in 1930? In the name of Little Falls’ own Charles A. Lindbergh, I’m positive that’s not true.

Consider these excerpts from from the Little Falls Herald:

May 27, 1921, in a story headlined “Golf Links Are Purchased By Club”: “If one should out of idle curiosity get up at about 5:30 in the morning these fine days and amble down along the river bank on the east side below the lower railroad bridge one would find skipping about on the green some of our good business and professional men who were never before known to get up before 8 a.m. The reason is evident — they’ve got the ‘golf fever.’

“While no regular course has yet been laid out, the members of the newly organized golf club have put in a few holes and are warming up, if they have ever played the game before, or getting the rudiments of the game if it is new to them.”

July 19, 1921: “An expert, who has been employed by the Little Falls Town and Country club, completed a nine-hole course last week and the members are taking advantage of the finished course.”

Aug. 19, 1921: “… The grass has been mowed on all the fareways (sic). R.D. Musser had the first fareway fixed up at his own expense.”

April 7, 1922: “The question of erecting a clubhouse was discussed and it was decided not to attempt same this year, but to put all efforts into making the golf course first class. The club now has a membership of 101. …”

Dec. 9, 1922: “Some fiften (sic) or sixteen golf bugs had a round of golf at the course here Christmas Day.”

Ninety-four and a half years later, a phone call to Little Falls and a conversation with golf club manager Rich Frey reveal that the club was indeed officially founded in 1921 — on July 16, according to an original version of the bylaws held in Frey’s possession at the course. An April 15, 1921, story in the Little Falls Herald listed Dr. J.R. Holst as the club’s first president, with membership fee at $50 and 116 inaugural members enrolled. The story suggested the grounds would not be ready for play until June or July.

So 1930, usually cited as the founding year of Little Falls Country Club, is not technically correct. That year more than likely corresponds with a club decision to embark on a significant improvement of the layout. (I should give credit to St. Cloud Times golf columnist John Lieser, who did correctly write in 2007 that Little Falls CC was established in 1921. He is one of the few to have gotten it right.)

In 1931, according to Frey, bentgrass was ordered for the greens (presumably sand greens to that point). In April 1931, according to Frey, a prominent Twin Cities golf course architect (I’ll get to his name) was retained for $25 a day plus expenses to design a revised layout. This fellow was paid $150 later that year to build the greens, then was paid $10 to review the finished product.

Judging by aerial photos of the course in 1940 (above, courtesy of University of Minnesota’s John Borchert Map Library) and 1950 (below, also Borchert), Little Falls Country Club did not change appreciably in its earliest years. (The “18” marked on the later photo was probably just a catalog notation, even if it did turn out to be coincidentally prophetic.)

A major change to Little Falls Country Club came well into its adulthood with its expansion to 18 holes — in 1975, according to one source, or 1980, according to another. Enter the aforementioned Jim Dahl, who first was an employee at the course and then became the primary figure in its redesign. Much of the new nine holes covered the area marked “18” and just below it in the photo above.

Dahl is known in central Minnesota golf circles for also having designed Eagle’s Landing in Fort Ripley, Oak Hill in Rice and Pine Ridge in Motley. And certainly, he is the central figure in the current design of Little Falls CC. But it would be a historical transgression to not mention the course’s previous architects, both of considerable prominence.

From a Dec. 2, 1921, Little Falls Herald story:

“Officers and directors of the Little Falls Town and Country Club are considering having a full 18-hole golf course laid out on their 90-acre tract south of town, near the Mississippi river. W.D. Clark, golf expert, who laid out the present 9-hole course, is expected to come here in the near future to confer with the club directors regarding same.”

Although the expansion to 18 holes didn’t occur until some 60 years later, the mention of W.D. Clark is significant. William D. Clark designed or contributed to the design of at least a dozen Minnesota layouts, including Oak Ridge in Hopkins and Northfield Golf Club, plus four Minneapolis municipal courses and Chisago Golf Club, now a lost course in Chisago City. He also nearly became involved in a never-performed redesign of the first golf course in Madelia. 

When Little Falls’ course was redesigned in 1930-31, an even more prominent name came along. For that $25 a day, the club retained one Tom Vardon to oversee the redesign.

Vardon was the head professional at White Bear Yacht Club in Dellwood and the brother of six-time British Open champion Harry Vardon. Tom Vardon designed to contributed to the design of at least 40 courses in his native England and the Upper Midwest. Among them were five lost courses covered in “Fore! Gone.” — Bunker Hills, Matoska, Ortonville, Quality Park and Westwood Hills — plus more than 20 still-existing courses in Minnesota, including Southview Country Club, University of Minnesota-Bolstad, St. Cloud Country Club, Stillwater CC and Phalen Park. (Correction, October 2017: The Vardon list also should have included Sauk Centre Country Club and Shattuck in Faribault.)

In mid-2017, as Little Falls Country Club, now city-owned, approaches its centennial anniversary, it retains many of the features that have made it a reputable track. It is, I’m told, a sporty 18 holes, tree-lined and with small and undulating greens, especially rewarding to play if one can hit the ball straight. It features modest greens fees of $21 for 18 holes and $13 for nine, made even more attractive because weekend rates are the same as weekday. And it has history on its side — in addition to Clark, Vardon and Dahl, it is, as far as I can tell, the first and oldest golf course in Morrison County.

Cliff, you may now update your notes on Little Falls Country Club.

Featured image posted with permission of Little Falls Country Club.



Southview Country Club: A visit with Tom

Been awhile, Tom. Good to see you again.

Truth be told, I never knew Tom. Never met him. Don’t think I’ve ever even met someone who met him. Tom, who died in 1938, was from a different era and a decidedly different social circle. But how could I not feel a connection?

Tom is Tom Vardon, one of the four most important figures in the early development of Minnesota golf. Depending on your point of view, Vardon, the brother of six-time British Open champion Harry Vardon and former longtime head professional at White Bear Yacht Club, is either A) one of the most prolific and gifted course architects in Minnesota golf history or B) the most prolific and gifted architect of lost golf courses in Minnesota history.

I’ll concede that I may be the only person alive with the “B” viewpoint, but whatever.

Vardon designed or contributed to the design of at least 40 courses in his native England and the Upper Midwest. Among them were five lost courses that were covered in “Fore! Gone.” — Bunker Hills, Matoska, Ortonville, Quality Park and Westwood Hills — plus more than 20 still-existing courses in Minnesota, including University of Minnesota-Bolstad, St. Cloud Country Club, Stillwater CC and Phalen Park.

Before this weekend, I hadn’t set foot on a Vardon creation in probably three years, since I left an old Westwood Hills green site hidden on the grounds of Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park. But the weekend offered a new opportunity to peruse another of Vardon’s gifts to Minnesota golf: Southview Country Club.

Southview is where, over the weekend, I reacquainted myself with Tom Vardon. The venue on the southern edge of West St. Paul is the annual host of the Tapemark Charity Pro-Am tournament, which features not only outstanding golf by many of Minnesota’s top players but also outstanding contributions to the community — the Tapemark benefits organizations that help people with disabilities and has raised, according to its website, $7.2 million since the tournament’s inception in 1972.

The Southview that golfers see today — green and lush and tree-lined — is most certainly not the Southview on which Vardon and Walter Hagen faced off in a 1925 exhibition match, prompting Hagen to comment, according to Rick Shefchik’s “From Fields to Fairways” book on Minnesota’s classic courses, “I never thought I’d play an exhibition in a nanny goat pasture.”

Nanny goats be gone: After opening with nine holes in 1922 and expanding to 18 (with sand greens) in 1924, Vardon conducted the first hands-on, professional design of Southview in late 1927. The club adopted some revisions offered by A.W. Tillinghast in 1936, and Jerry Pirkl engineered a significant redesign in 1967. Today, the course is known as a relatively short (6,404 yards off the back tees) but challenging test because of the strategy required in negotiating its doglegs, changes in elevation, trees and hazards.

I presume there are elements of Tom Vardon’s design golf that remain on the Southview grounds, whether it be in routing or green structure or bunker placement. Until last weekend, I never had been closer to the Southvew playing grounds than within a few steps of the first tee. But afforded an opportunity to walk the grounds during Sunday’s final round of the Tapemark, I took in some impressive greensward and thought about my old friend Tom.

These are the sights I saw, offered in no particular order other than the order in which my strides decided to take me. I’ll keep the commentary limited, as I’m not familiar enough with the layout to offer many details.

First tee — dogleg-right par 4, 353 yards.

Elevation change comes into play everywhere at Southview. Miss the green to the left here, and you’ve found trouble. It’s about impossible to see, but there is a ball lying about 8 feet from the cup on this short par 4. The player smartly landed his approach shot well to the right of the flagstick and let it feed toward the cup.

More elevation change. Thank you, tree, for offering brief shelter from the rain.

Ninth tee. This par 4 was played from a forward tee for the final round of the Tapemark, I believe measuring at 315 yards. This is the highest point on the Southview grounds, at 1,027 feet above sea level. (Lowest point is 942 feet.) From this vantage point, one can see beyond the green to a water tower in South St. Paul and then across the Mississippi River (not visible) to a ridge in Woodbury, with a look at power lines ascending the ridge.

Ninth fairway.

Ninth green, clubhouse in background.

18th hole — tee box down the fairway to the right, green atop a rise back home. (Sadly, I’m too technologically limited to be able to offer a wider view of this panoramic photo. I’ll work on it …)



Tom’s green thumb

Matoska-AAEvery good book needs a protagonist, right?

Well, I’m not sure whether the fellow in the photo above qualifies as my protagonist, but he is the closest thing to a chief character in “Fore! Gone.” Tom Vardon shows up in the book like bogeys show up on my scorecard — early and often. (The photo is from the Library of Congress archives.)

Vardon, a native Englishman, was the head professional at White Bear Yacht Club in Dellwood from 1916-1937. He was the brother of the famed Harry Vardon, six-time British Open champion. Tom was no slouch with mashie in hand, either. He had nine top-10 finishes in the Open.

Tom also instructed Harrison “Jimmy” Johnston at WBYC; Johnson went on to win the 1929 U.S . Amateur, then considered a major tournament, at Pebble Beach and had a ticker-tape parade through the streets of downtown St. Paul thrown in his honor.

Yet it is Vardon’s prolific prowess as a golf course designer that has left the most lasting, and most undeservedly anonymous, mark on Minnesota golf. Among the courses Tom Vardon designed are at least 21 23 (updated December 2017) in Minnesota, including five lost courses that are included in my book — Bunker Hills, Matoska, Ortonville, Quality Park and Westwood Hills (the latter is my “king” of lost courses, with a star-studded and star-crossed history).

Vardon’s contributions to Minnesota golf are described in detail by Minnesota author Rick Shefchik in “From Fields to Fairways,” his estimable history of the state’s classic golf clubs. Shefchik appropriately dubs Vardon “The Unsung Hero” and writes, “Tom Vardon is the most unjustly forgotten figure in the history of Minnesota golf.”

I would place Vardon with Johnston, Patty Berg and C.T. Jaffray as the most important figures in Minnesota golf in the first half of the 20th century. (Just off my short list would be the likes of Harry Legg, Les Bolstad, Jock Hendry, Willie Kidd, D.N. Tallman and Gunnard Johnson. Totton Heffelfinger doesn’t make my list only because many of his considerable contributions came after 1950. But I digress.)

Shefchik listed the large majority of Tom Vardon-designed golf courses in his book. To my knowledge, no one has assembled a complete list — and, most likely, no one will, because there assuredly are other designs, lost or extant, that have not been publicly attributed to Vardon. That said, allow me to humbly be the first to attempt to compile a nearly complete list of golf courses designed by the remarkable Tom Vardon. (My sources, when they are not the Shefchik book, are noted in parentheses.)

I would be honored if you would weigh in with your favorite Tom Vardon design:

Settle Golf Club (North Yorkshire, England), 1895 (golfclubatlas.com)
Austin Country Club, 1919
St. Cloud Country Club, 1919
Worthington Country Club, 1919
Meadow Lark Country Club (Great Falls, Mont.), 1919
St. Croix Valley Golf Club (Wis.), 1920
Minnewaska Golf Club, Glenwood, 1920
Hillcrest Country Club (St. Paul), 1921
Sauk Centre Country Club, 1921
Ortonville Golf Club (original nine, now a lost course), 1922
Amery Golf Club (Wis.), 1922
Matoska Country Club (lost course), Gem Lake, 1923
Stillwater Country Club (first nine), 1924
Lakeview Golf Club (Mitchell, S.D.), 1925
Quality Park (St. Paul, lost course), 1925 (“Tee Party on the Green”)
Clear Lake Golf Club (Wis.), 1926
Highland Park Golf Club (St. Paul), 1927
St. James Golf Club, 1927
Cannon Golf Club (Cannon Falls), 1927
Shoreland Golf Club (St. Peter), 1928
Lake City Golf Club, 1928
Southview Country Club (West St. Paul), 1929
Minot Country Club (N.D.), 1929
Eau Claire Golf & Country Club (Wis.), 1929
Westwood Hills Golf Club (St. Louis Park, lost course), 1929
University of Minnesota Golf Club (Falcon Heights), 1929
Como Golf Club (St. Paul, second nine), 1930
Spooner Golf Club (Wis.), 1930
Little Falls Golf Club, 1930
Merrill Golf Club (Wis.), 1930
Willmar Golf Club (Minn., now Eagle Creek), 1931
Phalen Golf Club (St. Paul), 1932
Bunker Hills Country Club (Mendota Heights, lost course), 1933

Lee Park Golf Club (Aberdeen, S.D.) 1933
Rugby Golf Club (Rugby, N.D), 1934
Benson Golf Course (Minn., likely a redesign), 1937

Note: The courses listed below are part of a Wikipedia entry. I will not deign to judge the veracity of “Wiki” listings. Judge for yourself:
Coventry Golf Club (England), 1911 (also credited by WorldGolf.com and golfclubatlas.com)
Kendal Golf Club (England) (alterations to the original layout)
St. Augustines (Cliffsend, England), 1907 (also credited by WorldGolf.com)
In addition, Wikipedia credits Vardon with adding pot bunkers to Strathpeffer (Scotland) Golf Club in 1908. This would not count as a Vardon design.

White Bear Yacht Club — there is a long and often-contentious thread about the original designer of WBYC at golfclubatlas.com.  Essentially, one camp considers Donald Ross the primary designer; another believes William Watson was the original designer. Either way, it is apparent that Vardon contributed to the lauded design, possibly before he became the WBYC pro.
Shattuck Golf Course (Faribault; it now is what I have termed in my book a “rebirthed” course — the Shattuck course is gone, replaced in its entirety by Legacy Golf Course)

One final note: I’m not going to select my favorite Vardon design because, sadly, there are a lot of courses on the list that I haven’t played. But my favorite Vardon hole, and one of my favorite holes by any definition, is the 18th at Spooner Golf Club in northwestern Wisconsin, a 408-yard par-4 off an elevated tee and with water all along the right side to the green. A Tom Vardon masterpiece.

I must close with a shameless plug. I am in urgent need of more pledges for my Kickstarter.com campaign, which must succeed in order for me to get “Fore! Gone. Minnesota’s Lost Golf Courses, 1897-1999” published. I’m afraid I have no other means by which to offset printing costs. If you’d like to make a pledge — and there are rewards that go with all pledge levels — you can find a link to the Kickstarter campaign elsewhere in this blog, or go to Kickstarter.com and do a search for my name. Thank you!

Joe Bissen