Tag Archives: Tom Vardon

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 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
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

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