Winona Public Golf Course
By James A. Miller
In the early 1920’s the sport of golf in Minnesota experienced a most extraordinary revival. “Widespread public enthusiasm following the war,” says James E. Kelley of Minnesota Golf, created a demand for public links (courses). Before this time, most courses in Minnesota were private – often expensive for playing and exclusive for socializing. Winona’s Meadowbrook course figured within the cost and exclusiveness categories. “But,” as Kelly declares, “once called ‘the rich man’s game,’ new public courses made golf available to countless sportsmen of modest means.” With Minnesotans tired of war and desirous of social outdoor recreation, the public golf courses concept emerged.
These new public courses in Minnesota first opened for play in the Twin City area: Columbia (1920), Brookview (1922), Gross (1925), Highland Park and Mendakota (1926), Como (1927) and Keller and Westwood Hills (1929), attest to the metropolitan clamor and affordable yet challenging public courses. And these links were only a few of the more widely recognized to make their appearance in the twenties. The Minnesota Public Golf Association, moreover, was instituted in 1922, and the first U.S. Public Links tournament began in that same year. Minnesota’s prestigious annual Public Links tournament followed one year later.
Other factors, too, intensified the popularity of golf in Minnesota. In 1927, the immortal Bobby Jones toured Minnesota’s Minikahda course and breezed to his third U.S. Amateur title in four years. In 1930, Jones returned – this time to the U.S. Open at Interlachen – in his quest for the final leg of the unprecedented Grand Slam of Golf. During the twenties golf revival, Harrison R. “Jimmy” Johnson, already the winner of seven consecutive Minnesota amateur championships, climaxed the decade with an astounding victory in the 1929 U.S. National Amateur Tournament at the Pebble Beach links in California. Johnson would later that year visit the Winona links for a public exhibition.
Winona, too caught the spirit of renewed interest in golf. In 1923, several local golf enthusiasts sought to return the sport to the city’s West End. With the abandonment of Meadowbrook, golf removed itself from the city proper, but that course’s twenty year tenure on the St. Teresa Prairie left a lingering sentiment for the ‘ancient sport’ excitement. Many young West-enders caddied for Meadowbrook players, and they now desired to partake of the sport themselves. At this time, Arthur L. Roberts, who directed a chain of hotels including the Hotel Winona, originated the idea of a public course. He even solicited over 100 memberships at $15 each in hopes of beginning a municipal club.
So early in that year of 1923, Roberts, Sam Millar and E.D. Libera among others, instigated an improbable dream of building a golf course. Since the Winona County Fair moved from its site (bordering West Fifth and Bierce Streets) to St Charles, that land became available as a possible links area. Thankfully, a philanthropic Winona resident named John A. Latsch, a wholesale grocer by trade, acquired and deeded the fairgrounds land to the city of Winona for a local golf links. A few weeks later, Sam Millar, groundskeeper for the Prentiss and Bell estates at Briarcombe in Pleasant Valley, purchased seed through his employers, borrowed tractors from nearby farms to cultivate the hardened fair-trodden soil. Thus began the Winona Public Golf Course (later renamed Westfield).
Although the county fairgrounds area left the soil nearly grassless, the race track, with its sloping turns, made fairway construction quite simple. Remnants of that track still intersect the present numbers two, three and four fairways at Westfield. Because the land was considered public, numerous citizens continued to take their trotters onto the seeded track. A painter contractor named Hoppe often ran his trotters amid early golf playing. Millar remedied this horsemanship infringement by constructing deep sand bunkers on the track slopes. One such bunker still exists to the right of the number one green. These bunkers disrupted trotter practice, and by 1924 the area was restricted to golfers only.
The Winona Public Golf Course opened in the summer of 1923 as a four hole links with sand greens six to eight feet in diameter. Constructed of a clay base with a top layer of sand mixed with crankcase oil begged from automobile owners, the greens proved a challenge for iron and putter accuracy. Sweepers using pieces of old carpet nailed to long wooden poles were hired to resmooth the sand after putting. The fairways, in contrast, were only speckled with green from Millar’s seeding; the early membership referred to the grass clumps as “bunch grass.” They simply moved the balls to the patches of bunch grass to avoid dusty mashie or midiron shots. Each teebox, too, contained a pail of water and one of sand. With a pinch of wet sand, the golfers actually molded their own tees for driving from the teebox area.
Because of the lack of available funds, the clubhouse consisted of a movable four-wheeled wagon. But by 1925, a permanent clubhouse, the gift of Mr. and Mrs. E.L. King, complete with pro shop, kitchen, lockers, showers and gameroom porch, was erected near the corner of Bierce and West Third Streets. Only concrete foundation pieces, adjacent to the present number three teebox, remain today. In May of 1926 the Pfieffer Nursery donated and planted additional trees and shrubbery on the grounds. Pfieffers also placed a row of hedges running parallel along Bierce and Third Streets to mark the entrance to the course. Other clubroom and grounds’ operations were financed by 50 cent non-members green fees; guests of members paid a reduced fee of 25 cents per round of golf.
The kitchen in the clubhouse, because of cramped and crowed quarters, proved inadequate. So the Steak Shop on Main Street would often cater the larger club dinners. The bar served only “near-beer,” for Prohibition affected golf courses too.
To assist the influx of golfers, the Board of Directors contacted the YMCA for caddy service. Frank Mumm, the YMCA’s Physical Director, organized and instructed youth caddies for the Winona Public Golf Course (WPGC) with the object “to improve the caddying at the links and to arrange for a system of registering those who qualify for the work.” Local youths would learn the proper courtesies of a caddy. A card tag signed by Mr. Mumm indicated to WPGC members that the caddy was registered. Mr. Mumm also strung up a golf net cage at the YMCA that year to help the new public golfers “keep in form when not active on the links.”
The Winona Public Golf Course, under the directorship of E.B. (Bill) Steele, decided that their new membership, “well over 100” by 1925, needed professionals guidance to improve their games Steele, a 1905 national amateur rugby champion from Eastbourne, England, knew the value of professional instruction. He also knew that the Winona Country Club in Pleasant Valley received its professional assistance from ben Knight, a gifted golfer and course designer. It was Knight who, by 1926, had designed new public courses at Arcadia, Whitehall, Lanesboro, Lake City, Trempealeau, Galesville and Sleepy Eye. So in May of 1923 the WPGC directors hired Herbert Thienell, the Winona Country Club Caddy Master, as their young and enthusiastic teaching pro. In the first month of play at the public course, Thienell scored a total of thirty strokes for nine holes. (He played the course twice and hole number one three times,) His record score of thirty was “expected to stand unbroken for some time,” wrote the Winona Republican Herald. With birdies on the sixth and eighth holes, Thienell “bested by eight or nine strokes the lowest score recorded,” the paper added. And in that first year of club operation, he and Ben Knight played Sunday afternoon exhibition matches at the public course to stir up golf interest. As many as 75 to 100 gallery members would stand steadfastly amazed at the two pros’ “demonstration of the various strokes of golf.” In their first encounter, for example, Knight recorded a score of 15 and Thienell carded 16 on the four hole layout. By 1924, though, Thienell left the WPGC for Rochester pro offer, and Barney Carson, a man who could “hit’em a mile,” became the public course’s new professional.
On July 28, 1923, the Winona Public Golf Club held its first-ever golf tournament. Par was counted as 29; 33 was considered the bogie score. Prizes consisted of golf balls for the three lowest scores. The Hirsch Clothing Company often donated “plus-four” knickers for prizes; C.W. Graaf Company would furnish golf sweaters; and Winona’s Continental Clothing Company donated pairs of argyle golf sox. A complete set of clubs, too, occasionally was listed among the prizes. That prize, however, was not considered out of the ordinary, for “golf sticks” were relatively inexpensive. The Northwest Outdoor Store at 163 East 2nd Street offered a full set of Wright and Ditson gofl stick, including a brassie, midiron, mashie, niblick and putter, for $6.95! The price of 25 cents amounted to the usual tournament entry fee.
In that first-ever WPGC tournament, Lester Brown and E.D. Libera were declared co-winners with identical medal scores of 44 strokes. Frank Mumm placed third with a 46 total. Other public course members who entered that first tourney included Alphonse Goergen, Joseph Krier, H.L. Harrington, Earl Welty and John Dugan. One month later, August 20, 1923, the WPGC completed its first handicap tournament, Cletus Steffen, a sixteen handicapper, scored 49 – net 33 with handicap – and won the tournament by a single stroke.
Besides local tournaments, the Winona Public golfers also joined other area course players, including the Winona Country Club contingent, and they would travel in groups to “foreign” courses for competition in team stroke-play tourneys. Teams included Rochester Soldiers’ Field, Wabasha, Whitehall and Arcadia. Players received three points for a win and one point for a halve (tie). Individual points added up to a team victory or defeat.
Despite their inexperience at tournament caliber competition, the Winona Public golfers faired quite well. In 1926, they nearly upset the powerful Winona Country Club team. Losing only by a 46-43 margin. In that event at the public course, the Country Club’s J.R. (Rex) Chappell, President of the Merchants Bank, set a new course record “with a remarkably low score of 33 – one under par. It was the first time in the history of the course,” the Winona Republican Herald added, “that it had been scored in less than par.”
The Winona Public Golf Course also sponsored President/Vice President tournaments. This team event opened each golfing season. The club president and vice president would select players with comparable handicaps for theirteams. Bill Steele, Frank Graham, Sam Millar, A.J. McVeigh, H.O. Lester and H.A. Tornow were a few of the early directors who did the team selecting. Stroke totals were tabulated by each side to determine the victorious team. F.F. Graham’s teams were often on the victors’ side. Catered buffet luncheons then concluded that opening event.
But the tournament which created the most interest was the Van Vranken Cup club championship competition. Named after a local photographer and public course charter member, the Van Vranken Cup epitomized excellence of skill in Winona public golf. A three-time winner in successive years could permanently call the trophy his own. But seemingly endless “down-to-the-wire” yearly match-play competition made permanent possession of the Cup ever elusive. Andrew Olsen won it in the WPGC’s inaugural season of 1923. He repeated one year later but disheartendly fell prey to the champion Arthur Gernes in 1925. Then a young “collegiate stick wielder” named Romuald Potrats entered the WPGC tournament scene.
Romey, a Winonan and University of Minnesota Golfer, joined the Winona public course as a junior member. The Republican Herald reported that Potrat “was regarded by many of the Twin City followers as on a par with…the members of the Minnesota Team.” Only “a step behind Gopher Captian Les Bolstad,” the column concluded. These were most impressive compliments considering Bolstad captured individual Big Ten medalist honors in 1926, and corralled the Minnesota Grand Slam several years later; the Minnesota team, too, placed first in the Big Ten Conference in 1929.
The straight hitting Potrats garnered the Van Vranken Cup in 1926 and 1927. He played masterfully, often defeating much older and more experienced match-play opponents; but he still needed the 1928 crown to permanently house the 1928 crown to permanently house the coveted award. Surprisingly, with two legs up on the Cup, Potrats withdrew from the public course event. A stunned Republican Herald reported that the conscientious and ever-diplomatic Potrats withdrew because of “some adverse criticism against the youthful Winona star playing at both clubs (WPGC and Winona Country Club).” Frank Graham went on to win the event that year followed by Judge E.D. Libera in 1929.
The Van Vranken Cup, through, did locate a permanent owner. Ironically, sharpshooting and easyswinging Clarence Olsen, the younger brother of Andrew Olsen, the very first Cup winner, ended the Van Vranken Cup era with three successive victories. By 193 the Winona Public Golf Course changed its name the Westfield Municipal Golf Club. The Prentiss and Millar trophies replaced the retired Van Vranken Cup; two grass greens, number two and nine (the present number two and the chipping green), were seeded; and a newly redesigned nine-hole layout with a par of 35 was planned.