You can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy. That certainly seems to be true for Ron Steffenhagen who will retire this year after forty-three years as head greenskeeper and superintendent of the Orono Public Golf Course. In this day where upward mobility and relocation are thought by many to be essential elements of modern life, Ron has chosen to stay put. And the community of Orono and its golf course are the beneficiaries of his decision.
Ron grew up on a small, diversified farm near Lake City, Minnesota. At age eleven his family moved to town, although his upbringing on the farm had already left its mark. Three years later, at age fourteen, he began working on the grounds of a local golf course—and thus began his life-long connection to the game. After completing high school, he enrolled in the turf management program at a Technical College, and upon graduation he continued working at the golf course in Hastings, Minnesota, where he’d done his college internship. He then served a brief stint as assistant greenskeeper at Wayzata Country Club before landing his current position in 1974 at Orono Public Golf Course. Ron is just the third person to serve as greenskeeper at this ninety-three year old course.
Leo Feser began the Orono course, originally named Orono Orchards, in 1924; it was Minnesota’s first public course to have grass greens (all others then had sand greens). Thanks to the stewardship of the three greenskeepers over the course’s history, the same strain of bent grass initially introduced by Feser from nearby Woodhill Country Club almost a century ago is still growing at the Orono course!
When Ron began working at Orono Public Golf Course the game of golf was very different. Clubs with persimmon wood heads were still the norm and the course had just three “tricycle style” motorized golf carts to its name. Those proved to be precarious on the hilly terrain and were soon replaced. Most golfers still walked the course then, although the game has evolved to a point where perhaps seventy percent of the rounds at Orono are now played with carts. It falls to Ron to decide when conditions on the course are not suitable for cart use.
It surprises some people to learn that Ron seldom plays golf himself. Even so, it is his job as greenskeeper to decide the placement of the pins on each green. Leo Feser was acquainted with courses designed by the famous early-1900s golf architect Donald Ross (who designed the Woodhill Country Club course where Feser also worked as greenskeeper). So in laying out his own Orono Orchards course, Feser used Ross’ characteristic “turtleback” green design on a number of the holes. A turtleback green is higher in the center and slopes away towards its edges. Even the best of golfers using modern equipment find such classic-style greens to be a challenge. One accomplished player at Orono was recently heard to exclaim in frustration: “My wedge just doesn’t work at this course!” The wedge club, of course, was not yet invented when the Orono course was designed in 1924 so players sometimes find that it’s better to use the old-school pitch-and-run approach. And when Ron feels feisty, he sometimes places pins nearer the greens’ edges where it’s possible for one’s putt to pass the hole and then run completely off the green! The term “diabolical” is one I’ve sometimes used to describe such eccentricities. It all serves to give Orono Public Golf Course a unique personality unlike almost any other course in the area. And as one who still plays the game with wooden-shafted 1920s clubs, it’s the sweetest “hickory-era” course I know of in Minnesota.
Ron Steffenhagen may have left the farm more than fifty years ago, but his approach to greenskeeping and managing the Orono Public Golf Course bears the same work ethics and values of a good Minnesota dairy farmer. Until recently, Ron had never taken a “vacation” away from his work over his almost four decades of managing the course. He refers to his wife, Mary Jo, as “a saint” for having adapted to his erratic work schedule and long hours over the years. When asked to describe the three most memorable golfers during his tenure at the Orono course, Ron immediately recalled Carl, Les and Tim. Each of these men shared a quality of being early-risers—like Ron—and sometimes began their rounds of golf even before daybreak. They were also consistent and dependable. They too might have made good dairy farmers. And they each were dedicated to their craft and to this special place—just like someone else we know.
This article was written in 2017 by Steve Robert Simmons on the occasion of Ron Steffenhagen’s impending retirement as greenskeeper of Orono Public Golf Course. It was published in the Pioneer (a newspaper of Long Lake, Orono, Maple Plain, Independence and Minnetonka Beach, Minnesota) on October 14, 2017 [Volume 35 (12)]. All rights reserved.