When the U.S. Open golf tournament was first held in the state of Minnesota in 1970, it was played on a relatively new course–Hazeltine National near Minneapolis. The difficulty of the course during the tournament caused some players to complain about its design. Among them, Dave Hill is remembered for this remark: “What this place needs is 88 acres of corn and a few cows. Somebody ruined a good farm!”
When I played my initial round at Orono Public Golf Course, which is located a few miles from Hazeltine National, I had a similar response. After playing badly, I muttered: “What this place needs is some apple trees. Somebody ruined a good orchard!”
You see, I’m accustomed to scoring five to seven strokes over par when I play nine holes of golf at Phalen Park Golf Course in St. Paul, which was my “home course” then. Phalen is much longer (2930 yards compared to 2139 yards at Orono) and considered to be a more difficult course (slope rating 116 compared with 105 at Orono). However, my nine-hole score at Orono in that initial round was 13 over par! I was humiliated. I even re-checked the course rating just to make sure I hadn’t misread it. I later remarked to a colleague: “I don’t know who established that rating for Orono, but she or he certainly never played the course I did!” It was my way of saving face, I guess.
The land upon which Orono Public Golf Course is located was once an apple orchard. In 1923, a young local man named Leo Feser acquired the land and set about to build a nine-hole golf course explicitly for public use; he named it Orono Orchards. At the time, Leo was also greenskeeper at the nearby exclusive Woodhill Country Club. He had been an agriculture student at the University of Minnesota and is credited with selecting the strain of bent grass that was used on the greens at Woodhill when it began. With his agronomic expertise—and access to the Woodhill grass stocks—Leo used this same strain of bent grass on his Orono Orchards course too. In the process, it became the first public golf course in Minnesota with grass greens (all others then had sand greens)–and that same strain of grass is still there.
Bent grass is native to Western Europe and came to America in Colonial times. In the early 1900s, improvement in grass stocks came through selection from whatever strains were available at the time. Those were propagated vegetatively. University of Minnesota turf specialist Eric Watkins observed: “My guess is that [the Woodhill strain] is a clone that was identified and propagated from something known as “South German Bent,” a mixture of several bent grass species…Because South German Bent was composed of many different types, they segregated out pretty nicely, so it was easy to identify some top-performing clones in a mixed stand on a golf green.” The greenskeeper at Orono Public Golf Course for almost 40 years, Ron Steffenhagen, supports the notion that the bent grass strain growing on the greens at his course traces to Leo Feser’s original Woodhill stock.
Orono Orchards Golf Course opened on July 4, 1924; it was Minnesota’s first privately-owned public course. Mr. Feser and his family operated it for fifty years before it was acquired by the City of Orono and became its municipal course. It recently celebrated its 90th anniversary year of continuous operation.
When I first came to Orono Public Golf Course, I approached it from the south. I’d been told that there was a large stone (unearthed when the course was established) that stands sentry by the entrance road leading back to the clubhouse. The stone was there, and after turning left into the lane I slowly drove up a hill towards the 1920s Craftsman-style house that once was the home of Leo Feser and his family. After the City of Orono acquired the course in the 1970s, the house became its clubhouse and pro shop.
What initially impressed me most about the course, even before I played it, was its hilly terrain. I recently talked with a friend who had played the course years before in high school. Without hesitation, Peter remarked: “What I remember is that it helps to be part mountain goat when playing that course!” It’s true that one of the challenging things about the Orono course is the variety of lies one faces during a typical round—uphill, downhill, sidehill. However, hitting from such varied terrain wasn’t what caused me to score so poorly during my initial round there. Rather it was my unfamiliarity with the course itself—my lack of local knowledge. Let me elaborate.
Six of the nine greens on Orono Public Golf Course are elevated above their fairways. Leo Feser was acquainted with the famed early-1900s course architect Donald Ross who had designed the Woodhill Country Club course where Feser worked as greenskeeper. He must have been impressed by Ross’ characteristic “turtleback” greens and he used a similar design for a number of the greens at his Orono course. A turtleback green is higher in the center and slopes away towards its edges. If the green is also elevated above the fairway, as is the case at Orono, the green’s putting surface contour can’t usually be seen by a golfer who is hitting an approach shot. It presents a challenge to golfers like me who play with old-style hickory-shaft clubs and prefer to use pitch and run shots into the green. And when one hasn’t played the course before, as was my situation, it’s a recipe for disaster—a 13-over-par round for nine holes!
Since that initial round at Orono Public, I’ve played the course many more times. My scores have gotten better as I’ve become more familiar with the subtleties of the course. I learned, for example, that the 8th green is best approached from the right side to avoid having one’s ball fall into a hidden depression on the left side of the green known as “the kidney.” I’ve suspected that Leo Feser may have been in foul humor on the day he drew up his design for this hole and green. It’s a 200 yard par-3 hole with an elevated green, which makes it very challenging for most golfers, and especially so during the era when this course began and hickory-shaft clubs were the norm. And that kidney-shaped green is waiting to punish anyone who approaches it without knowing the course.
When I experience a decades-old golf course like Orono Public, I think of the many players who have preceded me over this same ground. Golf courses change over time, of course, but some aspects remain the same through the years and would be familiar to anyone who ever played the course. That diabolical kidney-shaped green on hole #8 is one example.
Large trees are another example of the enduring features at Orono Public Golf Course. When I was introduced to it, I took particular note of the trees. One especially large bur oak caught my attention on the first hole; it grows to the left side of the green. It usually doesn’t come into play when one approaches the green, so it’s mostly an aesthetic aspect of the course. I expect that most arboreal-minded golfers who played the course have taken note of it. The tree predates its establishment, and was already large enough to impress golfers who played the course when it first opened in July 1924.
Another day during that same summer of 1924 has significant meaning for me—August 20. That is the date when my paternal grandfather, Lee Simmons, was killed in a railroad accident in southern Indiana. He was working as a fireman on the B&O Railroad then, and the locomotive to which he was assigned derailed in the early morning killing both him and the engineer. I’ve concluded that his death (at age 33 when my father was just six years old) greatly altered the course of my father’s life—and mine as well. Because of what happened on that day, I never knew my grandfather, although he influenced me a great deal through my imaginings of him and who he might have been had he lived.
As August 20, 2014 approached, I thought about how I might commemorate my Grandad Lee on this 90th year since his death. I decided to play a round of golf in his memory at Orono Public because of its connection to that year of 1924. I doubt that my grandfather ever played golf; it would have been beyond his financial means to do so during his brief lifetime. However, his son (my father) did later play and it’s because of him that I took up the game at the age of twelve in 1959.
As I stood on the elevated first tee of Orono Public that afternoon of August 20th, 2014, I felt a mix of emotions. It was a fine day and I was exhilarated in anticipation of the round. As I prepared to hit my drive, my eyes fixed on the stately distant bur oak standing beside the first green. I thought of my grandfather and the significance of this day ninety years before. I felt deep sadness and stood for a moment in contemplation. As I continued my round that day I decided to heretofore call that tree on the first hole my “Grandad Lee Tree”—and so it is.
After returning home that day from my round of golf, I held a brief observance in my grandfather’s memory at the precise time he died ninety years before. I lit a candle and placed it beside his railroader’s pocket watch, which is the only personal item of his that I have. I put my scorecard from my round of golf at Orono earlier right next to the watch and candle. I observed a moment of silence and offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving for my grandfather and his significance in my life.
I’ve come a long way since my “somebody ruined a good orchard” comment that day I first played golf at the Orono Public Course. It’s become my favorite golf course of all in Minnesota, even though it still can humble me from time to time. The old expression “familiarity breeds contempt” doesn’t apply to my relationship with this golf course. Its features, such as the Grandad Lee tree, are part of it, but it’s also about the allure of its history, which began with Leo Feser.
I’ve studied the only photo I have of Mr. Feser, and through it feel a strong connection to the man—to this one who was first to privately establish a public golf course in Minnesota. I would have had an affinity for his view of the game. His commitment to provide a public venue for golf in his time says a lot to me. The prevalent view of golf then was as a sport suited more to the wealthy and the elite. Only larger cities had public golf courses then and most new courses developed during the early 1920s were intended to be private clubs. That changed, of course, during the Depression when some private club courses became public because of financial stresses. Yet Leo Feser’s commitment, as a private individual, to offering golfing opportunities for the public in 1924 was ahead of its time.
I don’t know how many people have played rounds of golf at Orono Public during its history; it must be thousands. Perhaps hundreds have played their first round of golf on this course—and some may have even played their last round of golf there too. It’s a landscape etched into the fabric of many life stories—including my own. It’s a landscape that continues to enrich lives as it proceeds towards its 100th year as a public golf course.
I was right that initial time I played Orono Public Golf Course; this land was once a good orchard. As I walk its fairways, I sometimes try to envision these hills as they may have appeared when they supported groves of apple trees. Yet in such moments I also sense a presence of those whose vision changed this landscape into a public space and who lovingly cared for it over the subsequent years. I also hear the echo of many golfers who have played this course before me.
In such times I begin to understand a truth that Leo Feser surely understood when he fulfilled his dream of establishing Orono Orchards Golf Course 90 years ago. Yes, Leo, this is a good land.
Wonderful article. —Dave Feser (Leo’s younger son)
Two months after publication of A Good Land on my WordPress site, I received a simple two-word comment in response to the essay. I’m accustomed to receiving such comments after posting essays, but the brevity of this one and its source made it very meaningful.
It had been posted to the site by the younger son of Leo Feser, the principal figure in my essay and the man responsible for establishing Orono Orchards golf course in the first place. I immediately wrote to Dave Feser and thanked him for reading my work. In a subsequent exchange of e-mail notes, Dave explained the unlikely way he had initially come upon my essay:
Just wanted to tell you how I came to your site. A couple of days ago the superintendent at Woodhill [the country club where Leo had been greenskeeper for many years] called me to ask questions about my dad because they are celebrating 100 years. He wanted any information I could give him. He was also interested in the origin of “Woodhill Bentgrass”. So as I searched the internet for South German Bent etc., I came across your site. What a surprise!
In his response, Dave further elaborated about his father’s life:
As for my father and the Orono golf course there is so much to say! [He] had contracted polio at the age of about 7 (he was born in 1899). This, of course, influenced everything in his life. He could walk but always used a cane and was in pain much of the time. As far as I know he studied some agriculture in high school, but not in college. He did however study law at the university for one year. (In those years you could go directly from high school to law school!) After a stint as a reporter at a Minneapolis newspaper and then a tree care business, he was hired at Woodhill Country Club in 1921. He was a charter member in 1927 of the Golf Course Superintendents Association. Also he was founder and long time editor of their magazine now known as “Golf Course Management.”
I had a great deal of respect for Leo Feser even before receiving this additional information from Dave. I have even more admiration now. Leo was not only a man of vision, but also clearly a man of determination and perseverance too.
In my essay, I had also expressed affinity for the “old school” design of Leo’s Orono Orchards course, and especially the challenging “turtle-back” greens that are reminiscent of greens designed by the famed golf course architect Donald Ross (who designed Woodhill Country Club). I learned from Dave, however, that Leo’s brother Carl might share some of the credit. He wrote:
You will probably be disappointed, but the family story is that his younger brother Carl just put out nine tin cans—and that was the start [of the course]. But surely [my dad] moved some of them and I am sure Donald Ross was an influence.
I look forward to meeting Dave Feser in person some day. It’s as close as I can get to knowing his father. What a treat that will be.
When I first played Orono Public Golf Course on June 14, 2014, I wasn’t alone. My dog Pouncer was with me. My wife was away for a few days and Pouncer and I had been on a road trip to find and play historic golf courses in southern Minnesota with my newly-acquired hickory golf clubs.
My brother Phil had just died in New Mexico two months earlier. Pouncer had been his dog, and it was decided that Mary Ann and I should take Pouncer to live with us in Minnesota. She didn’t have much choice in the matter, so she took to us and to her new environment like a duck to water. Pouncer’s and my golfing excursion was our first such experience together and certainly helped to bond us.
As I checked into the clubhouse for that initial round, I explained that I was reluctant to leave my dog in the car for the entire round and asked permission to take her with me for at least part of the time. The attendant understood and agreed for Pouncer to accompany me as long as she was on a leash. So after unloading my clubs and placing them on my pull cart, I attached Pouncer’s bright red leash to her vest collar and off we went to the first tee. I was paired with another golfer who I didn’t know, but he was understanding and didn’t seem to mind my bringing her along. She hadn’t walked a golf course with me before so she didn’t yet understand the game.
After two holes I decided to have her stay in the car for the remainder of my 9-hole round. It was too new and distracting for her—and for me. It’s just as well, I guess. As I noted previously in this essay, my initial round was a 13-over-par train wreck!
Despite my poor play during that initial round, I was undaunted. I had seen enough to know that I MUST learn more about this vintage golf layout. So a week later my wife (who had returned from her trip by then), Pouncer and I returned to Orono. I asked Mary Ann to take some pictures during my round, and Pouncer came along for the ride—literally. I rented a golf cart for that round and Pouncer rode like she owned the place. And my golf score was much better too.
Pouncer returned to Orono with me on a number of other occasions, but only when Mary Ann came along. We almost always used a cart; it made it simpler to manage the dog.
Then came our round at Orono on September 13, 2015. A week earlier, Pouncer had collapsed and was immobilized for a day. She rallied and within a couple of days seemed to be back to her old self. She was checked out by our veterinarian but nothing out of the ordinary was found. We assumed the episode had been an anomaly.
I had just played in a hickory tournament in Iowa the day before, and I wanted Mary Ann to take some photos of me playing the Orono course with my hickory clubs while wearing my “Plus-4s” classic golfing knickers. We arrived at about 5:00 pm, which was purposeful since I wanted to take advantage of the late-afternoon sunlight plus the fact that few other golfers would be playing then; the course was ours.
During the first hour or so of our time at the course, I carried my bag and played while Pouncer walked along on her leash. Mary Ann occasionally took photographs of me doing various shots while the dog seemed fixed on sniffing the various smells she encountered in the higher grasses growing along the edges of the fairways. However, after hitting my drive poorly on the sixth hole, I decided I’d had enough golf—and pictures—and we began our walk back towards the clubhouse, about a half mile away from that place on the course.
As we neared the large hill upon which the clubhouse is situated (and where our car was parked), I decided to take Pouncer off her leash and let her run along ahead of me untethered as we climbed the hill. I asked Mary Ann to take some candid photos of us as we went. These are, for me, the most treasured photos taken during the round. Pouncer’s sense of free spirit came to the fore as she sprinted up the hill. I called her back and she sat down next to me while I paused to catch my breath. She had a look on her face of complete exhilaration and contentment–and in that moment, so did I.
I couldn’t know then that Pouncer only had 11 more days to be with us. A week after our final time at Orono Public Golf Course together she suffered a recurrence of the ailment she had experienced three weeks before. After two days, it became evident to us that she was not going to rally this time; we had her euthanized in our home. Her time had come. The veterinarian suspects that, unbeknown to us, Pouncer had developed a heart condition that progressed to a point where it got the best of her and took her down suddenly. That may be, yet I prefer to regard her passing through the lens of some wise words from writer Carrie Newcomer as she reflected on the decline and death of her dog:
In the fullness of time we will all cross the river, and life gives us no guarantees to when or how this will happen. But this old friend has shown me how to sit in the sun, how to take one more walk in the green, enjoy one more good sniffing of the meadow. She has shown me how to love the now and be grateful for what is…
Golf is a game that celebrates the “now.” One must concentrate entirely on the shot at hand and not be distracted by what came before–or by what is yet to come. For all its tradition and history, my “now” times at Orono Public Golf Course, such as that experience shared with my friend Pouncer during that rare evening of September 13th, has added meaning to this “good land” for me beyond measure. After all, it was in this place we shared one more walk in the green, one more good sniffing of the meadow—and one transcendent moment in the rich sunlight.
It’s there!” With this announcement, my friend Ivan informed me that my commemorative bench was in place. As I had turned into the lane leading back to the Orono Public Golf Course clubhouse earlier that morning, I had wondered if this just might be the day. Earlier in the season I’d responded to an appeal from the city to donate funds needed to place new benches on this classic nine-hole course on the western edge of the Minneapolis metropolitan area. The organizers also offered the option of placing a small inscribed plaque on each sponsored bench.
Without hesitation I responded to the request and agreed to underwrite a bench to be placed on the second tee beside the large bur oak tree I’d previously named the “Grandfather Lee” tree when I played the course in 2014 on the 90th anniversary of my grandfather’s tragic death in 1924—one month after the course opened. I asked that the plaque on my bench state that it was dedicated to the memory of my grandfather.
After my brief encounter with Ivan, I began my round of golf with a high level of anticipation. After hitting my drive on the first hole, I walked down the fairway as it descended a steep hill into the vale where my ball had come to rest. Since I play with hickory-shafted clubs, my second shot into the elevated first green was an especially challenging one for me. Leo Feser had designed the course during the hickory era of golf and he had meant for it to be that way!
I opened the clubface of my niblick (the most lofted club I had) and I hit the ball squarely. It flew high towards the green and touched down on the front edge before disappearing beyond the rise. Having hit what I perceived to be an exceptional shot, I smiled and glanced towards the stately “Grandfather Lee” bur oak tree standing on the left side of the first green. I felt my grandfather’s pleasure and then I saw the outline of his bench in the distance beyond the tree.
My Grandfather Lee probably never played golf. When he died in 1924, golf was only just becoming popular with the general public. The small rural town where he lived in southern Indiana had seen its first course established in 1922, but it was a “country club” serving the elite in the community and it would not have been economically accessible to a lower-class railroad fireman like my grandfather.
Yet had my grandfather lived in Orono, Minnesota, then he just might well have chosen to take up golf—and Leo Feser’s Orono Orchards course would have been his kind of place. It was a no-frills, affordable venue dedicated to the general public; it would have been suited to his blue-collar sensitivities. I like to think that, had my Grandfather Lee learned to play golf at a course like Orono in the mid-1920s, he might have introduced my father to the game years before he eventually began to play in the Navy during World War II.
After making my final putt on the first hole I retrieved my golf bag and walked towards the second tee—and the bench. As I approached it, I saw a small metal plaque affixed to the back of the bench and I smiled again. When I read its simple inscription, printed just as I had requested it be, I felt a rush of gratitude.
I set down my bag and took a seat on the bench. I placed my arm on the back around the portion of the bench where the plaque was located. Again I felt gratitude, as well as a sense of his presence. You see, I have very few tangible reminders of my grandfather. After he was killed in a railroad accident that fateful August night in 1924, my grandmother suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for an extended period of time. I assume that friends and family may have taken it upon themselves to clear most of his possessions from her home before she returned. Perhaps they felt that was necessary to help assure that she did not suffer further emotional trauma. Whatever the reason, I only know of one object that actually belonged to my grandfather that has remained in the family until today–his railroader’s pocket watch. That was later given by my grandmother to my father, and is now in my possession.
Sitting next to that plaque on the Orono Public Golf Course bench that fine August day offered me a unique tactile connection with my Grandfather Lee. It’s similar to how I feel whenever I hold his watch in my hands and imagine him with me. I can’t explain why it means so much to me, but it does. It’s a response, I suppose, to my yearning to know this one who is unknowable.
After a bit of time sitting on the bench beside my grandfather’s memorial plaque, I stood, took up my golf bag again and stepped to the nearby second tee to continue my round. A few moments later I stroked my drive from that tee; it sailed like the wind.
I smiled. I felt gratitude. I sensed his pleasure.
Additional information about Orono Public Golf Course is available at: http://www.oronopublicgolf.com/
This personal essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2015. Epilogue 3 was added in 2016.