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'Fore! Gone. Minnesota's Lost Golf Courses - 1897-1999'

By: Jeff Shelley


Sometimes a magnificent little nugget lands on your lap. In my case, it's this book that author Joe Bissen - whose regular gig is sports copy editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press - mailed me to review.

Bissen created a real gem in "Fore! Gone. Minnesota's Lost Golf Courses - 1897-1999." This witty, informative travelogue features most of his home state's long-gone golf courses (he admits in the Introduction it's "not intended to be Minnesota's be-all, end-all lost-golf-course history"). Well-written and artfully presented, this 220-page book is a joy to read, regardless if whether you're a Minnesotan or not.

Bissen has done yeoman's work unearthing and telling the tales of more than 80 golf courses that once graced Minnesota's landscape but have sadly disappeared. He spent many hours in libraries, online research and interviewing oldsters whose memories may have faded but whose lifelong love of golf returns them to their first romantic meetings at courses now artifacts of the past.

His time with legendary Minnesota golfer Thor Nordwall is particularly poignant, as the 91-year-old Nordwall - who Bissen writes "looks at least 15 years younger, maybe 20" - accompanies the author to the erstwhile Matoska Country Club in the town of Gem Lake, Ramsey County.

Bissen was given permission by the developer of the now-upscale community on the club's former site to see if there were any visible remnants of the course designed by Tom Vardon (yes, he's the brother of the famed Harry Vardon). Nordwall and Bissen wade through woodlands around the lake, skirting the million-dollar homes there now, as Gene Sarazen's ex-caddie relived the old layout.

Here's an excerpt from the Matoska Country Club chapter: "Nordwall is positive there used to be a green back among trees and wetlands along the southwest edge of the course, and he is nothing if not intrepid. We exit the SUV and begin to tromp through the woods. He nearly tumbles on a spongy patch of terra-not-so-firma but regains his footing, while I wonder how I am going to explain to the authorities why I am on private property with a 91-year-old who's being gurneyed out of the woods with a broken hip."

Nordwall is certain that an old Matoska green was in a specific spot, but alas, he and Bissen couldn't find it. But the next day on a return solo trip, "as plain as day," Bissen finds a "flat, rectangular piece of land, pushed up in front so as to elevate the teeing area, with an old steel pipe, possibly part of Matoska's watering system, sticking a foot out of the ground."

Bissen also writes of that second day: "I come across a series of four small, pushed-up pieces of land, each consisting of fine dirt and/or sand, the tallest about 18 inches high. On one side of two of these dirt hills, there is a slightly hollowed-out area. They are, little doubt, a group of old Vardon-designed bunkers."

Such is the joy of discovery Bissen enthusiastically writes in his quest for the lost courses of Minnesota. Whether you're a golf aficionado or not, his book is an outstanding bit of writing, graphically enhanced by historic aerial and "action" photographs, maps, a snappy design, original scorecards and some modern-day shots of "what's there now" by Bissen and noted Minnesota golf photographer Peter Wong.

Bissen has crafted a fine work, one that would be a fine addition to anyone's library.

"Fore! Gone. Minnesota's Lost Golf Courses - 1897-1999," by Joe Bissen, 2014, Five Star Publishing, 220 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-9911748-0-5.

For ordering information, visit http://www.foregonegolf.com/author/joebissen.