When I was in high school in the late ’60s, my golf team would occasionally get to play the University of Minnesota Golf Course. We all considered it a treat. It seemed like a step above the other courses we played. Plus, it was part of “The U” — big time stuff.
In those days, the practice range was right behind the clubhouse. I remember thinking it was so cool to watch the Gopher golf team hit balls. All the players had the same, odd-looking short backswing. Always nearby was a slightly hunched, quiet man wearing a classic flat golf cap and a sweater. Coach Les Bolstad seemed like an old man to me at the time, but if I do the math, he was only a couple of years older than I am now — clearly not old at all!
By all accounts, Bolstad was a great teacher. He mentored the legendary Minneapolis golfer Patty Berg throughout her career. Minnesota business tycoon and author Harvey Mackay took lessons from Bolstad while still in high school and then played on the U of M golf team. He attributes much of his success to what he learned from Bolstad.
Robert Hustrulid, in his book, “Golfing the Les Bolstad Way”, quotes Mackay talking about Les Bolstad. “Like all great coaches and teachers, Les did not teach golf. He taught life. If you learned a little golf on the side, well so much the better. Like going fishing. If you catch a fish, it’s a bonus. You’re there to savor the experience.”
In 1926, at age 18, Bolstad won the National Public Links Championship. The next year, he won the Big Ten Championship. For the next few years, he was one of the top Minnesota golfers. But he chose to devote his golf skills to teaching, coaching the Gophers from 1947 to 1976.
When the U of M golfers were out on the course, he would walk through the trees between fairways, standing — almost lurking — to watch his players. Later, on the practice tee, he could be seen quietly offering a bit of advice or encouragement.
I never actually spoke with him, but I remember once when we passed each other near the clubhouse and he nodded and smiled, flashing the impish grin that shows up in every photo of him. I’ll always remember that.
Coach Les Bolstad would have been 102 years old today. When I was in the clubhouse on Saturday photographing the framed picture below and the one above with the red glove, one of the young people working there didn’t really know much about who he was. That’s sad. It’s also too bad that a Google search of his name mostly turns up stuff about the golf course and photos of cross-country meets held there. I left the clubhouse and pictured Les standing on the old practice tee. I hope we can keep his memory alive for a while longer.
I’ll end with another photo that hangs in “his” clubhouse. Robert Hustrulid tracked down the photographer. His name is Richard Hamilton Smith. It’s an amazing sunset shot of Les Bolstad in his later years, walking a fairway, hunched forward, carrying his clubs, as he always did.
Some of us haven’t forgotten you, Coach.
(post script to this post . . . . I got a note from photographer Richard Hamilton Smith. He says he doesn’t think the sunset photo of Les Bolstad is his. I guess he would know, right? So who DID take that shot? Let me know if you have any info)