Happy birthday, Les Bolstad

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.

The University of Minnesota Golf Course was named after Les Bolstad in 1983.

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!

Les Bolstad (photo from the 2009 PGA Tournament program)

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.

A framed photo hangs in the clubhouse, along with his red glove.

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)

21 thoughts on “Happy birthday, Les Bolstad

  1. Steve,
    I came across your blog today. What a tribute to my dad! I forwarded to my mom and brother who will be touched to read it.

    • Wow — thanks! So glad you liked it. He really was a special man. I wish I’d known him personally. I have such fond memories of him and his golf teams. Thanks for writing.
      Steve Date

  2. One of my daughters called my attention to your “Happpy Birthday, Les” It brought tears to my eyes. I am amazed that after the many years since he died , you who did not really know him, wrote so interestingly about him. Les was a self-effacing man who did not call attention to himself , a fact that make your words more poignant. Thanks for the memories


  3. Millie,
    I’m so happy you like what I wrote. Even though, as I said, he didn’t know me, I felt I knew him. He was a quiet and gentle man and a great coach. I’m glad I have the memories that I do have. I hope he’s never forgotten. Thank you so much for writing. It’s nice to know that a little blog like mine brought you a moment of happiness.
    Steve Date

  4. Steve,
    I remember taking my first lesson from Gramps on the practice tee behind the club house at the U course. In addition to being a great golfer and coach, he was a wonderful grandfather. I’m sure I speak for the entire Bolstad family when I say thank you for expressing your admiration for Gramps.
    Les Bolstad III

  5. Thank you for writing, Les. I appreciate it so much that you and other family members are happy with what I’ve written about your grandfather. I’m glad I can help keep his memory alive in some small way. I’ll bet he was a great grandfather.

  6. Just saw your article today. The book has now been published and is called “Golfing the Les Bolstad Way”. It’s published by Nodin Publishing in Minneapolis. The story of the picture is very complicated. I saw the picture in the clubhouse at the U of M Les Bolstad Golf Course and had to have it in the book. I got Richard Hamilton Smith’s name from people at Hazeltine because they wanted and did use it on the logo for the 2009 PGA Championship. I called and talked to Mr. Smith and he, also, told me that the style of the picture was not his but he didn’t have time to go back and review all his old photographs. I did what Hazeltine did and assumed he did it anyway so I could use it.
    It’s too bad you never really met Les. He was an amazing individual.
    Thanks for the article,

    • Bob,
      Thanks for your comment and update. I’ve put your new book cover in my blog post. By the way, my wife Sandy at the StarTribune apparently helped you a bit and you gave her a signed copy of the earlier edition. Thanks for that. I’m going to get the Nodin Publishing version and I hope everyone else who remembers Les does too.

  7. I took a golf course from less in 1965. He was a wonderful human being who knew how to make one a believer. He was one of the two or three instrumental people in my life.
    He taught me focus and discipline. May his entire family appreciate the fine man Les was.

  8. There is now a statue of Les Bolstad that greets the members at Hazeltine, where Millie is still a member.

      • I’ll grab a photo for you this week. We have quite a bit of Les Bolstad memorabilia. He’s very highly regarded.

      • That would be great. Thanks! I’d love to see the other stuff, too. I didn’t realize that you had a collection out there.

  9. I graduated from the U of M in 1950 and took a group golfing lesson from him in summer school. The last day we each hit 2 tee shots with a driver. I hit a nice draw out a good distance and he said hit another one. I did and he offered his driver to me and said “Here you teach the class”. After 61 years I still remember that generous comment. He was an inspiration. I only quit golf two years ago at age 82 with a handicap of 10. He new how to, not only teach, but how to inspire using humor and compliments. I’ll never forget him.

  10. I was looking for information on Les for my husband (his grandson). I was going to put together a memory book for him for christmas and was on the internet to see if maybe someone was selling pictures or memorabilia. I cried when I read this. Thanks so much! Karen Bolstad

  11. After playing Hazeltine for the first time earlier this week, I saw a lot of Les Bolstad items at the course. I wasn’t really sure what the connection was with the course. It appears that Hazeltine’s logo is that of Les carrying his clubs correct? It’s on all thier apparel and even used as the tee markers! I wish there was more history on Les as a person vs. the U of M golf course. Good read!

  12. While this article was posted over 3 years ago I just saw it for the first time. In 1974 I was a graduate student at the U of M and my theses was a personality study of collegiate golfers. Les endorsed my study and, unlike several other faculty members who only met with me long enough to get their name added to my research, he took time to discuss and understand the project, and give me practical suggestions. He was a wonderful man and I’m glad I had a chance to work with him, if only briefly.

  13. he was a great man and one of many who originally taught me the game of golf in the 80’s through the junior golf program at hazeltine. I just wanted to add that the picture i do believe originally turned up in the 91 us open event program and will check to see if my parents might have hung on to a copy and would think the photo credit would be in some corner of this publication? please excuse me if this has already been gone over or mentioned, as i just skimmed all the wonderful comments of Coach!!! will update if i find anything.

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