The wardrobes, equipment and especially the prize money have changed in 100 years since Tom Stevens won the first Minnesota State Open golf tournament. But it remains a circled date for amateurs and professionals who know it best, just as it was to Stevens when the Minneapolis Morning Tribune touted the “crack Minikahda pro” defeating a field of 24 by a single stroke on Sept. 6, 1917.
The next champion to add his name to a memorable list of characters will be crowned Sunday, after the field of 156 amateurs and professionals tees off Friday for Round 1 at StoneRidge Golf Club in Stillwater.
Fifty-three different players have won the State Open. Les Bolstad, who would go on to become a legendary Gophers golf coach, broke through in 1933. Joe Coria won the first of his seven titles in 1934. Before them, Edward Baening, a 27-year-old golf club salesman, came out of nowhere to surprise everybody in 1930.
There was quick-playing World Golf Hall of Famer Lighthorse Harry Cooper in 1942, high school and NCAA phenom Chris Perry in 1984 and Tom Lehman using the tournament as a career springboard with back-to-back victories in 1989 and ’90.
“If you win the State Open, you beat everybody,” two-time winner Don Berry said. “It’s always had that allure to me.”
The only player to win the Open in three different decades can actually trace his success to a legendary hockey coach.
“I think I scored four goals the final weekend for the freshman team my first year at the U,” George Shortridge, now 73, recalled last week. “Well, John Mariucci says to me, ‘Son, you’re a heady hockey player but you’re not going to be big enough.’ So I said see ya later and turned pro the next day.”
Shortridge won his first State Open in 1966 — two years after permanently trading skates for spikes. He won again in 1981 and for a third time “beating the kids” in 1993.
“It’s a very special tournament,” Shortridge said. “I probably should have won more, but I hold the wins dearly.”
It’s the state’s true test of who’s best. Harry Legg was the first amateur to beat the pros in 1925. Each of the past four winners of the tournament have been amateurs, and the past 17 champions have all been first-time winners.
Berry is the last player to win a second State Open. His office at Edinburgh USA in Brooklyn Park is a treasure trove of crystal chalices, plaques and other awards from decades of competitive success.
Yet the large framed photo capturing his winning moment from the 1992 State Open is what exudes a smile wider than a municipal fairway.
“I always dreamed of playing in it,” said Berry, who also won in 1999. “To win it was something else.”
Lehman was a year removed from losing his PGA Tour card when he missed a birdie putt on the final hole and finished runner-up to amateur Jim Sorenson in the 1986 State Open. Three years later, he broke through as champion, then won again the following year.
Six years after the State Open victories, Lehman hoisted the Claret Jug at the British Open. He called the State Open victories a “building block” for his career.
“All of golf, and really any other endeavor you choose, is a series of steppingstones that get you closer and closer to your ultimate goal,” Lehman wrote in an e-mail. “[The State Open] provided a step in developing a game that could succeed on a bigger stage.”
Whether it’s a one-time venture or a decades-long quest, that’s been the case for a century.
“It’s the best players in Minnesota; always has been,” Berry said. “To be considered one of the best, I think you need to win that tournament.”