Thor Nordwall was a young caddie at the St. Paul Open in 1939, shlepping clubs for one of golf's most famous players, when he was handed some cash and a couple of golf clubs for his labor.
Thirty-one years later, Nordwall learned that one of the clubs he stuck in his bag that day reportedly had been behind one of the most famous shots in golf history. The man who handed him the club, legendary golfer Gene Sarazen, apparently had used it to hole out a 235-yard shot that ultimately allowed him to win the 1935 Masters, one of professional golf's most storied tournaments.
For golf fanatics, the club is as sacred as the bat Babe Ruth used for his record-setting 60th home run in 1927.
It's also a club steeped in mystery.
But its story will now be shared with the entire golfing world after Nordwall donated the club to the U.S. Golf Association museum, located in Far Hills, N.J., Tuesday.
"There's been a lot of mystery surrounding this golf club,'' said David Normoyle, assistant museum curator at the USGA, who picked up the club Tuesday at an informal meeting in White Bear Lake.
"So we're going to present it as a curatorial dilemma,'' he said.
Rather than say, "This is the club," the museum will say, "This is the mystery," Normoyle said. And that could make the exhibit even more interesting.
What's the mystery? It seems that while Sarazen told a Minneapolis newspaper reporter that the club he gave Nordwall was the real thing, he apparently told a couple other people he was giving them his club, too. So the donation is actually the latest chapter in the club's lore.
The story of Nordwall's golf club starts in 1935. Sarazen, who was three shots behind the leader in the Masters, needed a "double eagle" to tie for the lead on the 15th hole of the final round. Sarazen pulled out his 4 wood and hit the spectacular "shot heard 'round the world'' and made up the three-stroke deficit in one shot. He went on to win in a playoff.
"The odds of getting a double eagle are practically one in a million,'' said Tom Otteson, a White Bear Lake golf historian and friend of Nordwall. Otteson hosted Tuesday's donation meeting.
It would be 32 years before another player would score another double eagle at the Masters.
Four years after the historic hit, young Nordwall was picked to caddy at the St. Paul Open at Keller Golf Course. He'd never heard of Sarazen and thought nothing of getting two golf clubs in addition to his five day's wages.
Sarazen told a Minneapolis Star Journal reporter afterwards that Nordwall was the best caddy he'd ever had and that he'd given him his famous club. Nordwall never saw the article but recalls that a high school teacher at the time told him he was "in the paper.''
Fast forward to 1970. Nordwall told some of his co-workers at Northwestern Bell in Minneapolis that he had caddied for Sarazen. They jokingly asked for proof. So he headed to the library and pulled up the story on microfilm.
"I was completely surprised,'' said Nordwall. "To have this big professional golfer say those things was pretty nice. My friends were impressed.''
Nordwall offered to return the club to Sarazen and wrote him a letter proposing a reunion. He never heard back. What he did hear, however, was that Sarazen's family thought he gave the club to someone in Japan. And the Augusta National Golf Club was also at times reporting it had the real club.
"But why would he tell a newspaper reporter that he gave me the club if he didn't?'' asked Nordwall. "And if someone else has it, why haven't they come forward by now?''
Nordwall believed the club belonged in a museum, along with its unusual story. He said he's turned down offers to sell it, some for big money. But when it came to finally turning over the club this week, he was sleepless.
"It kind of kept me awake, wondering what would happen today,'' Nordwall said, eyes slightly red. "But now it will have a good home.''
Normoyle agrees that the nation's biggest golf history museum is a logical fit for the club. It will share space with 70,000 other artifacts, including the golf club that astronaut Alan Shepard used to hit a ball on the moon.
"We try to tell the great stories of golf,'' said Normoyle. "And this is certainly one of them.''
Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553