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Tee Times Magazine | Minneapolis/St. Paul

Breezy Point

Local Golf
November 22, 2017

By R.J. Smiley

On a crisp Saturday morning in late October 1981, "Big John" Smiley, pro shop manager of Mille Lacs Golf Resort and father of course owner and writer of this story, stood over his second shot on the 487-yard par-5 ninth at Mille Lacs Country Club. After a huge drive, for a man of 68, Big John eyed a second shot of exactly 240 yards (a calculated guess with range finders not invented) to the turtle-backed elevated green. With the stunning gold and red leaves on the oaks and maples in the background and a slight breeze at his back, Big John selected his Titleist persimmon headed 3-wood.

It was the first day of the Three Man Best Ball, the largest golf tournament in Minnesota at the time. With a huge skin game, $960 in the pot, teams were playing to win a skin; winning the tournament was secondary. On Saturday of the Three Man, the total of the two best net scores for each hole counted. With Big John getting a stroke on nine, a birdie, net eagle, would go a long way in the skin game. Big John's teammates, Doug Marshall and Bob Book, were pulling for the once great player to reach back in the memory banks and find the energy to smack that Titleist 240 yards. Book said, "An eagle would be a net 2. Could be a big skin."

Just as Big John's peach colored persimmon struck the ball with that unmistakable sound of solid impact, a gust of wind raced down the alley of trees that frame the ninth. With a boost from the breeze, the ball carried over 200 yards and landed hard on the firm fairway. A little left kick and the ball tracked onto the very slick (Three Man speed) green. With the hole cut on the front left, the ball began trickling toward the hole. Breaking left and sliding downhill the Titleist #2 found the hole on the final turn. "Double eagle, net ace!" screamed the excited Book. "Now we need a birdie to go along with it."

Moments later, Doug Marshall, who also got a stroke on the ninth, faced a 15 foot down slider for a birdie, net eagle, on the ice fast green. Book, who was already in with a par, was Marshall's cheerleader. "All you have to do is touch it, the green will do the rest. I don't think you can play it too high."

As the putt dropped Book, a CPA in real life, screamed, "Eagle and ace total 4. That will be a skin!" Later after the putting tournament the team split $460. The clubhouse toasted Big Johns double eagle.
After his passing in 1997, the Smiley family transplanted a Norway Pine over his ashes on the spot of his famous shot. Even though Big John had aces on #2, #6 and #14, he loved telling the story of his albatross.

A few year after Big John's tree was planted, Kevin, a new player to the tournament and a long hitter, stood on the 9th tee. "What's the line?" he said.

"Just over the tree on the corner, my dad is buried under that tree. He was an ornery old bastard and sometimes he reaches out and slaps a ball out of the sky," I said with a grin.

As Kevin's high beautiful shot appeared to carry over and well to the left of Big John's tree, we heard a sharp crack as his ball settled only two feet from the tree. Kevin's ball dropped as he stared is disbelief.

Some say that Big John's spirit lives in that tree. Seems like he has a tennis racket and just swats balls out of the sky.

Three Man Best Ball History
The Three Man was started in 1977 to extend the golf season in Central Minnesota. By 1980 the Three Man was the biggest golf tournament in Minnesota. 192 golfers, 64 three-man teams, filled every hole on the golf course! Staged the last weekend in October, weather was always a guessing game. The tournament featured a huge skin game and a TV for closest to the pin on #2. As the scores were being posted, we hosted a match play putting tournament. The entry fee was $5 for once around the 9-hole putting green. The low 16 qualified for match play: ties were broken with a lag-off. While the putting tournament was being contested; free beer and sweet corn was available to all players their spouses and family members.

As the shadows settled over the putting green late Saturday afternoon, the beered-up gallery stood three or four deep around the green, cheering their favorites. The two finalists were locked in a putting duel for a pot of four to five hundred dollars.

Next came the main event, the Calcutta where all 64 teams were sold. The pot approached and even surpassed $50,000 on occasion. Sunday, more skins, another TV and payday for top 15 teams and Calcutta winners.

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