1971 champion John Lieser returning to play the Pine to Palm on 50th anniversary
Lieser will be in action Monday, Aug. 9, an 8:55 a.m., tee time in the foursome of Scott Linnerooth, Bruce Lindvig and Paul Krueger.
Fifty years ago this coming August, John Lieser captured the championship of the 39th annual Pine to Palm golf tournament. Lieser is returning to Detroit Country Club to play this year on the anniversary of his victory and for the first time in two decades.
“It should be fun to play in the event again after more than a 20-year hiatus,” Lieser said.
Lieser’s reason for coming back to the Pine is to commemorate the win in ‘71, memories he has kept all these years in an extensive scrapbook and equipment collection.
“It was purely nostalgia,” he said.
Despite the passing of half a century, like every champion, his victory is part of a classic tournament that is a decade away from its 100th anniversary.
“As long as the Pine to Palm will be played, my name will adorn the board,” said Lieser. “That memory will be etched one more time as I compete for probably the final time.”
Lieser started playing all three Resorter series events, including The Birchmont in Bemidji and Resorters in Alexandria, in the early 1960’s. He found plenty of success making the championship flight cut in all three tournaments for 17 consecutive years.
Lieser’s first push for the title in Detroit Lakes came in 1967 when he reached the quarterfinals before losing to George Lee. Lee was the 1959 medalist and a champion in 1968. Lieser’s best finish in the series prior to 1971 was a semifinal appearance at The Birchmont.
Lieser, playing out of his hometown of Freeport at the time, qualified in a tie for seventh place at the ‘71 Pine to Palm and won four matches to get to the semis, including a 2-up victory over defending champion Jim Ihnot of Minneapolis.
The semifinal against Bill Heldmar of Des Moines went to extra holes. According to Tribune Sports Editor Ralph Anderson’s report, Lieser made a spectacular recovery for par and a win on the 18th hole to force extras and won the match with a birdie on the par-5 19th - hole No. 1.
Lieser was in the trees on 18, while Heldmar was perfect.
“He was the best player in the tournament that year,” Lieser said. “I remember chipping back out into the fairway and he hit his next shot over the green.”
One place no Pine to Palm winner can go is over on the 18th green. That was the undoing of Jon Miller in a loss to Chris Swenson in 2017. Miller’s approach shot rolled just off the back rough and onto the cart path forcing an impossible, downhill up-and-down from the 10th tee box.
Lieser ran a seven-iron to six-feet short and Heldmar’s chip back to the green was within four feet. Lieser’s putt was good, Heldmar’s missed forcing the extra hole..
“I should never have won that tournament,” said Lieser. “I should have been beaten in the semis. You know how luck is involved.”
Ralph Anderson noted there was a bit of gamesmanship involved as well.
Lieser outhit Heldmar off the first tee and pulled a wood out for his second shot, never intending to hit it. Heldmar went for an iron, but changed to a wood after seeing Lieser swinging his. Helmar’s shot found the left sand trap. Lieser changed to a 1-iron and landed on the front edge where he converted a chip and a two-foot birdie for the win.
“You’ve got to be lucky to win six matches and I was lucky and played pretty well,” said Lieser. “I remember Bill sitting in the clubhouse with his head in his hands thinking ‘this hack beat me,’” said Lieser.
As a young man, Lieser’s idol was Arnold Palmer and Anderson reported Lieser’s semis victory as a Palmer-type comeback to gain the finals against Bill Waryan, brother of then Detroit Country Club pro Jack Waryan.
Arnold Palmer by inforumdocs on Scribd
Bill Waryan won two Minnesota State Opens in 1950 and 1959 and the Minnesota State Amateur in 1956. He was medalist at the Pine in ‘72, a year after losing to Lieser.
The quickly-played 2-hour and 40-minute championship match went all 18 holes with Lieser playing from behind most of the match.
He trailed 1-down four times before squaring the match on 16, in what Anderson called the turning point of the match.
After nearly holing out for birdie, Lieser converted for par while Waryan bogeyed. On the par-3, 17th, Lieser found the green, while Waryon was off the right side. Lieser two-putted for par and the lead heading to 18.
A Waryan birdie bid to extend the match slid just past the 18th cup and the duo halved for a 1-up Lieser victory.
“That was a fantastic win,” he said. “I tried to put myself into Arnold Palmer. I said, ‘No one remembers who comes in second.’”
Lieser will be bringing vintage pieces of nostalgia back with him to the Pine to Palm. A golf club collector, he still owns the set he used at the ‘71 tournament.
“I located the set I used to win the title 50 years ago and if I lose in any round, I will play the clubs,” he said.
Those clubs were Rawlings woods: real persimmon (Driver, 2 1/2 and 3 1/2 woods); Spalding Bob Goalby Dyna Flex irons (2-9), an Arnold Palmer pitching wedge and a Haig Ultra All Purpose wedge, a John Reuter “Bullseye” putter, and a Top Flight golf ball.
“The surlyn no-cut golf ball made by Top Flight first came out in 1971 and I saved a sleeve,” he said.
Coming back to the DCC is going to be a reliving what Liesere calls, ‘my fondest memory in golf.’
“Just to go back for nostalgic reasons will be memory enough, and I still hit the ball fairly well,” he said.
Lieser has a vast accumulation of stories, including losing at Resorters to Ken Pinns in 1965.
Pinns is the lone holder of championships at the three resort circuit tourneys in the same year, according to the Pine to Palm history page .
Pinns scored 16 consecutive match play victories and defeated Keith Jorde of Hereford, Texas 5&4 in the Birchmont final, topped Neil Croonquist of Minneapolis 1-up to win at Resorters and capped the run with a 1-up victory over Dave Hanten of Huron, South Dakota at the Pine to Palm.
Golf has been a part of Lieser’s life since childhood.
He grew up in Freeport and attended Melrose high school where he was a three-sport athlete in football, basketball and baseball. He played for Melrose’s first state tournament basketball team in 1960, a team that defeated Detroit Lakes in the regional round at Concordia.
The 1960 state basketball tournament has gone down in Minnesota lore. The Edgerton boys high school basketball team became the smallest school ever to win the state tournament that year.
After some prodding from a ninth grade teacher about playing golf, Lieser became a rare three-sport athlete in one season pitching and playing shortstop for the baseball team, running the 100 for the track team and golfing.
He grew up playing on a homemade golf course with his brother in Freeport.
“We stuck coffee cans in the ground with old flags and played back-and-forth,” he said.
In 1960, the Albany Golf Club opened.
“I would take my bike six miles with my golf clubs and drive from Freeport on old highway 52,” Lieser said. “I would play 45-50 holes a day and my dad would pick me up at night. That’s where I learned how to play.”
After graduating from St. Cloud State University, Lieser taught English and was the only golf coach at St. Cloud Apollo from 1970-2019, including recent co-op’s with Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud Tech the last few years.
He writes a golf column during season for the St. Cloud Times.
The 89th Pine to Palm begins Monday Aug. 9, and runs through championship Sunday Aug. 15. The now 77-year-old Lieser will be playing in Super Seniors this year. He will be in action Monday, Aug. 9, an 8:55 a.m., tee time in the foursome of Scott Linnerooth, Bruce Lindvig and Paul Krueger.
Read more stories by Robert Williams here .