Thor Nordwall was a World II veteran and a woodsman so adept in his surroundings that it became front-page news when he got lost.
He also was part of golf history, although he didn’t realize it at the time.
Nordwall, who died March 4 at age 98, was a caddie at Keller Golf Course in Maplewood when tapped in 1939 to carry the bag for Gene Sarazen at the St. Paul Open. Four years earlier, Sarazen had won the Masters tournament following a miraculous double eagle holed from the 15th fairway.
Sarazen was not in championship form at the Open, however, and on the final hole, after leaving a shot short of the green, he slammed the club headfirst into his golf bag.
Settling up with Nordwall later, Sarazen gave the teen some cash and two clubs — one of them the fairway wood he had just mishandled. Sarazen, who otherwise was happy with his caddie, told a Minneapolis Star-Journal reporter before leaving the course that the club was, in fact, the same one he used to hole out his famous shot at the Masters.
But was it? The club, with the letters “Do-Do” on the sole plate, would be displayed at the USGA Golf Museum as a curatorial mystery some 70 years later. Nordwall donated it, turning down some good money in the process.
“It was the right thing to do,” his wife, Audry, said last week.
Nordwall was born in Sweden and emigrated with his mother in 1925 to join his father in St. Paul. To caddie, he would rise at dawn to catch a ride with a dairyman, according to a Golf Digest story published in 1999.
Three years after caddying for Sarazen, he joined the Army and worked on a communications network in advance of the Normandy invasion. Audry said the two traveled overseas for the 50th anniversary of the invasion, stopping in areas where he served.
After the war, Nordwall took a job as a telephone company engineer and retired at 55. He then fulfilled a dream of building a log cabin near Ely, Minn., a project he documented in a book, “The Story of Torsbacke.” Audry loved the place, too.
In 2004, Nordwall left the cabin one day to pick blueberries and got lost in an overgrown area. He was 83, but calm enough to survive two nights under pine trees before spotting the sun through the trees and fog and finding a ski trail. The Star Tribune ran a story the next day, and the couple vowed to be more careful. There were no more scares: “One and done,” Audry said.
Years after caddying for Sarazen, Nordwall chased down the Star-Journal story, “Sarazen Gives Caddy Famous Weapon,” and confirmed the link between his club and the golfer’s historic shot.
He tried to return it to Sarazen. He weighed selling it. Golf Digest, meanwhile, said it was also possible Sarazen’s club could be at Augusta National, home of the Masters, or in Japan. In 2008, Nordwall donated his club to the United States Golf Association museum, and David Normoyle, then its assistant curator, came to collect it.
Last week, Normoyle said no one has solved the mystery of the club’s true whereabouts. But he said Wilson Sporting Goods made replicas of it after Sarazen’s miracle shot, adding “Do-Do” to the sole plate — as in the fabled dodo, “rarest of all birds,” he said. As such, it’s likely Nordwall had a copy. Regardless, he said, it was a fun visit. “Thor was a sweet man,” Normoyle said. “I enjoyed our time together.”
Nordwall also is survived by sons Kurt, Karl and Kris; siblings Bari Campbell, Barbara Wojahn and Ronald Nordwall; and 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
A virtual memorial service will be held Saturday at 11 a.m. at facebook.com/GustavusAdolphusLuthChurchSaintPaul.
Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109