Les Fields is 'the Godfather of Rochester golf ... and jazz'
Les Fields watched Byron Nelson break the RG&CC course record in 1945, tied that record himself three decades later, and once shot a 70 (carrying just three clubs).
In the summer of 1945, the great golf champion Byron Nelson, who was getting treatment at Mayo Clinic, was invited to play an exhibition match at the Rochester Golf and Country Club. Nelson was in the midst of what would become a streak of 11 consecutive PGA tour wins (a record that still holds today). A local organization offered Nelson an additional $100 if he could break the Rochester course record, which had stood for 12 years at 68.
Sixty miles away, 17-year-old Les Fields heard about the match and drove up from Cresco, Iowa, with some friends and one of their dads to watch Nelson play. Les volunteered to serve as a gallery marshall, getting an unobstructed view of the imagination and precision with which Nelson played the game. But when the pro golfer ended the course with a record-breaking 66, little did Les imagine that he would one day tie that score on the same green.
If you’ve lived around Rochester long enough, you’ve probably heard Les Fields play. The cornet, that is. For more than 50 years, Les has perhaps best been known as the leader of a local jazz group, the Turkey River All-Stars. But if you’re a golfer, you might’ve seen him play that game as well.
Longtime Rochester radio personality (and Post Bulletin columnist), the late Harley Flathers, once described Fields as “The Godfather of Rochester Golf ... and Jazz.”
It’s a few weeks before Les’s 95th birthday when I meet him in early March at the home he shares with Barb Virnig, his partner of over 20 years, and their two fluffy cats, Bootsy and Tiger. Long renowned for his story-telling, these days Les refers to Barb as his “memory expert.” But the golfing trophies and music paraphernalia that decorate the couple’s home also tell of the storied lives Les has lived—one in a game known for quiet, the other in a splendor of sound.
The golf course “was our babysitter”
Les Fields was born in 1928 in Cresco, a small Iowa city 60 miles south of Rochester. His grandfather, Charlie, was an avid golfer who played five days a week.
“He didn’t have a caddy or anything, but he used his putter, upside down, for a cane,” Les recalls. With Charlie’s encouragement, Les started swinging a club around 1 or 2 years old and began playing a few years later. Around the neighborhood, Les recalls, he and the other local kids shot golf balls into tin cans that they’d sunk into the grass. By age 9 or 10, he sometimes spent all day at the golf course in Cresco. “That was our babysitter,” he says.
Les also learned to play the cornet at a young age. By the fourth grade, he was invited to join the high school band. Later at the University of Iowa, Les joined the marching band and the varsity golf team. But both practiced at the same time, and something had to give. He circled the music hall three times, debating what to do, before finally turning in his band uniform.
Les played four years with the golf team in college, where he majored in business and enrolled in the ROTC. After graduation, he served for two years in the Air Force before going into the insurance business.
He moved to Rochester to work with Northwestern Mutual in 1958. At the time, his boss told him that if he hit a certain sales number, the company would buy him a membership at the Rochester Golf and Country Club. Les earned his membership to the country club that year, and he played in his first Walter D. Shelden Memorial Invitational Pro-Am tournament (now the Member/Guest tournament).
Les also got involved with the local music scene, joining the Notochords band and the Rochester Male Chorus. Then in 1968, over lunch downtown, he heard that Rochester 1st National Bank was in need of a band for their Christmas party. Les said he thought he knew some folks who could play. For the band name, Les threw out something he had used in the past for a one-time impromptu performance: the Turkey River All-Stars, named for the Turkey River, which runs along the golf course in his hometown.
The new Turkey River All-Stars made their debut, playing without sheet music or rehearsing in advance. As years went on, the band continued to perform, sometimes up to 100 shows in a year. The number of bandmates might change depending on the need of the show and the musicians’ availability, Les says. Over the years, the group included Gordon Denuser, Howard Hunt, Dick Hyland, Larry Roberge, Denny Robertson, Lowell and his daughter Debbie Schreyer, Bob Stroetz, Lloyd Stoddard and Kenny Stock. They played classic jazz tunes such as “Oh Lady Be Good” and “Bourbon Street Parade,” with some occasional twists to delight the audience: Les rewrote the lyrics of “We’re In the Money” to “We Are the Turkeys” (with apologies to the original lyricists, he says) and a few “gobbles” thrown in.
Between music gigs, Les continued to enter local golf tournaments and travel to see the greats play. Les remembers meeting Jack Nicklaus Sr., Arnold Palmer and Gary Player when they were in the Twin Cities for a tournament. He shook hands with Palmer. “His hand was twice as big as mine,” he says.
Back home, Les racked up three holes in one at the RG&CC in 1986, ’87, and ’88, once on Hole 14 and twice on Hole 11. At one point, sometime in the 1970s, Les shot a lifetime-best score of 66 at the Rochester Golf and Country Club, tying the course record Byron Nelson had set when Les watched him play decades earlier.
“Wouldn’t you know it though, I shot that the day before the Shelden,” Les later told Post-Bulletin reporter Paul Christian. “I peaked right then; I didn’t have a very good tournament,” Les said. (And though the course has since been modified, today’s club course record is just one shot under, at 65.)
Les did win the Shelden Pro-Am tournament in 1966, 1970, and 1973, and he was the RG&CC club champion in 1958, 1969, and 1973. Barb has counted 51 golf trophies around their house. That number represents a fraction of the times Les has placed at a tournament—some trophies, like the prize ham he once won, don’t keep too well on the shelf.
“He’s got a really generous heart.”
Other achievements are harder to quantify. Recalling the days when his grandfather and friends all played the game carrying their clubs without the use of golf carts, in 1982 Les and a few friends decided to play a round at the RG&CC with the fewest number of clubs possible (while also having a decent game). While the modern golfer might carry around 14 clubs in their bag, for this round Les chose three: a 4-wood, a 6-iron and his putter. He ended up with a score of 70, one under par.
In 1983, at age 55, Les retired from his career in insurance to focus on the band. The following year, the Turkey River All-Stars were invited to perform at the World’s Fair in New Orleans. On a whim, the band decided to hold their own Bourbon Street Parade. They quickly organized a police escort and then went marching, to whoops and cheers from the crowds.
“Les was always doing stuff like that,” Barb says, from throwing impromptu parades to calling up a friend to play “Happy Birthday” for them over the phone. She estimates that he’s played Taps at hundreds of military funerals. “He’s got a really generous heart.”
Among the highlights of Les’s career, he mentions playing in the Lawrence Welk Dixieland Jazz Festival in Branson, Missouri, in 1997. Backstage, Les had along with him a copy of the late, great musician’s autobiography, “Wunnerful, Wunnerful.” After the show, a number of people in the audience came up to Les to congratulate the band on their performance. Among them was Lawrence Welk, Jr. and The Lennon Sisters, Les says. The well-wishers all scribbled notes of admiration to Les and the band in his copy of “Wunnerful, Wunnerful.” But Les forgot the book when he left that night, and when he returned the next morning, it was gone. “So somewhere, somebody has all those comments about our band,” Les says.
The band doesn’t do as many shows as they once did, though they’ve still appeared on occasion, performing last summer in the Winona Dixieland Jazz Festival, St. Charles Gladiolus Days and the Lake City Water Ski Days.
“Les still has played, but it’s getting harder,” Barb says. “He used to be the youngest member of the band, now he’s the oldest. When he goes, I don’t think there will be a Turkey River All-Stars anymore.”
In 2005, Les was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. He regrets that the whole band wasn’t included, he says, but they told him that only the band leader was eligible. And in 2019, Rochester’s Castle Community and Threshold Arts dedicated the Les Fields Hall in his honor.
One of the last tournaments Les appeared at was the RG&CC’s Hickory Stick Centennial Scramble, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the club in 2016. Everyone played with wooden shaft clubs and vintage style golf balls, and Les was invited to open the tournament as the honorary starter. Though the tournament organizers arranged to have 20 sets of clubs shipped in for the event, Les could’ve teed off with a club of his own, from a set his grandfather had carried in Iowa decades ago.
Les keeps the clubs in a corner of his room, next to the bedside table where his cornet rests, within arms reach both morning and night. Elegant instruments, though worn from years of use, still whispering, “Play on.”