From Underdog to Champion
This year, the MPGA will release a book “A Century of Public Golf Champions: The 100th Anniversary of the Minnesota Public Golf Association.” In this excerpt from chapter 2, meet Johnny Lakotas—a 1930s golfer with a big personality.
February 23, 2023 | 2 min.
By Rick S Shefchik
Johnny Lakotas was one of the greatest characters in Minnesota golf history, and–at least for a five-year period–one of the best players. And if you didn’t believe that, you could just ask him.
The Columbia Heights hog farmer first surfaced as a State Public Links contender in 1930 and 1931, losing a quarterfinal match both years. Ade Fordham and Joe Coria were the big names in public golf at that time, Fordham winning three straight State Public Links from 1930-1932, and Coria taking the crown in 1933 and 1934. Then Lakotas took over.
He was an underdog in every match he played in the 1935 State Public Links at Superior Golf Course (now Brookview), playing with borrowed clubs, shoes and socks. He used his own beat-up niblick and his own putter, which he bought for a quarter and dubbed “Old Stick in the Mud.” He had a remarkable 16 one-putt greens in his win against Coria; in the final against Fordham, he had a par putt on the seventeenth hole to win the title.
“Come on, putter, get hot!” he yelled as he lined up the putt.
Minneapolis Tribune reporter Louis Greene wrote: “Without a second’s hesitation, he stroked the ball with that patched up old putter of his that needs lots of tape dressing to keep it from falling apart. And it went in.”
“Hurray!” Lakotas yelled,leaping into the air.
Sensing a bit of disbelief about his win on the part of some of the 1,000 spectators who watched the match, Lakotas launched into an epic monologue.
“I don’t see how they can say I won on a fluke,” he began. “Didn’t I beat two champions in two days–Coria and Fordham? And look who I beat the first two days of match play. I shot a 76 to eliminate Pete Ulmaniec of Columbia Heights, 3 and 2, on 18 holes in the first round, and if you think Pete isn’t tough, you’re crazy. He could beat nearly all the guys in this tournament except me. It’s just his hard luck that he caught me first. And who did I beat in the second round? Nobody tough, just Bert Bergman of Keller, one of the best of them all. Ask anybody if you don’t believe me. I carded a par 73 in beating him, 3 and 2, in the second 18-hole round Wednesday. Then Kenny Young, who was hotter than blazes, came along Thursday, and I beat him in 36 holes 1 up, finishing with a 74 card for 18. Is Young good? Well, you tell me. Wasn’t he the medalist? Could anybody else around here have beaten him? Well, I did. Next day I beat the champ [Coria], 3 and 1, and shot a 72-75 score to do it. If anybody thinks that’s a fluke, he’s screwy. And today I won again, didn’t I? And beat a guy that was good enough to win the title three times. Fluke, heck I’m no cheese champion.”
Get the Book
Published by the MPGA, “A Century of Public Golf Champions: The 100th Anniversary of the Minnesota Public Golf Association” is scheduled to release in 2023 and is available for purchase at mpga.net
No, he wasn’t. Lakotas would also win the Resorters tournament in Alexandria that summer, qualify for the U.S. Amateur Public Links tournament four out of the next five years, and, most importantly, win two more State Public Links championships–in 1937 at Hiawatha and again in 1939 at Meadowbrook.
Along the way, Lakotas became great copy for the newspaper reporters who were always looking for a colorful athlete to write about. He lost a playoff for medalist at the 1936 State Public Links at Keller, and then was eliminated in the quarter-final by Fred Stark of Como. But Lakotas was back, better and more loquacious than ever, the next year at Hiawatha. He shot 152 in the qualifying rounds to miss making medalist by three shots–just the way he liked it, he professed.
“I’m glad I’m not the medalist,” he said. “Everybody goes gunning for medalists–and I’d rather beat a medalist than be one.”
In the quarterfinal he got his wish, knocking off medalist Al Snell of Keller 6 and 5. He then eased by fellow Hilltop member Don Winge 2 up in the semis. As usual, Lakotas was not at a loss for words after that close scrape.
“Boy-o-boy-o-boy-o-boy–what a match,” he told Tribune reporter Greene. “I can beat either Eddie Axtell or Al Priebe for the championship, though. It’s a cinch. Don was a lot tougher than either of them will be.”
His opponent in the final turned out to be Axtell, who came from three down against defending champ Priebe by shooting a 34 on the final nine to win 1 up.
Axtell seemed to be in top form, but the old Lakotas confidence proved to be more than empty bravado. Even though Axtell had won the long-drive competition at the 1935 U.S. Amateur Public Links, Lakotas was able to stay close to him off the tee in their 36-hole final match, and beat him on the greens. Axtell threw a 34 at Lakotas on the first nine holes of the match, but it was only good for a 1 up lead, as Lakotas shot 35. By the lunch break, the match was even. Still tied on the fourth hole of the afternoon 18, Axtell had Lakotas stymied, his ball a foot and a half from the cup and Lakotas’s ball three feet. Lakotas pulled out his niblick–roughly the equivalent of today’s 9-iron–and lofted his ball over Axtell’s.
“Git in!” Lakotas shouted, and the ball did as ordered, falling into the cup from the side. Axtell was apparently rattled by the shot and missed his putt, putting Lakotas 1 up.
“Right there’s where I beat him,” Lakotas said afterward. “I broke his heart with that chip shot. Guess I’m just too good for that guy. You know, I’m a heck of a lot better now than when I won the title at Superior. Everybody knows that.”
A record gallery of 1,500 spectators followed the match, which Lakotas won handily, 6 and 4.
“I’m the guy who draws ‘em,” Lakotas said of the crowd. “Some come to see me get beat, and some come to see me win, but lots of people come to see me.”
Lakotas again had a bit of an off-year in 1938. He failed to qualify for the U.S. Amateur Public Links–the only time between 1936 and 1940 that happened; and he was eliminated in the quarterfinal of the State Public Links at Bunker Hills by long-hitting St. Paul Central High School student Spero Daltas in 37 holes.
Johnny Lakotas was one of the greatest characters in Minnesota golf history.
Lakotas bounced back in 1939 at Meadowbrook, in what might have been the most dominant performance of his career. Lakotas managed to survive his second-round match in a downpour that saw flooding from the creek on the 14th hole, players using four-, five- and six-irons on greens instead of putters, and players forced to hit out of standing water in the rough, as no relief was given to balls off the fairway. Lakotas’s match against Ed Webster of Highland Park was settled when Webster’s drive on 18 landed in wet turf, leaving him a shot he could only advance 50 yards.
After that, Lakotas had an easy time winning his third Publinks championship. He hammered Stewart Wilson of Columbia, 8 and 6, in the quarterfinal and took care of George Brunes of Hilltop, 6 and 5, to reach the final against his good friend Gordon Peterson of Armour. Despite the usual boastful banter before the final match, Lakotas was surprisingly subdued after his victory. Asked for a comment on the match, Lakotas simply said, “I’m not talking.” He even appeared to be taking it easy on Peterson, whom he’d known and played golf with for years. Their wives and their fathers walked together in the gallery throughout the match.
The match had been fairly close until Peterson shanked consecutive tee shots on the 11th and 12th, losing both holes, and Lakotas birdied the 13th to go 4 up. Lakotas shockingly missed an eight-inch putt on the 15th green that would have ended the match, causing some in the gallery to question his intentions, but when Peterson made a triple-bogey 7 on the next hole, Lakotas ended things with a par for a 4-and-2 victory.
It was an odd way for one of the state’s great golf showmen to end his championship years. Lakotas would be bounced in the semi-final the next year, the last time the State Public Links used a match-play format. At stroke play, he had top-10 finishes in 1943 and 1944, and finished second at Meadowbrook in 1945, the same year he finished tied for 10th in the Minnesota State Amateur. After that, he faded from the scene.
By the post-war years, Johnny Lakotas’s days of dominating tournaments, drawing huge galleries and filling reporters’ notebooks with outrageous quotes had come to an end. Still, it was great fun while it lasted.