Huddled on the shores of Lake Superior off U.S. Highway 61 in Northern Minnesota, the city of Silver Bay (pop. 1,769) sits closer to the Canadian Border (96 miles) than it does the state’s capital city of Saint Paul (204 miles).
Reference to “ranges” across the provincial surrounds are more apt to be of the “iron” than “driving” variety, as the region has long been one of the nation’s largest producers of iron ore.
Prone to harsh winds along Minnesota’s North Shore and known for winter temps which regularly dip well into the negatives, Silver Bay either stands near the beginning or the end of the line of the historic highway, depending on one’s purview.
Between the coarse wintertime conditions, short summers and blue-collar ethic, the region isn’t a place for the timid, the weak, the apathetic. It’s a place for the strong, the driven, the hearty.
It’s a place for a woman. It’s a place for Norma O’Leary.
The general manager and superintendent at 9-hole Silver Bay Golf Course, O’Leary’s grounds, like the curator herself, are smaller in scope but mighty in stature.
Born in Chaska, Minn., a half-hour drive southwest of the Twin Cities, O’Leary is a self-proclaimed “farm girl.”
By age 13, she started working at Dahlgreen Golf Course, located five miles west of Hazeltine National, where she’d tee-it-up readily in her high school years. Prior to playing the famed Ryder Cup and major championship venue, O’Leary’s golf beginnings were far more humble.
“One day when I was walking home from work at the course, I found the head of a 5 iron in a ditch,” she says. “My dad welded it to a solid steel rod, and then attached a rubber hose from the milker that we used for cows, and that was the grip. That was my first golf club, and I have no idea how I could hit it, but I could hit it.”
While not averse to the tenets of hard work, O’Leary found greater reward in tending to cups before cream.
“I loved every time I got called to work because it got me out of milking cows,” O’Leary says. “They’d have me changing cups, raking bunkers and basic things. Changing cups was a challenge for me because I had to stand with both feet on top of the shell of the cup-cutter, and twist my whole body. But I managed.”
O’Leary has always managed.
Listed (generously) at 5-foot-2, she’d go on to play college golf at the University of Minnesota, where she’d initially study accounting before graduating with a self-created major in business & horticulture.
“Halfway through college, I just knew there was no way I could sit in a building doing accounting all day long,” O’Leary says. “I don’t know how I got through college; when the sun came out, I had such a hard time sitting through class.”
As her college years neared an end, O’Leary took notice of being in a gender minority.
“I loved working on the golf courses, but there were no women in the field,” she says, “so I didn’t think the opportunity was going to be there for me.”
O’Leary made her own opportunities.
In the late 1980s, she took a job maintaining a course in Grand Marias, Minn. (40 miles from Canada), where she led the transformation of par-31, 9-hole course into a par-36 play. “Just clearing the woods and lengthening some holes,” she humbly recalls.
Married in 1988, her husband’s job as a Minnesota State Trooper would find the couple transferred “south” to Silver Bay, where opportunity called for O’Leary as well. “That work in Grand Marais went well enough, I guess, that I got a phone call offering me the superintendent’s job at Silver Bay Golf Course,” she says.
Taking charge of the 9-hole course as both general manager and superintendent, O’Leary instantly applied her farm girl work ethic across the grounds’ 3,200 playable yards.
“All I had for irrigation, there was an old galvanized pipe that ran up each fairway to each green with old quick couplers; one by each green,” O’Leary recalls of her Silver Bay beginnings. “There were portable sprinklers to water every tee and green.”
Over the course of the next three years, working with 13 volunteer members, she’d bring the irrigation to par.
“All the electric heads and wiring for fairways the first year, then did the heads and wiring for greens and tees the next year,” O’Leary says. “The third year, did the pump station and tied-in all the irrigation controllers.”
Typically-armed with a paid, seasonal skeleton staff of one full-time employee and one part-timer, O’Leary has been lauded for her communal approach to running the course, a philosophy which has found Silver Bay thrive with volunteer man and woman power.
Her embrace of community, coupled with a proactive approach to maintenance, impressed Silver Bay-native Mark Michalski, himself a seasonal course staffer. Now the head superintendent at the TPC Twin Cities, Michalski is preparing to unveil a revamped golf course for the debut of the PGA Tour’s 3M Open in July.
Michalski has known O’Leary most of his life, first playing city-owned Silver Bay as a kid before working full-time summers for her from the time he could drive through his sophomore year of college.
“I can remember the first time mowing greens, I scalped pretty far out into the approach and I thought I’d be in serious trouble with her, but she just told me, ‘Hey, it happens. Just don’t do it again,’” Michalski recalls with a chuckle. “I learned so much from her, and a lot of what I do now as a superintendent came from her. She doesn’t have a very large budget up there, but she produces pretty phenomenal conditions every year; and a lot of that is because how faithful she is to the cultural practices.”
Referencing the ingenuity O’Leary brings to her work, Michalski harkens back to a memory of half the Silver Bay course losing irrigation after spring flooding partially knocked out a maintenance bridge.
“I was watering greens with a sprayer; just running water out of a tank,” remembers Michalski. “Norma found the main line to the city and we ran a piece of pipe, spanned it underneath another bridge, and then tied it into a piece of irrigation on the golf course.”
Despite working today on a far bigger stage and prepping to host the world’s best players, lessons learned from O’Leary continue to shape Michalski.
“She’s not afraid to try new things,” Michalski says, “and that’s something she always told my younger brother and I. Every day we’d go to work for her, she’d have our list of things to do, and she’d always say, ‘This is how I think you should do it, but if you guys come up with a better way, as long as you run it past me, then let’s do it your way.’”
From budget management to turf care, the TPC Twin Cities superintendent credits O’Leary for instilling in him a set of fundamentals which he uses daily.
“Now, at a facility hosting a PGA Tour event, I’m doing the same things she does at a 9-hole golf course in Northern Minnesota,” Michalski says. “It doesn’t matter where you work. The right way to take care of the grass is the right way to take care of the grass.”
All in a Winter’s Day
Well-reputed as a fine competitive player across the Northern Minnesota golf scene, O’Leary has seen her sporting spirit find further purchase in another setting: curling.
Introduced to the sport by her husband, Mike O’Leary (who earned a bronze at the world championships in 1966), Norma has filled her mantle with off-course achievements.
A five-time competitor at the U.S. National Championships, she’s twice appeared at the U.S. Olympic Team Trails (finishing sixth in both 2005 and 2009). At the U.S. Senior National Championships, she and her team boated four consecutive titles (2013-16), and the World Senior Championships saw her take home bronze medals in both 2014 and 2015. O'Leary added to her haul by capturing another U.S. Senior National title this winter. She will be traveling to Norway in April for the 2019 World Senior Championships.
From turf to rink, O’Leary finds the games akin.
“There are a tremendous amount of curlers who are also golfers,” she says. “In golf, you always leave that shot or two on the course which makes you want to come back and do it again – curling does that exact same thing.”
O’Leary’s manicuring nature has also her seen he spend a few seasons as one-time ice maker at the Two Harbors Curling Club.
“It can be the same feeling,” she says of maintaining golf grounds and curling rinks. “On the golf course, you’re trying to get the greens to roll faster for some players and then they become too fast for other golfers. Curling is the same: the ice is too fast, too slow, it curls too much or not enough.”
Perfect ice on the rink: Crucial. Ice on her golf course … not so much.
“Snow mold really isn’t my greatest challenge. Really, it’s the ice, and that’s been the case over the past decade,” O’Leary says of the winter months. “Rain in December and January now has kind of become the norm. I’ve tried all sorts of different things, and my colleagues are on the fence on how to best handle this.”
Continually combating the rain has helped O’Leary get off the fence.
“One year, I put down my snow mold protection and then got 4 inches of rain a few days later, which I wasn’t comfortable with,” she continues. “I had just enough product left to spray three stripes up the center of each green.
Making the most of the tools at her disposal, the girl from the north country sees course care, much like golf itself, as a results-based game. Come spring, it was night and day where I was able to get that second application down; the edges that didn’t get the second application were, like, 90 percent snow mold damage and where I went up the center was clean as a whistle.”