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Posted on Wed, Jul. 23, 2003


18 holes in 1,042 yards

Wedges and a putter are the only clubs you need at the newly opened Country Air Golf Park in Lake Elmo.

Pioneer Press

Joe Park read an article in Golf Digest six or seven years ago extolling the benefits of pitch-and-putt courses around the world.

The vision began right there for Park, who was on the road much of the winter with his family giving golf lessons in Arizona before returning to the Twin Cities for the summer months.

"One of my aunts referred to us as gypsies," said Nicole Park, Joe's wife.

And sometimes-impoverished gypsies.

"I was a glorified golf pro, working a lot of hours and not making much money," Joe said.

The Parks are gypsies no more. Earlier this month they opened the Country Air Golf Park, although they spend so much time at the course they actually are residents of two cities. Their home is in Woodbury; the course is in Lake Elmo.

Joe Park, 34, usually is at the course from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Nicole,who also sells real estate, tries to spend three to four full days there. The Parks have eight employees to help care for what Joe calls 18 holes of championship golf.

"Every hole is a signature hole," he said enthusiastically of the par-54 layout.

Joe Park began golfing 10 years ago, introduced to the game by his father-in-law, Bob Kanne, who always was willing to listen to his daughter and son-in-law's golf dreams. And it has become part of them.

Bob and his wife, Debbie, are investors in Country Air, and Ray and Jane Salus, who built the driving range a decade ago, still are a part of the financial picture.

Joe Park likes to sell his idea as the perfect setting for corporate outings.

"Hey, the guys in the office who don't play a lot can still join in here," he said.

He likes to sell it as a place where even good golfers can improve their games.

"Everybody needs to work on their short games," he said. And he likes to sell it as a family affair. "Mom and dad and the kids can come out and everyone can play," he said.

Country Air has become a family affair. Joe and Nicole gave up renting in Minnetonka to move to Woodbury. Bob and Debbie sold their home in Minnetonka and live in what was once the farm home of Ray and Jane Salus.

It's the perfect setting for just about everyone. Debbie is nanny to Joe and Nicole's two boys.

Joey and Bobby are being introduced to golf at a young age.

"They both hit golf balls out here almost every day," said their dad.

There are two rules at Country Air: You can bring any number of wedges and a putter, no bags. and you can be any age to play.

A round of 18 holes costs $15. Nine holes cost $10. Anyone younger than 16 gets a dollar discount.

"We don't charge for the kids to use clubs," Nicole said.

Country Air also offers golf instruction and junior camps for youngsters.

The course was designed with bunkers and sand traps, and greens with mounds, swales and undulations.

"There are no flat lies anywhere out here. This a true championship pitch and putt course," said Park, pointing out that it is the only 18-hole pitch-and-putt course in the state.

Park hopes to get Golf Digest, where he learned about pitch-and-putt, to give his course its approval as an "official" pitch-and-putt course.

"That would give us some credibility. As I understand it, the holes have to under 100 yards and you can only use a sand wedge and a putter," said Park. "I was really surprised to learn that there is a World Pitch-and-Putt Foundation."

The course includes a practice putting green. The driving range has different targets to shoot at and holes with flags at various distances.

The longest holes are Nos. 8 and 18, both 75 yards. The shortest hole on the 1,042-yard layout is No. 11, at 35 yards. The course record is 10-under-par 44.

Steve Dornfeld, the pro at Brookside Golf Course in Rush City, and his wife Alyssa took their daughter, Camilla, 11, and sons Mark, 7, and Tim, 3, to Country Air a couple of weeks ago.

Dornfeld said he would recommend the course to anyone trying to improve their short game.

"Oh definitely," he said. "That's where the game is won or lost, within 75 yards."

The Dornfelds played only the back nine, but their children didn't seem to mind.

"The kids especially liked it," Alyssa said.

Which is what the Parks have in mind.

"We want this to be a family place," Nicole said.

As well as a place for corporate outings and anyone who wants to improve their short games.

Nicole and Joe know they eventually will lose their nanny, at least on the course grounds. The home Bob and Debbie now occupy will be made into a clubhouse and restaurant, perhaps as early as next year.

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