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From corn and hogs to golf

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In 1990, lifetime Lake Elmo resident Ray Salus turned the farmland he'd lived on for 55 years from corn and hogs to a driving range. For 12 years it was the place to go for area golfers looking to improve their long game.

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When golf pro Joe Park met Salus in 2002, the two of them shared a vision to cater to the other half of the game of golf - the short game. What transpired is a complete golf practice facility, called the Country Air Golf Park, the only one like it in the state.

"Ray set the foundation. He established the customers at the driving range," Park said. "Now we've added the pitch and putt course. It compliments the range."

Park and Salus weren't interested in taking the easy way out by putting a few pins in the ground and calling it a pitch and putt course. Instead, they called on the "artists" at Arnt Construction to turn their vision of a championship level golf course into reality.

The holes are just quite a bit shorter - between 35-75 yards - and the only clubs a golfer needs are a sand wedge and a putter. The pitch and putt portion of the park opened to the public two weeks ago, less than a year after breaking ground late last August.

"We're not competition for golf courses. You come here to improve so you can get your money's worth at the other courses," Park said. "Touch is the first thing you lose in golf, and it's hard to hone your skills on a real course. When you're here you get a real feel for your wedge game."

Country Air Golf Park is a state-of-the-art facility with real bent grass putting surfaces, 24 bunkers, a water hazard and Ray's Creek, which trickles through the course and feeds the pond. Park, who's taught golf for more than eight years in Minnesota, Florida and Arizona, offers golf lessons on the course.

Park's goal with each student is to teach them to understand their own swing so they may advance to the next level. Students have the opportunity to choose a 30 minute one-on-one lesson or even be digitally video taped for swing analyzation.

Salus had been involved with golf for more than 40 years, beginning when he operated heavy machinery for Moelter Construction, one of the top golf course designers in the area. From 1957 to 1987, Salus played an important part of the construction of area courses like Phalen Park, Midland Hills and Oak Glen. Moelter Construction even put the back nine on the Stillwater Country Club.

With all the family ties and history the land represents, Salus wants Country Air Golf Park to be family oriented.

"We moved here in 1935 and farmed here. My family has always been here. I remember when the road out in front (County Road 17) was dirt and when someone drove by we wondered what was going on," said Salus, who is leaving the landmark brick silo on the property to honor his late father, who died when he fell from the top of the silo more than 60 years ago. "Now we have to wait on the driveway for cars to pass before we can get out on the road."

Park and his wife Nicole currently manage the golf park and Salus is the consulting superintendent and an investor. Work is being done to expand the parking lot, and a rock garden and fountain are being put in where the foundation for Salus' barn stands.

Future plans include converting Salus's house into a clubhouse with a bar and grill and pro shop, and including a picnic and barbeque area for family outings.

The pitch and putt concept meets all three of Park's aspects of playing golf - time, money and intimidation. A round of pitch and putt can be done in less than two hours, it's affordable and with the shorter holes, it's not as intimidating for beginners as a full-length course.

Park holds group lessons every Wednesday evening from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The lessons cover all areas of the game of golf, from full swing to short game, and each week a different fundamental will be covered.

A round of 18 holes cost $15. Nine holes cost $10, and Country Air Golf Park offers one dollar discounts to anyone under 16 years old.

Park and Salus truly believe they offer "the secret to lowering golf score," because, as Park says, the short game comprises 70 percent of your score in any round. So whether it's a slice you need to iron out on the driving range or your sand wedge needs some attention, Country Air Golf Park is the place for you.

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