August 2, 2009

Not To Be Denied

Neither rain, sleet nor dead of winter keeps Minnesotans from the game they love. Golf's not a 12-month sport in the Gopher State; it's a year-round passion

The reception was warm for Lehman, who recalled a chilly round of his youth.

While the third round of the 84th PGA Championship unfolded last Saturday at Hazeltine National GC in Chaska, Minn., the first round of the men's club championship began at Keller GC, the legendary muny in St. Paul, on the other side of the Twin Cities. Head professional Tom Purcell passed out scorecards, briefed the contestants and asked them to put their donations to an area food bank into a cardboard box on the tee of the 332-yard first hole. There was a sign on a bulletin board nearby: "We Play Golf Here. No Preferred Lies."

Joe Spoden, a 27-year-old St. Paul car salesman and one of the entrants in the championship flight, stepped on the tee shortly after noon. Wearing a Minnesota Wild cap and blue jeans, and armed with a strong grip and the latest Titleist driver, he beat his opening tee shot into the same stiff wind that was giving the pros fits 50 miles away. Spoden grew up working on the range and around the course but didn't start playing golf until he was 17. Now, like so many Minnesotans, he is hooked on the game. "I consider it a blessing to get to play out here," Spoden said before setting out in the 30-mph gusts. "There is a lot of history."

Keller is where the big show used to stop -- for PGA Championships in 1932 and 1954, the 1949 Western Open, the St. Paul Open from 1930-1968 and the Patty Berg Golf Classic from 1973-1980. Pro golf eventually outgrew the 6,566-yard layout and its tiny dessert-plate greens where Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret once ruled, but for $28 locals revel in the tidy, tree-lined test.

Golf World August 23, 2002

People work at their play in Minnesota. Everywhere you look there seems to be a park, a lake, a ballfield or a golf course. Within a 100-mile radius of the Twin Cities, there are approximately 170 courses, 75 percent of them open to the public. The season is short, but the passion is huge. "People go bonkers for golf up here," said Bill Kidd, the retired professional at Interlachen CC in Edina, site of the 1930 U.S. Open won by Bobby Jones and host of the Solheim Cup next month.

If you're a golfer in the Gopher State -- and there are more here per capita than any place in America -- it helps to have a strong constitution, a closet full of fleece and a few friends in Florida. It was no surprise, then, that the PGA Championship was a rollicking success; no wonder 40,000 eager fans showed up each day. Many of them were out to take a peek at Minnesota-bred tour pros Tom Lehman, Tim Herron and Cameron Beckman, along with club pros David Tentis, Don Berry and Tom Dolby. "If you can't have something, you want it more," said Jim Lehman, Tom's brother and agent, in explaining Minnesotans' love of golf, "and in January here you can't have it."

A recent story in the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis detailed how a glut of golf course construction, a couple of crummy springs and the general economic downturn had combined to sour the state's golf industry which contributes an estimated $600 million to the Minnesota economy. But Minnesota, according to a 2001 survey by the National Golf Foundation, has more golfers (21 percent of residents 12 and older) than any other state. Many are women, and Minnesota clubs are among the most progressive in terms of equal women's access. With Hazeltine leading the way, and spurred by a 1987 state law that would have increased property taxes for clubs that didn't level the playing field for women, Minnesota's female golfers get a fair shake. "It was really a tempest in a teapot," said 74-year-old Warren Rebholz, a Hazeltine member since 1962 and executive director of the Minnesota GA from 1972-1992, of the time when clubs dropped restrictions on women's tee times.

"It made business sense to do it [drop restrictions], but social sense, too," said Lou Nanne, a former player and general manager for the Minnesota North Stars, who was on the board at Interlachen when the law went into effect. "It also wouldn't have been a good move for my marriage to tell my wife, 'Our dues are going up, and you still can't tee off until 12 o'clock on the weekend.' "

Minnesota golfers are a hardy, creative bunch who treasure the pristine summer days, tolerate the dicey conditions of early spring and late fall and spend the long winters pining for what will be. Tom O'Callaghan, a retired golf journalist who lives on 10 acres in rural Spring Lake Township, south of Chaska, built a couple of holes on his property three years ago. With two greens, four tee boxes and two cups cut into each green, the course provides an eight-hole layout for O'Callaghan, his family and friends. His garage is chock full of small carry bags for his seven kids and 16 grandchildren. O'Callaghan tends the course during the temperate months and leaves the flagsticks in during the winter. "I just like the way they look, popping out of the snow," O'Callaghan said last week as he gave a visitor a tour on a beautiful August evening.

Those who can't flee to Florida or Arizona during the winter months make the most of the time they're without golf. "We're open all year, and we're busy," said John Kalin, assistant manager at Golf Galaxy, a 16,000-square foot golf store in Bloomington. "We have all the stuff, and people come in, and they want to touch it, feel it, swing it." Golf simulators, for $28 an hour, stay booked. "We're packed in the winter," said Will Fahrenkamp, who works at Rain, Snow Or Shine Golf in Chanhassen, not far from Chaska. "I can't explain why anyone likes golf so much -- why I like it so much. It's just an itch." The wait on a winter weekend at Rain, Snow or Shine, an outdoor range with 32 heated stalls where golfers are able to hit full shots, can reach an hour.

The telecast of the Masters can cause Pavlovian responses in golf-crazy people tired of the four walls. "There is just such great anticipation in the spring," said Dave Podas, pro at Minneapolis GC. "Guys are in the club watching the tournaments on TV. They stare out the window watching the snow melt. Then you get a spring day, 38 or 40 degrees with a blowing drizzle, and guys sit around and talk themselves into playing."

Lehman, Beckman and Herron know the feeling, and their return to native soil prompted recollections that southern-bred golfers do not own. Lehman, who grew up in Alexandria, Minn., remembered playing one high school match on a day when it sleeted with temperatures in the 30s and a wind-chill of minus 15. "It turned to snow as we finished," Lehman said. "One kid hit a shot and broke his hand. He didn't know it until the bus ride home because his hand was numb." Lehman, who has lived in Arizona for years, was announced as being from Scottsdale on the first tee at the PGA Championship Thursday, a move that did not please the partisans. "That was the biggest bogey of the day," said Lehman, who paid tribute to his alma mater, the University of Minnesota, by using a Golden Gopher headcover last week.

Beckman would lay out carpet to hit balls off before the turf, saturated from melting snow, was dry enough. Herron recalled the drill for the first few rounds of a new season. "I remember hopping on courses before they were open," he said. "There were no pins in the greens. You tried to remember the hole locations where they were in the fall." Rebholz, a St. Paul native who got interested in golf when his father took him to see Ed (Porky) Oliver win the 1940 tour event at Keller, noted with pride that there have been years in his long golf life in which he played golf in his home state during each month of the year. "The ground is like a rock and there are patches of snow, but you can play," he said. "It doesn't hurt to have a little peppermint schnapps, too."

When real golf isn't possible, there is the annual Chilly Open on frozen Lake Minnetonka, put on by the Chamber of Commerce in Wayzata, home of Tim Herron. Discarded Christmas trees line the makeshift fairways of the three nine-hole courses. Players hit tennis balls, towing their clubs and libations behind them in a sled. "There are some adult beverages on hand," said Mike Leuthner, a 33-year-old software salesman and childhood friend of Herron's who says he was nicknamed "Lumpy" before the cherubic tour pro was. "Let's just say the way you play on the first hole, and the way you play on the ninth hole can vary a lot."

Leuthner was part of a 100-strong group of Herron's friends and family who came to Hazeltine last Friday in a chartered bus as part of "Lumpy's Bus Bash," organized by Herron's sister, Alissa Super, his manager. The group met at the home of the other Herron sibling, Ketti Histon, donned "Lumpy"-logoed T-shirts and caps, and went en masse to root for their favorite golfer. The enthusiasm didn't translate into great golf for Tim, who shot 76-75 to miss the cut by three shots. He faced a 12-foot birdie putt on his 18th hole Friday when a lightning storm stopped play. Saturday morning, with Ketti replacing his regular caddie for the short day, Herron showed up in flip-flops to complete his second round.

As it was well-reported in Minneapolis last week, Herron comes from good golfing stock, with a father and grandfather who each competed in the U.S. Open. Alissa is a former U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur champion. Golf's roots, in fact, go much deeper in Minnesota than many people realize. According to the club history of the Town and Country Club in St. Paul, its members voted to build a nine-hole course in 1893, two years before the formation of the USGA. The Minnesota GA celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.

The 84-year-old Berg is the most famous golfer to hail from Minnesota. Although the Minneapolis native was 32 when she helped organize the LPGA in 1950, Berg won 60 tournaments, becoming the game's first great woman pro and later one of its best ambassadors through the many clinics she conducted. "If I can put a smile on an old man's face or make a young person laugh and appreciate the game," she once said, "then I feel I've given back something to the game."

Berg is five years older than another Minneapolis golf treasure, 79-year-old Loyal H. (Bud) Chapman. He grew up caddieing at Interlachen, where he got 75 cents a loop and a dime tip if he was working for Berg, who made him earn the money. "Nobody else wanted to caddie for her," Chapman recalled last week. "She had a big, heavy leather bag, and she had about 100 balls inside. If she was out playing by herself and hit a bad shot, she'd dump the balls out and practice the shot she had missed. I'd have to shag them. But what a swing she had, free and strong."

Chapman's swing isn't bad itself. A lifelong amateur and commercial artist, he is widely known for a series of prints of fantasy golf holes, drawn in photo-realistic style. He began painting the "infamous holes" in the mid-1970s after he lost a $6 million fortune of real estate and oil concerns. He was in New Mexico, having gotten bad news about a gold-treasure expedition that wasn't going to work out, when he thought up the fantasy holes. "Victoria Falls GC was No. 1," said Chapman, and he went from there, placing small golfers in immense landscapes, making the task seem impossible. Around Minnesota, Chapman is known as a humble competitor who has earned state golfer-of-the-year honors in three decades, charmingly quirky and a little jinxed.

"I was never any good, but I haven't gotten worse," he said at his Minnetonka studio last week, attempting to explain his longevity. "I don't go to gyms, I eat garbage, but I've been lucky to stay healthy. Maybe it's walking and carrying my bag, which I still prefer."

A scratch player most of his life and still a 2-handicap, Chapman believes he holds the record for most attempts to qualify for the U.S. Open without succeeding. In 47 efforts, he came tantalizingly close several times, but something always seemed to happen, whether bad luck or a bad swing. As Sports Illustrated's John Garrity wrote in 1998, Chapman's quest is "niched somewhere between Lake Wobegone and Harold Stassen. Just a couple of weeks ago Chapman was playing a second-round match against a younger opponent in the club championship at Minneapolis GC. He came to the 18th hole 1 up and busted a drive, but he played the first ball he came to in the fairway. It was the wrong ball, and he lost the match on the third extra hole.

It could seem that quixotic journeys are the norm for Minnesota golfers, but not always. Several months after being told it would be dropped because of budget cuts, the men's golf team at Minnesota scored a stunning victory at the NCAA championship in June. The victory helped open wallets, and according to Nanne, a booster who has helped with fundraising, $1.9 million of the $2.7 million required to keep the program afloat has been raised. Gopher coach Brad James, an Australian who is amazed by the fervor for golf in his new home, has been barnstorming the state this summer looking for more donations. "This is a genuine love," James said. "This is a sport many believe is as important as hockey up here. There is a patience you need to have to play this game, and it's something Minnesotans intrinsically have."

Larry Berle needed some patience in his attempt to play every course on Golf Digest's ranking of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses. The 56-year-old Minneapolis resident, who owns SRO Productions, a music company, began his quest in 1993. Nine years, 34 states and $20,000 later (it helped that his wife, Ann, is a flight attendant), Berle finished his mission last month: Atlantic GC in Bridgehampton, N.Y., was his 117th and final course. All the letters, phone calls and e-mails were worth it. His scores ranged from 85s at Merion and The Country Club to a 101 at Oakmont. Berle filed e-mail reports after he played each course, only two of which, Hazeltine and Interlachen, are in Minnesota.

As for Chapman, he shot a 70 two weeks ago and keeps track of how many times he has shot his age. "I'm up to 489, and it would have been 490 today," he explained Saturday evening, "but play was a little slow, and we quit after 16 to watch the PGA on TV." If Chapman can reduce his handicap the slight bit it needs to drop in order to be eligible for U.S. Open qualifying, he intends to give it a shot. In the meantime, he keeps playing and painting. In the works at his studio is an imaginary hole Chapman and his fellow Minnesotans can relate to. It depicts a frosty foursome on a tee hitting toward a distant green surrounded by palms. "The Long Drive South," Chapman calls it.