A Cruise Through the Lake Country

Minnesota 2009

By Gerry Stratford

The last days of August were warm in the north woods and the Donald Ross Society had apparently picked the perfect time to visit the land of Paul Bunyan for golf and camaraderie over four of the master’s best Minnesota courses.

It was appropriate that we gathered first in Wayzata at Woodhill Country Club, for it was here in 1915 that Ross first worked in Minnesota. While most of the drawings and photographs of that early design were lost in a clubhouse fire, a Woodhill member, Charles Leck was able to find engineer’s drawings and a Ross “stake out” plan, and members assure us that the refinement of the course done by Ross in 1934 made very few changes to the original layout. The course was host to the Trans-Mississippi Tournament, won by Jack Nicklaus in 1957.

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Phil Reith, Head Golf Professional, is approaching his 40th year at Woodhill, and he has watched the course change. Like so many of the classic courses, well meaning green chairmen and superintendents over the years had allowed trees to strangle the golf course, greens to shrink in size, and bunkers to crop up in strange places. Fortunately, Reith, together with Charles Leck and some other traditionally focused members convinced the Board of Directors to hire John Fought to develop a Master Plan for Restoration, and the work so far is quite impressive.

We played the course after a heavy rain the day before and yet found that the Ross greens had drained beautifully. With lots of undulation, the fairways presented us with some unexpected bounces and many opportunities to play shots from uneven lies, always an added challenge in match play competition. For the very first time in recent memory our Society team did not lose the match they played against the Woodhill members and managed to squeak out a tie!

The golf was followed by a delightful al fresco dinner on the lawn overlooking the golf course, and your President was most grateful to Stuart Snyder who managed to revive the dead battery in his rental car while we enjoyed our apple pie.

One of the great traditions at clubs in the Western Golf Association is their support of the Evans Scholars program, and we learned that Woodhill’s most recent Evans Scholar, a sophomore, is studying finance at the University of Minnesota.

As an erstwhile tennis player, I tend to notice whether a golf club has a few courts tucked into the grounds, and I was pleased to find ten clay courts situated on the hill. The program headed by Mike Ach has been host to several Junior Sectional Tournaments.

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The following afternoon found us a few miles to the East at Minikahda where golf was first played in the 1898. Willie Watson was the first Professional and he designed the original nine holes along with Robert Foulis. Seven years later with the purchase of additional property it was possible to add nine more holes, and the final layout was eventually refined by Tom Bendelow. In 1916, the club hosted the US Open, and that, of course, was the tournament won by Chick Evans with an amazing sub-par total of 286, thus initiating the USGA pre-occupation with making courses more difficult. And, it was his achievement that would eventually lead to recognition of Evans and the establishment of America’s largest and most successful scholarship program.

While the membership was honored to have hosted the Open tournament, they were dismayed that the course had not defended itself better against Evans and his seven hickory shafted clubs, and so, seeking an upgrade, they contacted Donald Ross the following year. His Master Plan was comprehensive and elegant, and fits the land so perfectly that one cannot imagine that God had any other use in mind for this ground.
I can make no better description, than to quote our Captain, Michael Fay who wrote the following after playing there last year:

The golf course at Minikahda is a joy. The continuous theme of Donald Ross follows from the first tee to the eighteenth green. The ground moves exceptionally well and it is easy to see that Ross used all of the promontories offered by the property . . . The bunkering is strategic and thought provoking. The idea of the half-shot penalty in all of the fairway bunkers is evident. The near ninety-year-old Donald Ross greens are intact and offer a good deal of consternation on any putt in excess of three feet.

Testimony to the strength of this golf course is its tournament history. Bobby Jones won his fifth US Amateur here in 1927; Charlie Coe’s Walker Cup team defeated the British and Irish team here in 1957; and the US Women’s Amateur was here in 1988.

Here too, as at Woodhill and the two other courses we would play on this trip, trees had intruded on the golf course and greens had grown smaller over the years, and some of the Ross character had been lost as various architects made their modifications so in 2001 Ron Pritchard was hired to undertake a course restoration. His work was superb.
We had the honor of playing with Course Superintendent Jeffrey Allen Johnson who showed us how it is done by striking a three wood 235 yards into the hole on the par 5 second hole. PGA Pro Doug Nelson and Club Manager James Jennings were perfect hosts, and we only wish we could have known Robert Reith, the pro here for thirty years whose course record 65 has been tied but never bested.

Golf was followed by an elegant steak dinner on the Club Deck overlooking Lake Calhoun as a glorious sun set behind the clubhouse.

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Early on Friday morning we drove north to White Bear Lake home of the White Bear Yacht Club where golf was added to the activities offered in 1912. In 1916 the head professional was Tom Vardon, brother of Harry “the grip” Vardon who won the Open Championship six times. Records do not prove that Ross ever actually visited the site, and it might be argued that he did his work from topographical maps in both 1912 when he designed the first nine holes and in 1915 when he did the back nine, however, the work speaks for itself and it is hard to believe he didn’t walk this land. Tom Doak whose Renaissance Golf would undertake a restoration here more than ten years ago, has said that this course has some of the best Donald Ross holes he has ever seen.

False fronts abound, and not even the first hole is a gentle handshake. As always, the short par fours are the best holes on the golf course, and the one-shot holes all remind us of Royal Dornoch where the most difficult shot is the second into a par 3.

Our shotgun start was preceded by a gully washer of rain, but the skies cleared for our round and wonder of wonders, the Ross Society actually won a match against the locals at White Bear. We are forever grateful to Club Manager Linda Carroll, Head Pro Tom Skoglund and DRS member Mark Mammel for arranging our visit to his club.
Golf was followed by a tasty buffet luncheon in the bright and cheery clubhouse overlooking the lake, and trip organizer Dobbs was promoted on the spot to the exalted rank of Admiral of the Society. We hope that he will wear the scrambled egg encrusted hat to future outings of the Society.

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A long afternoon drive took us north to Duluth and the fabled Northland Golf Country Club. DRS member Duke Skorich who joined us on a trip a few years back has been trying to get us up to the shores of Gitchee Gummee (the shining big sea water) ever since. What a fabulous finale to our trip this was!

Northland is built into the bluffs that overlook America’s most inland fresh water port with access to the sea. The views are spectacular, and probably anyone could layout a golf course here that would be attractive (there was indeed a course here before Ross came), but what Ross has done is truly amazing. This is a BIG golf course on land that tilts inexorably toward the water, but Ross has managed to provide undulation that fools the eye and redirects the ball in surprising directions. This is a course, like many in Scotland; where bump and run shots are a preferable route to the green (I remember in particular the holes in the middle of the course, 7 through 15).

The course moves first uphill and away from the lake and features the typical Ross signature of short holes that play as if they are many yards longer, and then after the tough uphill dogleg of #10 you must negotiate the tricky downhill approach shots of the finishing holes. Your President had the honor of playing with Course Superintendent Chris Tritabaugh, and Chris asked me what I thought of the course as we walked off of the tee on #12. I guess he wanted my opinion before I saw the view from the 13th fairway and was completely blown away by the scenery. Certainly, the very best holes on the golf course are not even the ones with views of the lake—7 through 10 are simply wonderful golf holes.

The eighteenth hole at Northland might be the best finishing hole Ross ever did. With a beautiful view of the waiting clubhouse and the peak of its roof serving as a perfect target, you must drive into a strong prevailing wind. The long second shot must carry over a cavernous gully carved by a creek and somehow hold onto a steeply sloped green. A ball hit too short or with too much backspin will roll perhaps seventy yards back down toward the creek, and the putt when you are on the green is no picnic either—mine broke fifteen feet.

Some restoration work was done at Northland twenty years ago by Schriener and Clark, but more recently two developments have made a significant change in both appearance and playability here. Two years ago Chris Tritabaugh was hired as Course Superintendent and with the support of a passionate Green Committee he has undertaken a renaissance of the Ross vision. Here is how Chris describes their approach:

Most sports that are played on turf require that the playing surface be maintained to provide ideal playing conditions for that particular sport. Somewhere this idea was lost when it comes to golf courses. The little round ball is meant to roll and bounce and yet more often than not this is not the case. We have worked hard to bring these conditions back to Northland and the results are there for everyone to see and play.

The other thing that Chris and the Green Committee have accomplished is some significant tree removal. Opening up some lake views is an awesome bonus, but more significantly it has improved air circulation and helped provide the firm fast fairways that Ross esteemed.
The second major development at Northland is the establishment of a Northland Restoration Committee and hiring of Ron Prichard to proceed with a major restoration project. A Committee that appreciates traditional values, a dedicated Superintendent who values playability over aesthetics and an architect willing to respect an early vision and humble enough to avoid the temptation to write his own “signature” on the land, this is a combination that promises great results.

No report on our time at Northland would be complete without mention of the accomplishment of one of our members. Congratulations to Dave Jongleux on his hole in one! He hit a strong 8 iron into a stiff wind to the uphill fifth hole. He joins a special club of DRS members who have accomplished such a feat on a  Society trip (Doug Bleiler did it a couple of years back) Let me know if there are others, I think we should have a special page on the website listing such accomplishments.

Despite Dave’s heroics we could not win our match against the members here, but their golf course won our hearts. Like the woman on the cruise ship, we loved it so much we played it twice. Our sincere thanks to Duke Skorich, Karen and Huck Andresen, Joe O’Connor and Chris Tritabaugh who made us welcome in their land of wonder.

 
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