Highway Golf History

If you like mixing a little Minnesota history with your golf travel, the Highway 52 driving tour is the road to take.

April 30, 2024 | 4 min.
By Joe Bissen

John A. Cole could not have imagined this. 

Cole owned a milling company in Rochester, Minnesota, just as the century turned from 19th to 20th. Rochester was a modest city in 1900: 6,800 residents, dirt roads into and out of town—and only five holes of golf.

Today? It has about 115,000 residents, bustling asphalt highways like U.S. 52 and more golf holes than you could shake a hundred hickory sticks at.

The First of Many Courses
In early July 1900, Cole was elected president of the city’s first golf club. “The ‘Silver Creek Golf Club’ is now firmly established in this city,” the Rochester Post and Record reported. “The foundation stone has been laid, and the nucleus is formed from which a flourishing and prosperous club will grow.”

Silver Creek Golf Club was a five-hole course (later six), 1 1/2 miles east of downtown. The course lay on a pasture tended by sheep and goats, and it didn’t last long. Nothing of golf is distinguishable now in the residential neighborhood.

Confusion exists over Silver Creek GC and Rochester Golf & Country Club, but they were not one and the same. The latter came along more than a decade after the debut of Silver Creek, and lay about 2 miles west of downtown. 

Silver Creek carried at least a modicum of status. In August 1901, it became one of seven founding members of the Minnesota Golf Association. It almost certainly had vacated its creekside grounds by 1915, when the city’s second course came along—Rochester Golf & Country Club.  

A Successful Second
Rochester G&CC was born with pedigree and status. It lay on 100 acres leased by two Mayo Clinic physicians, who hired Red Wing Golf Club professional Harry Turpie, a native of St. Andrews, Scotland, to design a nine-hole course. In 1927, the course expanded to 18 holes, designed by famed golf architect A.W. Tillinghast.

Rochester G&CC’s 18-hole layout was mostly open, yet it presented a challenge largely via Tillinghast’s strategic bunkering. Noted golf writer Virginia Safford called the course “tougher than Interlachen.” Yet an extreme makeover lay ahead.

In the early 1930s, 30,000 pine trees were transplanted onto the playing grounds. Fully grown, the soaring conifers were sirens of danger. 

That wooded iteration lasted for the better part of a century, until 2018 when the club underwent a restoration, headed by noted architects Brian Slawnik and Tom Doak. The intent was to return the course to its pre-1930s “Tillie” state, with wider fairways and larger greens.

Heading into 2024, fairways and greens have been regrassed. Grounds superintendent TJ Hauser said in January that he hopes the course will be ready for play by Memorial Day and that the new bentgrass should produce quicker green speeds and require less chemicals, fungicides and water, the latter by 25%-40%. “It’s a financial savings, yes,” Hauser says, “but it’s good for the environment, too.”

A Short, Walkable Course
Rochester’s next golf course was another groundbreaker. In 1925, work began on an 18-hole layout just south of downtown. Memorial Field municipal, now known as Soldiers Field, opened that August. Still in operation today, it is tree-lined and relatively short (5,769 yards, tops)—a classic parkland course.

Ginny Anderson, a retired IBM worker who plays in a Rochester municipal women’s league, finds Soldiers Field attractive because it is relatively short and walkable and, with its proximity to the Mayo Clinic and its regional and international clientele, offers a chance to play golf “with a whole different group of people, which is nice.”

Supporters of golf in Rochester recently helped rebuff attempts to have the course abandoned or shortened to nine holes. A $10 million outdoor aquatics center on the park’s grounds is scheduled to open in 2024.

A Trio of Municipal Courses
Eventually, three more municipal courses were built: Eastwood, Northern Hills and Hadley Creek. Their histories, features and designs cut a broad swath. “We’ve got something for everybody,” says Jeff Gorman, lead pro at the Rochester munis.

Eastwood Golf Course, at the southeastern edge of the city and opened in 1964, offers distinctly different nines. The front nine is tree-lined with a “classic” feel, while the back is longer and more open, with large, undulating greens. It is “the nine everybody wants to play,” Gorman says. The back tees stretch to as much as 6,631 yards and feature the 605-yard, dogleg-right 14th, with a two-tiered green. 

Northern Hills Golf Course, a mile off Highway 52 in the northwestern part of the city, opened in 1976 and lies between Soldiers Field and Eastwood for degree of difficulty, Gorman says. Hadley Creek Golf Course is a nine-hole, par-32 course with practice facilities.

From Baseball Diamonds to Fairways 

Adolph Naeseth’s sporting achievements were legion. So were the trees on his golf course.

Naeseth was a star basketball and baseball player at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, graduating in 1909. His achievements landed him in the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. After college, he returned home to his family farm 25 miles northwest of Rochester in Wanamingo Township. He continued to excel at baseball—and designed and opened a golf course. 

The place was named Naeseth Country Club (later Wanamingo Country Club). The nine-hole course lay just south of County Highway 8, 2 miles east of U.S. Highway 52 and near the tiny town of Hader.

Naeseth CC was known for its abundance of trees, with six holes threaded through a forest and three holes relatively open. The Wanamingo Press labeled it “a tricky course to play.”  

Naeseth’s golf course likely lasted until only the mid-1930s. But his sporting legend remained—grew, in fact. In 1934, he pitched for the first time in a decade and recorded victories with 18 and 15 strikeouts, leading Wanamingo to the River Valley League baseball championship. He was 48 years old at the time. 

Heading North 
Up the highway—25 miles north of downtown Rochester—Zumbrota Golf Club was another early southeastern Minnesota golf club. Its founding date is listed as 1927 in most internet entries, but Zumbrotans were likely plying their mid-irons there a bit before that. 

Golf in the city began with three holes near the Zumbro River and Covered Bridge Park, according to an Ancestry.com-posted history written by Michelle Knutson. The club then moved a bit north to its present site, where there were sand greens and a fox farm next to the fifth fairway. 

Today, Zumbrota GC offers 18 holes at par 70—a wooded front nine (the original) and a more links-style back nine. New general manager Gary O’Connor singles out the par-4, 332-yard eighth hole, which features views of the city. “We’ve got such a beautiful product,” O’Connor says, “and the greens are great.”

Pine Island Golf Course lies 15 miles north of Rochester and just off Highway 52. Opened in 1994 and originally nine holes, it now is an 18-holer that can range from 4,946 to 6,563 yards. There are plans to stretch it to 6,600, says pro/general manager Mike Adelsman. 

No. 16 is a par 3 of 180 yards with water, trees and boulders in play. The course has big greens, is walker-friendly and “is not a tricky course,” Adelsman says. 

Open To the Public
Willow Creek Golf Course, a Rochester public course that opened in 1974, shut down briefly near the end of the 2019 season but was bought by Andy Black and Will Lancaster and reopened months later. They recently renewed a second three-year lease on the course, which features 18 standard holes plus the nine-hole Little Willow executive course.

“Every year we get a little better,” Black says. “We make money, and we put it back into the golf course.”

West of Town
Somerby Golf Club in Byron, 10 miles west of Rochester, enters its 20th season in 2024, with an esteemed Tom Lehman and John Fought–designed course. Somerby is ranked 19th among all courses in the state by Golf Digest. The private club will host the Women’s State Amateur Championship in 2025.

Director of golf John Fitzgerald says Somerby has a “linksy feel,” though wetlands and water are sprinkled throughout. Fitzgerald mentions the “signature” 14th, a par 4 with a peninsula green, and the 296-yard 15th, with water along the left side, as particularly notable holes.

Golf in Rochester and near Highway 52 has come a long way in 124 years—no more dirt highways leading into town, no more sand greens tended by cud-chewing ruminants. Today, there is a wealth of golf to make an expedition worthwhile. 

Joe Bissen is a retired newspaper copy editor. He has written two books on Minnesota’s lost golf courses.

Joe Bissen

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