The People's Game

Municipal golf in the metro area has blossomed into a vibrant and vital part of the local golf community.

February 20, 2024 | 1 min.
By Rick S Shefchik
Photos by Peter Wong Photography

Golf began as a common man’s game in Scotland—played on public land by shepherds, soldiers and shopkeepers—but the game certainly had more aristocratic origins when it reached the New World. 

The first U.S. golf courses were private affairs, and most of those early clubs—Shinnecock Hills, Chicago Golf, The Country Club, Baltusrol and St. Paul’s own Town & Country Club—remain private today. The game proved too popular, however, to remain the exclusive pastime of the well-to-do. Beginning with Glenwood (now Theodore Wirth Golf Course) in 1916, Minnesota began providing those who couldn’t—or chose not to—join private clubs with many public golf options. 

Demand for public golf has ebbed and flowed over the years, but in these post-COVID times, the demand is greater than ever. Fortunately, the Twin Cities has dozens of municipal courses—including 18-hole, nine-hole and executive layouts—to meet that demand.

Getting Kids on the Green 
To ensure future demand, programs such as Youth on Course (YOC) and First Tee help young people get acquainted with golf by offering access to public courses at reduced rates. These initiatives have largely replaced caddie programs as the primary pipeline for youth to enter the golf world—but not completely. 

Caddie programs have made a comeback at some of the higher-end private courses, and now the public courses are getting into the act again. Last year Hiawatha Golf Course in Minneapolis began a 15-person caddie program at a facility whose clubhouse is named after Solomon Hughes, an African American pioneer in the game of golf.

There is also a Solomon Hughes Sr. Golf Academy (SHSGA), based at the University of Minnesota’s Les Bolstad Golf Course, with a stated goal to share his impact with a new generation of young people. Hughes, who passed away in 1987, was recently inducted into the Minnesota Golf Hall of Fame. The SHSGA is affiliated with YOC and First Tee.

All public courses recognize not just the obligation but the necessity of developing the next generation of golfers. 

“We have 192 kids that we put through our junior golf program,” says John Kellin, head pro for both Chaska Town Course and the par-30 The Loop at Chaska. “We probably could do triple that. For the coming season we open up registration around March 1. It sells itself out in about two minutes.”

At Edinburgh USA in Brooklyn Park, the junior golf program begins as soon as the course opens in April and runs all season. Each unit runs for a month, with two sessions per week taught by multiple instructors.

“[Kids] can sign up for a month for $99 and then come as much or little as they want,” says Don Berry, now in his 36th year at Edinburgh, where he has served as head pro since 1994. “It’s in the evening, and there’s also some morning classes. If you sign up for a month, you can come to every class if you’d want.” Edinburgh also has a successful PGA junior team that plays a half-dozen matches each year against teams from other area courses. 

“Developing lifelong players is our goal,” Berry says. “Obviously we always want to have some standout players who make high school golf teams, but that’s not really the goal of that program. It’s to build lifelong players.” 

Edinburgh offers a junior golf season pass for $325 a year, a price that has increased just $25 in the past 15 years. About 50 juniors took advantage of the pass last year, which provides unlimited golf, with certain time restrictions. 

“Golf is hotter now than it was in the 90s,” says head pro Mark Foley of Keller Golf Course in Maplewood. “But there’ll be a correction, and it’s just really important to make sure that that pipeline does not slow. Otherwise, you look up and [ask], ‘Where are the golfers?’ It’s a cyclical business for sure. We’re hot right now, but we were being short-sighted in the 1990s.” 

Keller’s junior programs are run by teacher Jon Reigstad. Juniors work on their swings at the large practice range and are encouraged to play with their parents on Sundays. The course has offered golf programs for Hmong youth, and multiple high school teams play and practice at Keller, which has also hosted a Junior Tour event every year since Foley became the pro. Scholarships are available for kids who otherwise couldn’t afford to join Keller’s programs. 

“A lot of people in our Men’s and Ladies’ clubs donate money toward the junior program,” Foley says. “They can even donate their shop credit toward junior golf.” 

Jeff May oversees all of the golf facilities in the Three Rivers Park District, of which Baker National Golf Course in Medina is the flagship. 

“Our other facilities are all executive courses, but as far as junior golf goes, we have literally thousands of kids in the program,” May says. “We run First Tee programming, we run camps, we run schools, we run leagues. We all participate in Youth on Course, and that’s kind of taken over as the main way that kids play golf. They can play our executive courses all the time. Baker National championship course is a little bit limited—it’s just weekend evenings—but we’re dedicated to junior golf.” 

Baker National and Cleary Lake Golf Course, another facility in the Three Rivers Park system, are among the top performing YOC programs in the U.S.
Ben Disch, golf operations manager at the 27-hole Brookview Golf Course in Golden Valley, says his facility also leans heavily on its nine-hole course for programs and lessons—conducted by teaching pro Alex Tegels. 

“I’ve always looked at the par-3 courses as a great way to introduce players to the game at any age,” Disch says. “You’ll see people [who] started playing on the par 3 many years ago, transitioned to the regulation golf course. As they’ve gotten older or they’ve had time constraints or health concerns or budgetary issues, the par-3 course offers them another alternative.” 

Meeting Increasing Demand for the Game 
Having an extra nine—or more—has been a big benefit to the public courses that have seen increased demand for tee times—especially since more courses have closed than opened in the past decade. 

“Our tee sheets are full, post-COVID,” says May of Baker. “Combined with some courses closing, it has really put the squeeze to tee times, and that’s one of my biggest concerns—people frustrated they can’t get tee times. That’s a bad part of being busy, but it’s great for business.” 

Cost is often a factor for public golfers, and the current demand for tee times has put more pressure on municipal courses to set their prices accordingly. Kellin recognizes the challenge to keep golf affordable at Chaska. 

“I think you’ll find since COVID, most courses have raised their rates considerably,” Kellin says. “We have raised our rates, but we have not raised them in the percentages that other facilities have. We’ve had a pretty mild increase each year, which was part of our long-term plan even before COVID.” 

Keller’s Foley shares a similar sentiment. “There is pressure, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. “We really are careful about it.” 

A $450 season pass allows juniors to play all three Ramsey County courses—Keller, Goodrich and Manitou Ridge. 

“We’ve done a good job keeping affordability,” Foley says. “When hockey sticks cost $300 and drivers cost $500, at least you can play golf for the whole summer for $450.” 

Providing and Preserving Community Green Space 
One of the more subtle benefits of public golf courses is the 100 acres or more of green space each provides to their community. 

“We’ve got a unique location,” says Disch of Brookview, which began its existence as Superior Golf Club in 1922 and became private before the Brookview membership moved to a new course in Medina. “You’ve got General Mills to the west; you’ve got 394, a major interstate, to the south; you’ve got Highway 55 in the north; and you’ve got neighborhoods to the to the east—so you really don’t have much green space around here. We’re really landlocked.” 

Disch recalls a time when Red McCombs, then-owner of the Vikings, considered building a stadium on Brookview’s site. The city of Golden Valley preferred to keep the golf course. 

“I think we’re pretty fortunate that we’ve got some city leaders [who] have valued the open space and green space and the value of the property and what it means to the community at large,” Disch says. 

Not far down Highway 169 is Braemar Golf Course, which finished a major renovation of their green space in 2019, converting 27 holes into a vibrant 18-hole championship course and recasting an executive course into the par-3 Academy 9 and driving range—a great place for beginners in the game. Braemar is also a grand locale for experienced players, as the course hosted the 1969 PGA Tour’s Minnesota Classic and the 1979 USGA Women’s Amateur Public Links. Very few public munis can make the same claim.

Municipal courses have made concerted efforts to preserve and celebrate their natural settings. Many are certified as Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries, including Chaska Town Course, with its 285 acres of rolling hills, valleys and wetlands, and Baker National, which was the first public golf course in Minnesota to gain that designation. 

“Now there are a lot of [Audubon] courses,” May says. “It’s easier to do now. There’s more opportunity with better organics, fertilizer and weed control options.” 

Public courses tend to be in the middle of environmental battles, such as the current effort to curb the spread of emerald ash borers as courses try to maintain trees for shade and strategy. 

“We’re dealing with a lot of that right now,” Berry says. “We have a lot of ash trees out here, and we’ve done everything we can to keep as many alive as we can. We treat over 300 a year with an injection. We’re doing everything we can to maintain the level of the original course design where the trees are important. We have a fair [number] of eagles out here. We’ve lined all the ponds and we’ve done a lot of fescue grass, too, so we have a lot of nature areas.” 

The oldest of them all, Theodore Wirth Golf Course, operates within a regional public park, adjacent to the Eloise Butler Wildlife Garden and Bird Sanctuary. 

“If you look at an aerial map of Minneapolis, Golden Valley and the neighboring suburbs, it’s about the biggest area around of solid green space,” says Larry Umphrey, director of golf for the Minneapolis Park Board. “It just stretches for hundreds and hundreds of acres. It’s pretty impressive when you think about everything that’s around that area.” 

Last December, Wirth changed the name of its clubhouse—previously known as The Chalet—to honor Eddie Manderville, one of the city’s most beloved public golfers, who died at age 88 in 2020. 

Martha Arradondo, who spearheaded the name-change effort, says Manderville helped her and Shirley Hughes (Solomon’s daughter) organize the Black Women On Course (BWOC) golf league. That group plays all of its four weekly rounds on public courses in the west metro. 

“Public courses provide access,” Arradondo says. “There’s people who can’t afford to join a private club to play at a decent golf course, but Minnesota has enough public courses per capita—nice courses—that people have choices.” 

And, as Disch points out, municipal courses aren’t just about the golf. In addition to its 27 holes and driving range, Brookview has lawn bowling, and winter brings curling rinks, disc golf and cross-country skiing. 

“We shift gears from the golf season to winter recreation,” Disch says. “We invest time and labor into that stuff. If there’s any revenue stream coming in, that’s not the primary focus. It’s bringing people to the property. It’s bringing people to Brookview year-round.” 

Rick S Shefchik

Rick Shefchik is a native of Duluth, Minnesota, and learned to play golf at Northland Country Club. He was a reporter and columnist at the St. Paul Pioneer Press for 26 years, and he is the author of "From Fields to Fairways: Classic Golf Clubs of Minnesota.

Contact Us

Contact Us

6550 York Avenue South, Suite 411 • Edina, MN 55435 • (952) 927-4643 • (800) 642-4405 • Fax: (952) 927-9642
© 2024 Minnesota Golf Association. All Rights Reserved