The first golf course that youngster Art Hennington ever played he built himself. The nine holes wove through his parents’ two-acre resort in Sauk Centre, putts stroked into cups made from tin cans off 50-yard fairways. He even crafted his own version of Pebble Beach’s legendary final hole, placed near a beach bluff.
A childhood fantasy eventually morphed into a “dumb dream” of playing all 491 golf courses in Minnesota — a quest that is now within six rounds of his grasp. When he completes the journey, he may be the first.
“I’ve heard of a gray-bearded man who may have attempted it, but I don’t know if he actually did it,” said Hennington, 65. “I refer him to him as Big Stick, like the mythical Big Foot.”
The Minnesota Golf Association doesn’t keep records of golfers who may have played every course, but communication director Warren Ryan said he’s heard of a couple who claimed to make the attempt.
“It would be pretty unique for somebody to accomplish it,” Ryan said.
Hennington’s quest is fueled by nothing more than a love of that little dimpled ball that so many others also love, and at times hate. He shares a birthday with his favorite golfer, Tom Watson, who sent Hennington birthday wishes in a letter years ago. They chatted briefly once when their paths crossed at a course in Washington state. The two, who met in the rough, actually talked baseball, though.
Hennington, of Elk River, is confident in a reserved way about reaching his goal. Three of the remaining six courses are Up North, and he will need some help to get into two in the Twin Cities: the private Town and Country Club in St. Paul and Woodhill Country Club in Wayzata.
Until last week, Hennington believed he was only three courses shy of his mark. Then a list provided by the Golf Association showed 519 courses in the state. But nearly a dozen of those have closed, Hennington said, and a number of places have multiple courses and he has played a few holes on each.
The long road
Smacking and shanking shots on such beautiful courses as Wilderness at Lake Vermilion and Spring Hill in Wayzata are a far cry from Hennington’s homemade course in 1964. Back then, unfamiliar with the rules, Hennington placed his ball on a tee after each shot.
He didn’t play much golf until after high school, when he’d go to nearby courses in Benson and Alexandria. Later, as an American history teacher and basketball coach at Elk River High School, where he retired about decade ago, he golfed every week. He once had a 4 handicap; he won a club championship at Sauk Centre Country Club and has nailed four holes-in-one.
In the 1990s, Hennington figured he’d been to more than 200 courses in Minnesota. When he retired, he was near 300, and he decided he was too close to ignore pursuing the dream.
He started planning golf trips, such as a weekend in Moorhead to play eight area courses. He often went solo because “not many people want to play that many rounds.”
There has been no lack of variety in the courses he played. Valley High Golf Course in Houston, in southeast Minnesota, has a tree in the middle of one green. A course in Park Rapids had greens with no grass, a flag marking the hole just sticking in the dirt, he said.
Asked to name his favorite courses, Hennington said it would be like picking your favorite child. Under pressure, he mentioned the course at White Bear Yacht Club, talking about its beautiful and challenging design.
Getting access to courses can be tricky. Hennington has used friends and relatives as connections and written letters to club pros. Being a volunteer at the U.S. Open at Hazeltine National allowed him to play a round at the famed Chaska club. His invitation for Spring Hill came from an auction prize won by a friend.
Hennington said he’s played in every state except Alaska and South Dakota. He paid just $25 to play 18 holes at Pebble Beach (his wife, Joni, a not-as-avid golfer, sat in the car for five hours). He would love to take some swings at Augusta National in Georgia, home of the Masters.
Hennington has two adult sons, Grant and Eric, who have had their picture taken with him and Minnesota golf legend Tom Lehman. But neither of them has their father’s passion for the game, he said. When he pitched the idea of fulfilling his “dumb dream” to his wife, she asked about the expense and how he would find time to do it. As he got closer, she said “what the heck, you have to do it now.”
Even if Hennington learns that somebody else had already golfed every course in Minnesota, he would still be content as “one of the only people to have done it.” No special celebrations are planned after he sinks that final putt, which he guesses will be next spring. But he may grant himself a do-over.
“I want my last hole to be a par. If not, I might tee it up and redo the hole,” he said. “Then my journey will end.”
David Chanen • 612-673-4465