Minnesota's golf season starts as slowly as an uphill putt in the rain

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 17, 2013 - 10:13 AM
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With snow still covering most golf courses in mid-April, the year-round heated driving range in Chaska is doing brisk business.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com ,

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Last year was the earliest start ever for Chaska’s highly praised Town Course — by two full weeks.

This year? Lord knows.

“We’ve had no rounds played at all,” said assistant pro Chad Weise. “Zero. And we won’t till late next week, I suspect. This year is looking to be the latest we’ve ever seen. People are really getting antsy.”

If you want to find someone bounced skyward by last year’s extraordinary spring, then body slammed by this year’s endless winter, just poke your head into the nearest empty golf clubhouse.

“This is worst I’ve seen in my 30 years in this business,” said Dan Stoneburg, general manager at the Hiawatha course in Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Golf Association recorded 54,288 rounds posted during the first two weeks of April last year. The comparable figure for this year: a pitiful 424.

“We opened last Monday but we haven’t had any golfers yet, between rain and snow,” said Ken Schindler, manager of Fort Snelling Golf Club, the only Minneapolis public course that is listed as officially in action. “Right now we’re opening in the morning to take deliveries and phone calls … but we’re going home at noon. I’m telling second shift not to bother.”

The issue is especially serious for municipal courses, which have been sagging badly in financial terms in recent years after having once been moneymakers for parks departments.

But it affects all kinds of courses and users. This week, the state high school league sent out advisories to schools suggesting ways of condensing the normal varsity golf season so tournaments can take place on a normal schedule later this spring.

“We’re suggesting things like, once you can get out, instead of a dual meet over 18 holes, maybe two more teams come in but only play nine,” said Dave Stead, the organization’s executive director. “At least you’re giving more kids the chance to play. If you had an invitational for four or five teams, how about twice that many teams but fewer holes?” The thing folks can’t get over is what a contrast it is with the year before.

“Last year was perfect,” Stoneburg sighed. “We opened March 19 and it was in the 60s and 70s. It was great.”

The early start was a boost to the season as a whole. Statewide, there was an 11 percent increase in golf rounds played in 2012 over 2011. At Eagle Valley Golf Course in Woodbury, city-owned and operated, rounds jumped from about 26,000 in 2011 to a record 33,755, a 28 percent increase. Gross revenue grew from $1.15 million to $1.44 million, another record.

This year, Stoneburg said, it’s “totally the other side. As I look out on the grounds, everything’s white. The range will reopen when the snow melts and the landing area is dried up enough to pick up balls, but when that is, is hard to say.”

Of course, there are always winners in situations like this. Indoor golf domes report that they are busy. The Golf Zone in Chaska, with its heated stalls from which golfers can drive balls all winter long, had its voice mail box stuffed full, and phones at times were going unanswered.

“Our business definitely has increased tremendously from what we’d normally have right now,” said Tom Pociecha, manager of the Goodrich Golf Dome in Maplewood. “This time last year, we were pretty dead. There was little to no action going on. But this afternoon, we are totally booked with high school players from 2:30 to 5:30.”

Last year’s season in Minneapolis stretched from the first course’s opening on March 13 to the last course’s closing well after Thanksgiving, on Dec. 5, said Robin Smothers, social media and marketing specialist for the park and recreation board. Over that period, 206,933 rounds were played.

As of Monday, the grand official total for the system: Two.

The situation is all the more galling for all those who watched a magnificent finish to the Masters tournament, a playoff featuring the historic first-time victory by an Australian.

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