Thawed for summer, Minnesota golf fans have arrived by the tens of thousands every decade or so for professional golf’s greatest championships, from Chaska’s Hazeltine National Golf Club to Edina’s Interlachen Country Club.
Will they now attend in large numbers, too, the first yearly PGA Tour event in these parts since 1969 during an extended holiday week in Blaine?
World No. 1-ranked Brooks Koepka, five-time major champion Phil Mickelson and fellow major winners Patrick Reed and Jason Day — among 152 others — are bound for the TPC Twin Cities and will compete for $6.4 million in prize money, beginning Thursday with the first ball struck early on the morning of July 4th.
Will Minnesotans accustomed to traveling north for midsummer’s big break sip their craft beers and sun themselves from skyboxes, corporate pavilions and along the ropes instead of a dock?
“We’re pretty much ‘Up North’ here anyway, aren’t we?” four-time PGA Tour winner and Wayzata native Tim Herron said standing in the TPC Twin Cities clubhouse. “Not everybody has a cabin.”
Minnesota golf fans supported a PGA Tour Champions event for more than 25 years, nearly the last 20 at the TPC Twin Cities — and the last decade with 3M Championship’s free admission. They turned out thick to see the 50-and-up tour’s best and retired legends — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Annika Sorenstam, among many others — play an event within an event on Saturday afternoons.
But the move eight years in the making to a PGA Tour event is what 3M Open executive director Hollis Cavner calls a step up to “the major leagues” that he promises — with food trucks, beer gardens (including at least some that will serve Herron’s “Lumpy’s Lager”) and live music — will transform a former sod farm into Minnesota’s biggest party this summer.
The Zac Brown Band plays a ticketed Friday night concert at the nearby National Sports Center stadium, with fireworks to follow.
“Ideally, golf could get in the way of some really fun times,” Cavner said.
Five of the world’s top 25-ranked players — including Koepka and No. 8 Bryson DeChambeau — and five of 12 U.S. players from the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine have committed to play in a field finalized Friday. Seven former major champions and 33 players who have won tour events within the past two years have signed up.
“There was a lot of chatter that no one is going to go play there,” Cavner said. “We proved that wrong. We’ve got the stars. People said we couldn’t deliver. We did.”
Aiming for big crowds
Herron and fellow Minnesotan Tom Lehman both will play on sponsor’s exemptions that acknowledge their many accomplishments in state golf and worldwide. So, too, will 2018 U.S. Amateur champion and Norwegian Viktor Hovland, 2019 NCAA individual champion Matthew Wolff, Cal’s Collin Morikawa and USC’s Justin Suh — all former college stars who just turned pro — as well as Charlie Danielson, the Osceola, Wis., golfer and former Illinois star who is fresh off a U.S. Open Saturday pairing with Mickelson.
Two PGA Tour players with Minnesota connections — former Spring Lake Park and Winona State golfer Troy Merritt, two-time Minnesota state amateur champion Tom Hoge — will play as well. Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama and The Players Championship past winner Si Woo Kim will draw international media and audiences to Blaine.
April’s Masters winner, Tiger Woods, is taking a month’s family break between the U.S. Open and British Open and will not play in Blaine.
Cavner — the owner of Pro Links Sports, which operates five PGA Tour events and three more on the PGA Tour Champions — won’t disclose advance ticket sales other than to call them “very strong.” He said certain ticket categories have sold out, but said they’ll continue to sell general-admission grounds tickets until when/if parking accommodating 45,000 fans fills.
“No disrespect to what we had for the 3M Championship; it was our baby and we loved it,” Cavner said. “But this is a new game.”
Birdies and train wrecks
To play that new game, Lehman supervised changes that have narrowed, lengthened and toughened a TPC Twin Cities course on which senior players often scored ridiculously low. Grounds crew built new tees, planted trees, built and moved bunkers, enhanced chipping areas around greens, but largely left the greens as they were.
Potentially played at nearly 7,500 yards, Lehman now considers it a “more demanding driving course” whose length will challenge him, if not exactly bring Koepka and other big hitters to their knees.
“Is that possible?” Lehman said. “I’m looking forward to playing here. I’m looking forward to how they receive the course.”
Except for an 18th hole makeover that doubled the green-front pond’s size and dramatically moved the tee, Lehman calls the changes “small” and “a little bit sneaky, which sometimes I think is the best.” He hopes they are neither “stupid” nor “tricked-up,” which he defines as “hitting good shots and getting bad results.”
He said with a little luck — namely “a little bit of rain, little bit of heat” between now and Thursday and some wind on tournament days — the rough will thicken and greens will firm.
Cavner and Herron both want a course that will surrender low scores, but is not easy.
“We don’t want the hardest course on tour,” Cavner said. “We want birdies and train wrecks. Bogeys are no fun.”
Filling the field
DeChambeau was the first notable name who committed in December, partly because the tour’s most inquisitive mind intends to meet with 3M scientists about nanotechnology and other such things. 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed and 2015 PGA winner Jason Day followed not long after.
In March, Mickelson did the same, citing some of the same reasons Reed did: His memories of the 2016 Ryder Cup. More than 70,000 people packed Hazeltine National’s hillsides and valleys and roared the U.S. team onto victory during Sunday’s singles when Mickelson shot a 63 and fabulously battled Sergio Garcia to a draw.
He also played the 1991 U.S. Open and the 2002 and 2009 PGA Championships in Minnesota, all at Hazeltine. He returns to Minnesota because of those moments and memories, without knowing a thing about the TPC Twin Cities course he will play.
“I want to see this tournament be successful,” Mickelson said. “The way the community supported major championships over the years, this place deserves to have an event here every year … The way this community has supported the game of golf, it has given me some of the most memorable moments in my career, specifically the Ryder Cup. I’ll never forget that feel on the golf course. It’s something I’ll always cherish and they’ve done that in every event I’ve competed in at Hazeltine going all the way back to 1991.
“The people are going to support this tournament like no other place will and it just elevates the status of this event.”
Koepka is among the many playing for $18 million in big-money bonuses by season’s end. Winner of three of the past six majors, he is second in contention to win the $15 million FedExCup, second to win $2 million in the new Wyndham Rewards Top 10 as well as $1 million in the Aon Risk Reward Challenge.
“All that stuff is what you strive for,” he said. “That’s what we play for.”
He will do so starting Thursday in Blaine, where crowds will gather — how big is still uncertain — to celebrate their country’s independence and the PGA Tour’s regular return to Minnesota.
“When you’ve got the chance to see world No. 1 Brooks Koepka and it’s not as big a cluster as the Ryder Cup and you can follow this guy for a few holes, you’ve got the best of both worlds,” Herron said.
Long before night falls on July 4, Cavner will be wishing for birdies and triple bogeys both.
“Let’s have some fireworks,” he said.