The Twin Cities were jostling toward Major League Baseball and professional football in the late 1950s. But local businessman Totton Peavey Heffelfinger had another grand sports vision. So one day, in 1958, he climbed aboard a small airplane to search for the piece of land that ultimately would carry Minnesota’s standing as a big-league golf venue into the 21st century.
Seated next to Heffelfinger was Chicago golf course architect Robert Bruce Harris, who recently had designed Wayzata Country Club. Harris became a long-forgotten historical footnote, replaced by the legendary Robert Trent Jones in this golfing tale. But on this particular day, as the plane circled the cities, Harris looked down upon the tiny farming community of Chaska, turned to Heffelfinger and suggested his dream was nestled in the 725 acres around Hazeltine Lake.
The lake was named after a popular schoolteacher. Originally, the golf course that would sprout nearby for $1.1 million was to be called the Executive Golf Club of Minnesota, a name Jones suggested as part of a futuristic idea for a nationwide network of clubs with reciprocal memberships. When that idea failed, Hazeltine National Golf Club was born in 1962 with “a mission to build and maintain a golf course suitable for the conduct of national championships.”
Now 54 years old and nearly 900 acres in size, Hazeltine has played host to two U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships, two U.S. Women’s Opens, a U.S. Senior Open and more United States Golf Association (USGA) championships than any other golf club. But the best, members say, lies ahead when the 41st Ryder Cup moves Hazeltine onto the pre-eminent international golf stage from Friday to Sunday.
“The Ryder Cup is the ultimate prize in terms of worldwide interest and publicity for your course and your community,” said Reed Mackenzie, a Hazeltine member since 1965 and a former USGA president. “It’s like the PGA Championship or the U.S. Open on steroids.”
Frank Heffelfinger became an original member of the Minikahda Club when it opened in Minneapolis with nine holes in 1899, the year his son, Totton, was born. Minikahda played host to the 1916 U.S. Open and the 1927 U.S. Amateur. Three years later, Bobby Jones won the 1930 U.S. Open at Interlachen Country Club en route to his famous Grand Slam.
But 27 years passed and the Twin Cities still hadn’t been awarded another U.S. Open. Even as USGA president in 1952-53, Totton Heffelfinger couldn’t get the USGA to return. The U.S. Open had outgrown every course in town.
So in 1958, Heffelfinger asked his fellow members to build another course farther out of town. He had the foresight to know major championships would need courses with extra acreage for a malleable golf course and plenty of open land around it.
“They had an all-club meeting and voted it down,” Mackenzie said. “So Totton, who was kind of a stubborn guy, said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it on my own.’ ”
Heffelfinger wasn’t the backing-down type. He served as a Naval commander in World War II.
In 1957, Heffelfinger was vice president of Peavey & Co., the family grain business. He got some financial backing from Peavey and a man named Bob Fischer, who would join Heffelfinger and Jones as the Big Three in Hazeltine’s birth and enduring commitment to its mission statement.
Fischer was chief financial officer of First National Bank of Minneapolis. He knew Jones from business dealings in New York. After joining forces with Heffelfinger, Fischer reached out to Jones for a meeting to coincide with the 1959 PGA Championship at Minneapolis Golf Club.
“Jones and I sat there where the eighth hole is now,” the late Fischer said before the 2002 PGA Championship. “He told me if a designer couldn’t build a beautiful course with the woods, hills and water, they should get out of the business.”
Hazeltine was four years old when it hosted the 1966 U.S. Women’s Open. A year later, the Minnesota Golf Classic — once known as the St. Paul Open and played at Keller — came to Hazeltine and remains the only regular PGA Tour event played at the course. Lou Graham won with the highest winning score relative to par [2 under] that year, but, as Mackenzie remembers, “there were no complaints and lots of compliments about the golf course.”
That would change drastically in 1970 when the U.S. Open came to Hazeltine for the first time. Complaints about the number of doglegs and blind shots started when Jack Nicklaus played a practice round a month before the tournament, got lost between holes and wrote a scathing article for Sports Illustrated titled “Blind Man’s Bluff at Hazeltine.”
But it was Dave Hill, who finished runner-up to Tony Jacklin that year, who delivered the historical haymaker of all complaints when 69 of 150 players failed to break 80 on the second day.
Hill had been drinking when he was persuaded to talk to the media against his better judgment. When asked what the course lacked, he said: “Eighty acres of corn and a few cows. They ruined a good farm when they built this course.” Asked what should be done to make it better, he said, “Plow it up and start over again.”
“I still insist the weather that week had a huge influence on everybody,” Mackenzie said. “We had very cold weather, in the 40s as I recall. Wind out of the north, northwest. It was very strong, and I can remember Gary Player — never the longest player — getting to the seventh hole and hitting driver, 3-wood, 3-wood and being well short of the green. So I think that kind of set the tone.
“And I was in the press tent when Dave made those comments. They weren’t made maliciously. He was trying to be funny and cute about it. Nobody at the time took him too seriously. But once they were out there, other people kind of jumped on the bandwagon. So I think a lot of members’ feelings were hurt.”
Heffelfinger was more defiant than hurt.
“Dave Hill has made a horse’s ass of himself at many courses in the U.S.,” said Heffelfinger, according to club historian Kyle Molin. “I still think it’s one of the world’s greatest courses.”
Path to redemption ’91
Hill eventually became a beloved friend to the club and enthusiastically approved of the redesigns that led to a successful 1983 U.S. Senior Open and the winning bid, in 1986, for the 1991 U.S. Open. Heffelfinger wouldn’t live to see it. He was 88 when he died in 1987.
But long before Heffelfinger’s death, Fischer became the driving voice behind Hazeltine’s mission statement. After hosting the 1977 U.S. Women’s Open, Fischer and the members brought Jones back for a major renovation. Among the changes, the first, ninth and 18th holes were rerouted to eliminate doglegs; the eighth green was changed; and, most important, the 16th and 17th holes were completely redone to satisfy a USGA prerequisite for hosting future U.S. Opens.
The tree-line-protected 16th was changed from what the pros mockingly called the world’s only dogleg par-3 to the club’s world-famous signature par-4 along Hazeltine Lake. The 17th, which was a quirky par-4 with a blind uphill tee shot to a narrow fairway, was changed to a challenging par-3. For the Ryder Cup, Nos. 16-17 will play as holes 7-8.
Jones’ son, Rees, aka the “Open Doctor,” was brought in later to make further alterations. Then a blight destroyed the greens in 1985. Membership anteed up with another $375,000 to dig them up and rebuild.
“We joked that our club logo was a bulldozer,” Mackenzie said.
Robert Trent Jones died in 2000, but Rees has maintained the family connection to present day. When Hazeltine switched its alliance from the USGA to the PGA of America, Rees made several changes before the 2002 and 2009 PGA Championships. Right after the 2009 PGA Championship, the clubhouse was torn down and replaced, the greens were dug up and redone again, the fairways were resodded and the bunkers rebuilt with better drainage.
“Hazeltine was a labor of love for my dad, and for me, too,” Rees Jones said in 2002. “Dad took a real beating in 1970, which created sort of a Jones family mission to bring Hazeltine up to today’s standards. There are a lot of parallels between Hazeltine and Augusta National. Each has continued to grow the golf course, make changes and not be satisfied with the status quo.”
Status quo is one thing Hazeltine will never be accused of favoring. The Ryder Cup will come and go, but Hazeltine won’t relax for long. No further majors have been announced, but Mackenzie said to expect one soon from the brawny brute that sits at the international pinnacle of golf in 2016.