Like an athlete preparing for a championship event, Hazeltine National is growing brawnier and sleeker at the same time.
Cruise around the grounds and you find, as always, long, difficult holes. You also find preparations for a new layout, foliage cleared to promote sight lines, a temporary city being erected alongside the fairways, new sand in the traps and enough shades of green to make any golfer reflexively reach for an imaginary wedge.
As Minnesota’s first Ryder Cup is scheduled for Sept. 30 through Oct. 2, Hazeltine is prepping and primping.
“This is cool,” Kevin Smith says, pointing to Hazeltine No. 8, which will play as No. 17 during the Ryder Cup. Smith is the manager of marketing and promotion for the PGA and the Ryder Cup. He’s also a Minnesotan who loves to play golf.
“This is a par-3,” he said. “Smallest green on the golf course. So you’re all square, two holes to go, and one swing puts the ball in the water and it’s game over. But if the wind is in your face on 18 and you’re down, you may have to go for it because you can’t make birdie on 18.
“Remember what Padraig [Harrington] did here? He made an 8 and his first shot didn’t go in the water, and that was it.”
Hazeltine has played host to four majors — the U.S. Open in 1970 and 1991, and the PGA Championship in 2002 and 2009. In the latter event, Harrington, then one of the world’s top players, fell out of contention at No. 8 and Y.E. Yang foreshadowed Tiger Woods’ career downturn with a stirring victory on the 72nd hole.
The club’s passionate pursuit of championship tournaments is bringing The Ryder Cup, golf’s most emotional and dramatic event, to the Twin Cities suburbs, and after years of planning, the physical preparations are well underway.
You walk into the lounge and Hazeltine director of instruction Mike Barge mentions a visit by the son of Payne Stewart, a teammate of Barge’s at SMU who won the ’91 U.S. Open at Hazeltine.
You walk through the pro shop and find Ryder Cup apparel. You cruise around the course and see scaffolding, tents and hundreds of workers.
“We close the day after Labor Day, so we have three weeks where it’s just us out there getting the course ready,” said Chris Tritabaugh, Hazeltine’s course superintendent. “That would heal a lot of ills. My hope is when we get to that point, we won’t have many ills to heal. We’re in great shape.”
The transformation of any golf course into a championship venue is astonishing in its breadth and detail. What’s happening at Hazeltine is unique to its unique event. During the Ryder Cup, typical holes 1-4 and 14-18 will comprise the front nine. That will allow the picturesque No. 16, which stretches along Lake Hazeltine, to be played in all matches, where if it played as No. 16 some matches likely would end before reaching it.
That switch also will help disperse spectators to the far reaches of the course.
Even a layout as spacious as Hazeltine’s will be challenged by the Ryder Cup format, which tends to concentrate crowds around a few matches instead of over 18 holes as with a usual tournament.
“Check this out,” Smith said, as he drove a golf cart to the hill overlooking traditional No. 16 and Lake Hazeltine. He pointed to where trees and brush used to obscure what is now a majestic view.
Smith pointed to a massive merchandise tent, and hospitality tents for the PGA of America and the Ryder Cup, and the portion of the driving range that will host the opening ceremonies.
One thing Smith didn’t point to: punitive rough. Because it isn’t there. American Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III has told Hazeltine “he doesn’t want it to be like a U.S. Open setup,” Smith said. “He wants it to be people firing at the pins. He said people want to see victories and birdies, not people floundering and losing.”
The course’s 107 bunkers have improved drainage and new, white, sand, which is an aesthetic improvement.
Hazeltine is almost ready for its next close-up.