The queen of the fairways, Annika Soren-stam, took stock of the new east metro golf course as tractors sculpted the landscape and wild turkeys staked out a putting green nearby.
It was a splendid late September afternoon, the kind of golden-lit day suited to golf, when the legendary Sorenstam walked the Lake Elmo course that will open in her name next summer.
“We’re going to make him proud now,” she said of the late golf great Arnold Palmer, who had been her partner in an ambitious overhaul at the former 3M Co. corporate retreat known as Tartan Park.
Palmer and Sorenstam, who qualify as golf royalty, figure prominently at the new Royal Golf Club at Lake Elmo, where Sorenstam’s front-nine course will be known as “The Queen,” and Palmer’s back nine “The King.” Their design ideas, forged by years of championship play, are expected to bring renewed competition to an east metro golf market now on an upswing after years of decline.
“There are no courses of this caliber in the metro,” said Hollis Cavner, the Florida golf promoter who bought the 477-acre property earlier this year and immediately began transforming it.
“I think it’s so cool for this to be Arnold’s last [course] and Annika’s first,” Cavner said of the redesigned 18 golf holes, now and forever the only course featuring the combined talents of the two. The new 18 holes replace the previous 27 under the Tartan name.
“Very natural undulations with lots of potential” is how Sorenstam described the rolling terrain. “I have a vision from a playable standpoint.” She added, with a smile: “You can’t make a good soup with crappy stuff.”
East metro golf began showing its age a few years ago during the Great Recession when courses lost players, the market was overbuilt, and the private 3M-owned Tartan Park signaled its pending demise by opening to the public in hopes of increasing revenue.
“More courses than normal were fighting over a smaller crowd of people,” said Steve Whillock, general manager of Oak Marsh Golf Course in Oakdale.
Golfing dropped off as fewer corporations allowed employees to play it as a business expense and people became preoccupied with their children’s participation in other sports, he said.
Now, he said, golf courses are busy again because they’ve found ways to diversify their revenue with leagues, fundraisers, weddings and other events. New housing construction also means more potential golfers, Whillock said, such as the InWood development across the road that will have 500 houses.
“We used to be in the country and now we’re in the middle of the city, it seems like,” he said.
The 300 houses planned for Royal Golf Club will provide more golfers to ease competition among various east metro courses, Whillock said.
Cavner was blunt about what he is building in Lake Elmo, which includes a remodeled clubhouse that will accommodate a full-service restaurant and space for weddings with 350 guests.
“You have to be very good at what you do or you’ll lose your butt,” he said.
Joel Burger, president of Wexford Golf, a local golf services company, sees a resurgence in golf courses that manage to find new ways of attracting customers.
“We’re in the entertainment business. We’re selling fun,” said Burger, whose firm manages StoneRidge Golf Club in West Lakeland Township. “Any time a consumer can have a great experience, they’re looking for other similar great experiences. It just requires everyone in that marketplace to make sure we’re offering a comparable operation.”
Opening the “world-class” Royal Golf Club just a few miles away won’t hurt StoneRidge, Burger said; on the contrary, he expects it will bring more golfers to the region.
That’s much the same viewpoint in St. Paul, where interest at the four city-affiliated golf courses has rebounded in recent years, said Parks and Recreation Department spokeswoman Clare Cloyd. The recent Ryder Cup in Chaska drew new players to Highland National, the St. Paul course closest to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, she said.
“We understand that golf is a competitive industry, especially in Minnesota where the season is short,” Cloyd said. But she said that the new Lake Elmo golf club will raise public interest in golf everywhere.
“Having the names Arnie Palmer and Annika Sorenstam does present an attraction,” she said.
Youth golfers wanted
In Lake Elmo, the old Tartan Park road signs point the way to Royal Golf Club, or at least the makings of it.
“As long as the weather holds out, we should be able to open next summer,” said Jim Leary, the new golf director. The rebuilt clubhouse will feature walls of glass along the south side to showcase the work of Palmer and Sorenstam, reflecting Cavner’s desire for courses that appeal to families and youth.
“We’re doing everything it takes to get kids to play,” Cavner said. “You’ve got to make the course fast and fun. We’re going to have a country club feel and charge public prices.”
The price of the Tartan sale wasn’t disclosed, but Cavner said it’s financed by private investors and that the investment will range from $15 million to $20 million. Tartan Park was valued in the county’s 2015 assessment at $5.186 million.
High-end housing — 300 or so single-family homes and villas — will be built on the outer edges of the property but won’t resemble a typical residential development, Cavner said.
Palmer visited the course for the last time in August. He died Sept. 25, just a few days before Sorenstam came to inspect it. She amassed 89 worldwide victories, including 72 on the LPGA, 10 of which were major championships, and was the first and only woman to surpass $20 million in LPGA career earnings.
Gene Arnt, whose construction company did much of the grading, joined Sorenstam during last week’s inspection.
“I was extremely impressed when she walked the course. She was focused on every hole,” he said.