Jeff Hintz first visited Minnesota in 1998. An amateur golfer he knew was playing in the pro-am before the Coldwell Banker Burnet Classic at Bunker Hills. Hintz, then a student at Indiana University, caddied.
The pro in his group? Arnold Palmer.
Hintz waited for a moment alone with the great man. Finally, as Palmer was retrieving a made putt, Hintz, holding the flagstick, nervously blurted, “My dad is your hero!”
Palmer tilted his head. Hintz got it right the second time.
More than 18 years later, the highlight of Hintz’s career occurred shortly after Palmer’s death. As the Ryder Cup tournament director, he would help honor Palmer while organizing one of the greatest sporting events in Minnesota history.
Hintz, now 38, was then studying sports marketing and business management. Visiting Minnesota during a golf tournament and meeting Palmer prompted him to think of golf as a career. The next summer he returned to the state to work as an intern for golf executive Hollis Cavner, who ran the Coldwell Banker Burnet Classic and now runs the 3M Championship.
Almost two decades later, Hintz moved his family to Minnesota to spend two years organizing the 2016 Ryder Cup. For his role in making Minnesota’s Ryder Cup an international success, Hintz is the Star Tribune Sportsperson of the Year.
“We spent two or three years intensively preparing for that week. Then the week comes along and all of a sudden you’re asking, ‘Where did it go?’ ” Hintz said. “It’s all over so fast.”
The invisible CEO
On Dec. 15, 2014, Hintz moved his family from St. Joseph, Mich., where he was running the Senior PGA Championship, to Chaska. His wife, Leah, and their three kids made the southwest suburbs home as Hintz spent long days getting Hazeltine National Golf Club ready for a global audience.
He worked mostly behind the scenes on such necessary bureaucracy as lining up vendors, getting temporary villages erected and anticipating the dozens of ways a massive international golf tournament can fly off the rails.
Although he joked about his “three-minute commute,” his family, he says, fell in love with Minnesota. “We began to view this as a place where we would be very happy living,” he said. His father spent nine years in Maple Grove, and his sister worked at the corporate home for Target.
“We knew from our family what the quality of life was here,” Hintz said. “We experienced everything we had heard about in short bursts. Being on the ground here every single day has been fantastic. We really came to feel like this was home.
“We have three children, two of which are in elementary school, and we could not be happier with the educational system here. My father was a superintendent of schools, so I know the value of that.”
An emblematic winner
Hintz is being honored both for his work and as a symbolic point person for all of the people who made Minnesota’s only Ryder Cup an aesthetic and financial success.
Ryder Cup Chairman Patrick Hunt, U.S. team captain Davis Love III and Hazeltine members who have turned their course into Minnesota’s magnet for major championships all played important roles in the acquisition and running of the event.
Patrick Reed’s passionate play, the Americans’ teamwork, Love’s leadership and the Europeans’ gamesmanship produced the finest sports moments in Minnesota this year.
Hunt worked closely with Love and became a de facto part of the U.S. support staff. Hintz, conversely, was relatively invisible, but his fingerprints were everywhere around the course, especially at the first tee.
Creating an epicenter
Hintz and his staff were finishing with a reception at the club on the Sunday before the event began when they received word of Palmer’s death.
They decided to honor Palmer by placing a U.S. golf bag with his name on it at the first tee. They ran video homages to him and placed his image on a wall of the U.S. locker room.
“A few of us stayed on site in the media center that night until 11:30 and formulated a plan,” Hintz said. “We thought of the golf bag on the tee, and said, ‘Let’s do a memory wall that fans can sign.’ We handed out Arnie’s Army pins. The Golf Channel was very helpful in putting together the video.
“It was great to be able to honor him at the Ryder Cup. He was a great Ryder Cupper. He loved the event, so it proved to be symbolic.”
Palmer’s bag wasn’t the only addition to the first-tee experience. Hintz worked at the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, Ill., where Bubba Watson and others fired up the crowd before hitting their first shots of each session.
Hintz wanted to take that rowdiness, which is unique to big-time golf, and improve upon it. He added red mesh to the otherwise green bleachers, to give the U.S. the feel of a “home-field advantage.” He reached out to the American fan group that calls itself the Minnesota Vikings, who rebranded themselves as the American Marshalls for this event.
The Marshalls and the Euro fans calling themselves the Guardians of the Cup would trade songs and lighthearted barbs in the stands at the first tee all weekend.
Hazeltine also became the first Ryder Cup venue to play music over speakers at the first tee during the practice rounds and before play started on Sunday. Taking a page from other professional sports, Hazeltine adopted a kiss cam and a dance cam.
“The American Marshalls reached out to us very early and wanted to be more involved,” Hintz said. “They fit into the sportsmanship of the Ryder Cup. They were funny, clever, not over the top. They helped build that atmosphere, and we’re very grateful.”
The organizers even piped the sound from the first tee to the main gates, so fans entering immediately got a sense of the commotion on the course.
Building a victory
For Hintz, the drama began long before the competition began. Hintz oversaw the construction of about 1.5 million square feet of structures, including a 45,000-square-foot merchandising tent, around Hazeltine. During the competition he ran a staff of about 75 from the PGA of America. Attendance for the week reached 295,000.
“Think about what you have to do to accommodate all of those people,” Hintz said. “All the structures, the temporary concession stands, the restrooms, the transportation, the security. What has been pleasing is how many people have answered our surveys by telling us this was the best sporting event of their lives.”
Ah, yes, security. If there was a flaw to a spectacular weekend of golf, it was the fan behavior toward European players, particularly the treatment of Rory McIlroy on Saturday.
“I would say that got blown out of proportion,” Hintz said. “We had home-course advantage here. It happens. I think we were fortunate that it wasn’t out of control. There were isolated incidents and we took care of them, and the galleries started to police themselves.”
Given the nature of his job, Hintz didn’t get to spend much time on the course. Sunday, though, as the Americans pushed to clinch down the stretch, he tracked down his wife on the course and they walked to No. 17, which had become an amphitheater filled with drama.
“We didn’t clinch at 17, but that’s where we were when we got word,” Hintz said. “My family gave up so much for me to do this job, particularly my wife. I was an unfamiliar face in the house the entire summer, and she was so supportive.
“To be at the back of the crowd, in tiptoes, watching some of the final shots of the event, to see what we had built here as a team, to see the USA win … that was the moment I’ll never forget.”