On the heels of Y.E. Yang’s thrilling PGA win, the club that was built for majors will not get an exciting new look.
Normally during a major golf tournament, you can expect the local newspaper coverage to focus on the action and the excitement of having such a big event in town. And in the process, the host course will get showered with praise.
But on the culminating Sunday of the 91st PGA Championship, held last month at Hazeltine National Golf Club (HNGC) in Chaska, Minn., a piece by Patrick Reusse, a sports columnist with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, stated flatly that Hazeltine’s nearly 50-year-old clubhouse was “quite a dump.” An online reader then chimed in with a concurring comment: “A Motel 6 looks better than that clubhouse.”
Hazeltine National GC AT A GLANCE
• Location: Chaska, Minn. (suburban Minneapolis)
None of this caused the membership or management staff of Hazeltine to choke on their coffee, though, while reading their Sunday papers. Instead, it gave everyone a nice little chuckle at the start of another great day in HNGC’s rich history—one that would end with Y.E. Yang beating Tiger Woods in their memorable head-to-head showdown, and with Hazeltine earning a whole new round of raves, despite the condition of its clubhouse, for once again proving to be one of the top venues in the world for holding a major championship.
The members and staff at HNGC could also smile about how their clubhouse was being characterized because as usual, they were way ahead of the curve. Just 10 days after the tournament ended, the club’s Board gave the final go-ahead to a $16 million long-range renovation plan that had already been approved by the Hazeltine membership. Most of the cost ($13.4 million) will be put towards a new full-service, 49,000-sq. ft. clubhouse scheduled to open in September 2010.
As soon as final approval of the plan was secured, an online auction began, to sell whatever “pieces of history” from the old building might be attractive to buyers. Later this month, some of its largest wooden trusses will be harvested, to be reused as flooring and furniture in the new clubhouse “so we can take some of the old to the new,” reports Matt Murphy, Hazeltine’s Club Manager.
But by the first week of October, Murphy assures, there will be “nothing left” of that part of Hazeltine’s past. And the end of one tie to the club’s success to date will also signal the start of how it plans to take its game to even higher levels by the time the next major event—the 2016 Ryder Cup—comes to Chaska.
|Hazeltine isn’t resting on its latest laurels after Y.E. Yang helped it once again host a successful and memorable major. A $16 million improvement project is already underway to reconstruct the greens and regrass fairways on the storied course, and to replace the clubhouse with a “prairie-style” structure.|
Beyond its Years
Those with first-hand knowledge of the “inner workings” of the original Hazeltine clubhouse were actually amazed that it was still around to be called a dump when this year’s PGA began.
“When I prepared to come here [as the new Club Manager] two and a half years ago,” Murphy says, “I watched all of the CBS tapes from the 2002 PGA. There was not one second of footage that showed the clubhouse from any angle. They were so desperate to show something ‘distinctive’ beyond the golf course, in fact, that they kept focusing on the old blue water tower on the edge of our parking lot; apparently it must have struck the producers as an iconic Midwestern symbol.
“By the way, that tower is also obsolete,” Murphy adds. “In fact, I was very tempted to see if I could arrange to have it fall on the clubhouse, and take care of two things at once.”
Pushed to the brink during this year’s PGA by a tournament-weekend deluge that dumped nine inches of rain on Chaska in a 36-hour period, Murphy reported afterwards that the clubhouse did all it could to “do itself in” through a series of vital-system shutdowns. But he, his staff and volunteers from the membership worked through the challenges with the same good-natured resolve that has helped Hazeltine hold its status as a top venue despite a series of calamities in its history. “There have been terrible storms and 50-year floods before; something always seem to strike [around the majors],” Murphy says. “We were wondering what it would be this year: Locusts? Asteroids?”
All a Matter of Course
A key to how Hazeltine has handled whatever’s come at it—and stretched other parts of the facility well beyond their useful lives—has been the knowledge that the golf course will always make sure things will work out in the end. This year’s stunning win by Yang was just the latest example of how the course designed by Robert Trent Jones (with later modifications by his son Rees) has consistently delivered unpredictable excitement through its unique blend of length and shotmaking challenges.
That was the intent when former United States Golf Assn. President Totton Heffelfinger had the idea of a creating a course and club for the primary purpose of hosting majors, and it’s what’s kept Hazeltine on point no matter what it’s encountered in the nearly 50 years since.
In fact, few “mission statements,” in the club world or elsewhere, are as clear and straightforward as HNGC’s: “…to build and maintain a golf course suitable for the conduct of national championships…and to develop a membership that support[s] this concept.” And make no mistake, the fact that a new clubhouse will now be built does not represent a change in that mission in any way—rather, it’s a reinforcement of it.
For starters, the renovation plan also calls for major work on the course itself—beginning next summer, all fairway grass at Hazeltine will be killed and all greens will be dug out to a depth of 16 inches, to stop the insidious creep of Poa annua and replant everything (including tees) with bentgrass.
Secondly, while a new clubhouse has been approved, it will not come with a lot of other country club trappings. What used to be Hazeltine’s tennis courts will still serve as the employees’ parking lot, and as one member told Patrick Reusse for his column, “ ‘Pool’ is a four-letter word here.”
|With its unique blend of length and shot-making challenges, Hazeltine once again brought special excitement and unpredictability to a major.|
And finally, no matter how many rain-catching buckets Hazeltine members might have tripped over while inside the old clubhouse, or how many public insults would have been directed at the building, the big ticket for a new one wouldn’t have had a chance of being stamped without assurance that no assessments would be needed and that everything will be paid for because of HNGC’s undying devotion to its mission of hosting majors (money made from this year’s PGA will be put towards a loan that will then be repaid with projected Ryder Cup earnings.)
Carefully Chosen Words
But even with these factors in play, Murphy says the proposal for a new clubhouse prompted plenty of soul-searching among the membership before it was finally approved. “The greatest concern was that it would change the culture,” he says.
To help demonstrate that it would be kept in lock-step with Hazeltine’s goals, a separate mission statement was drawn up expressly to outline a directive for the new clubhouse’s design: “To reflect [HNGC]’s unique level of passion and commitment to the game of golf, while developing an overall experience that is consistent with the international stature of our Championship golf course.”
And just in case that statement wasn’t clear enough, the proposal that was distributed to the membership included a list of adjectives to help describe what would be built:
• Reflective of the course and the environment
The initial designs of the new clubhouse have translated this statement and list into what Murphy calls a “prairie-style farm house, wrapped in stone.” From the start, a conscious effort has been made to not follow any existing club models. “[The design process] has been all about spending time with us, getting to know who we are, and going from there,” Murphy says.
Where it’s going will eventually produce a clubhouse that will, not surprisingly, be focused on golf from front to back and bottom to top, according to the information distributed to the membership: “The new clubhouse fits the landscape of the golf course and focuses the users’ attention on the golf course. All user spaces have sweeping views of the golf course.” Even the rooflines, it’s noted, will be “uplifted…captur[ing] the subtle energy of the golf swing.”
While he of course understands the need for this focus and buys into it completely, Murphy’s background is as a chef. So he can’t help but also get equally excited about some other features and capabilities of the new clubhouse—in particular, the new 425-seat ballroom (vs. the current clubhouse’s 275), and how it will allow HNGC to get back to being a real player in the weddings and catering game, too.
“We don’t ever want to be like other clubs in the area,” he assures. “But I do want a real shot again at some of the revenues that they’ve been getting.” Despite some very creative wording (“gracious ballroom…historical significance…striking chandeliers…open, vaulted ceilings”) used in the marketing materials that sought to attract events to the old clubhouse, the truth is, Murphy admits the facility had deteriorated to where HNGC had “no real chance of appealing to any brides, unless they might have their hearts set on finding a uniquely gothic setting.”
|This year’s major-related challenges didn’t include locusts or asteroids—just nine inches of rain in 36 hours and a creaking clubhouse that tried to “do itself in.” But once again, the HNGC staff—led by (left to right) Club Manager Matt Murphy, Golf Course Superintendent Jim Nicol and Head Golf Pro Mike Schultz—found ways to ensure that the club would provide another Championship-worthy performance.|
Now, however, Murphy expects banquet business at Hazeltine to “easily double” once the new clubhouse is up and running. And there may also be the potential for the new building to become distinctive and recognizable enough to not only get some TV time during future tournaments, but also create new buzz that can help to further establish and solidify Hazeltine as even more of a unique brand.
Strides in that direction were taken this year through the “walking man” logo that was created for the 91st PGA Championship. It was inspired by a famous photo of Les Bolstad, a legendary former golf coach at the University of Minnesota, that was taken as he carried his bag while walking along a ridge on the Hazeltine course. The image proved to be a popular merchandising draw, and plans are to continue to position it as a symbol for the club.
They Like What They Read
But even before any new images of Hazeltine are etched into the public’s mind, merely taking the steps needed to erase one of the old ones is already having a positive effect. The column that Patrick Reusse wrote on the last day of this year’s PGA not only called the current clubhouse “quite a dump,” it also outlined the changes that were about to occur through the long-range renovation plan. Murphy credits Reusse’s coverage of “Hazeltine’s facelift and much-needed upgrades,” along with the general good feelings generated by the tournament, for prompting some 70 inquiries into membership in the two weeks after Yang beat Woods.
HNGC has budgeted for some membership attrition because of the construction, so the inquiries are timely. But it is also happy to see evidence, even from those who might not be interested in joining the club, that the real objective behind—and benefit of—the next phase of its development is also being recognized.
As another online comment posted to Reusse’s column read: “Great article. Good to know Hazeltine is striving to improve their facilities, so that we might be able to enjoy major championships in the years to come.”