Golfing in the City of St. Paul

Golf is a humbling game, especially when you lose to a 98 year old.

[Above: The menacing 2nd hole at the Highland 9 in St. Paul. I bogeyed, which is good for me]

Public golf courses are in the red. For that matter, golf courses in general. There is even dispute going on right now in Eagan about developing the suburb’s last golf course. There’s been a death threat over it.

Word on the street is that in the past decade, St. Paul has gone from turning a healthy profit on their public courses to trying to figure out what they’re going to do with all of them. It’s hard to pin-point what exactly is going on. While some sources claim the popularity of golf hasn’t been waning, others are indicating that younger generations don’t care about golf or are too busy (as described in Bill Lindeke’s post The End of Golf Course Urbanism?). Now, take macro-trends of entertainment preferences and combine them with increased costs, a stagnating economy and more cost-conscious consumers.

To investigate, I took a crack at the Highland 9, a supposedly easy 9-hole golf course in St. Paul. I booked an early morning tee-time online the night before, set my alarm, woke up at an unreasonable hour and then joined a twosome of two older golfers. Their names were Bill and Ted, and we embarked upon an excellent adventure sometime around 7:50am.

My much more experienced partners in golf hit up the Highland 9 twice a week, every Monday and Friday. They have the good-natured attitude you’d expect from two guys who have been golfing longer than I’ve been alive, with their jovial attitudes being coupled with a healthy dose of Midwestern humility and an elevated level of self-deprecation.

Ted would drop a 50 yard chip shot a mere five feet from the pin, shake his head and say, “Well, we aren’t getting any of the good breaks today”. Meanwhile, I’m two over and pulling out my hair from the sand trap. Bill, who is 98 years old by the way, would bogey on a par 4 while politely commenting that his putt was a little off today. I’m thinking, “You’re 98, in decent shape and still golfing! That’s incredible!”

Golf is a humbling sport – especially when you lose to a 98 year old (but only by about two shots). It was a shot to my ego, but I had fun. Everything about my golf outing was positive, minus the scorecard, and while teaming up with Bill and Ted didn’t change this urban planners mind on golf courses as a land use pattern, it did allowed me to empathize a great deal more.

While walking the course, my thoughts kept coming back to this notion of golf as a dwindling sport. I couldn’t help but juggle around Bill’s ideas from The End of Golf Course Urbanism:

“Perhaps another reason is that people are slowly abandoning the golf course as an imagined landscape. … Early suburbs were often built on conjunction with golf courses. In places like Kansas City’s Country Club District, or right here in Edina, the suburban home, the automobile, and the membership at the golf club were seamlessly integrated with each other. Golf and suburban living were all part of a single lifestyle.”

The golf course is the staple of suburbia, from the green lawns to the miniature cars. It’s the blend of it all. And, to top it off, these courses cost the city taxpayers, are environmentally insensitive, use gallons upon gallons of drinkable water, and often times, take up prime parcels of real estate that could otherwise be generating some revenue.

At the same time, I can’t help but think it’d be impossible to pull the rug out from underneath people, like Bill and Ted, who live in the neighborhood, golf in the neighborhood and just love the game. I kept asking myself, what is the cultural value? I don’t know if there is an answer. Maybe we’ll hit a point where we’ll have to close them down or sell them to a private company, or, like Eagan, develop the land. I imagine the course in Highland Park would sell quickly, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon (although it might in places like Florida and Arizona).

In the meantime, I’m okay subsidizing the public course with modest green fees; and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t golf, and when he does golf, loses to a 98 year old.


*Bill and Ted are excellent guys and I’d like to thank them for putting up with my wayward drives, hazardous chip shots and numerous utterances of profanity.


4 thoughts on “Golfing in the City of St. Paul

  1. Rose

    I think it's easy to knock golf courses, but I think they provide valuable open space in Minneapolis and St. Paul. I'm no golfer, but I am a winter user of the nordic ski trails on our urban golf courses. The feel of a golf course in the winter is much different than the summer. They feel much more park-like, as if there is a great swath of open space tucked away in a residential area of the city.

    Our urban open space is one of the things that makes Minneapolis and St. Paul so special. There may come a time when golf courses no longer make sense to maintain for golfing, but I would be sad to see the land carved up for single family homes. It would be interesting to think about how these courses could transition to different open space and recreational uses.

  2. Nathaniel M Hood

    Rose –

    The winter usage angle is interesting. I know that Minneapolis and St. Paul public courses are open for activities. I've been to Como a number of times and had a great time x-country skiing there. Also, the St. Paul Town and Country Club is the unofficial sledding hill of Merriam Park and Mac-Groveland neighborhoods (at least to those willing and able to jump fences).

    Good comments. Thanks for the feedback. I think there is a public benefit to courses, certainly. However, I don't really address it in this article, I feel the prospects for golf course communities in places like Arizona (or the hundreds in Florida) are doomed to fail in their current state. There are too many of them, they have water scarcity issues and if the popularity wanes a tad, well, indirect competition may sink those places.

    Again, Thanks! Best -Nate

  3. Reuben CollinsReuben Collins

    Great post. did you go golfing just so you could write this post? If so, great commitment to blogging!

    I agree with everything Rose said. I don't golf, but I've been to several golf courses for non-golfing winter activities. If we're going to justify golf courses as public open space, then they ought to be reasonably open to the public for things other than golfing (primarily winter sports, I guess). And they should be reasonably incorporated into the design of the neighborhood, rather than a separate land use pod. Hiawatha Golf Course in Minneapolis is a good example. Fences are minimal, it's open to the public all winter. People are allowed to canoe & fish in Lake Hiawatha. I've been to or through this golf course many times, and never golfed once.

    One thing that is a bit troublesome about some golf courses is when they become exclusionary, both to persons (because golfing is not a cheap sport) and to other activities. Many golf courses are open for things like x-country skiing during the winter, but many aren't. Many are just gated shut and the public is not allowed to enter. In some cases, golf courses have been very poor neighbors and haven't been very willing to allow other uses at all (I'm sure they would argue that they are just protecting their investment in expensive grass…).

    Also, consider the disagreement several years ago between Three Rivers Park District and Golden Valley Country Club while they were trying to develop the Luce Line Trail(link). If you've been on the resulting alignment, you'll know that it is less than desirable.

    It would also be worth exploring public vs. private golf courses.

  4. Nathaniel M Hood

    Reuben – I totally agree with you on golf courses. It's spark a couple thoughts that I might blog about later. It might be a stretch, but I'm thinking we might need a Streets.MN urban golf outing? Best -Nate

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