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Payne Stewart
Payne Stewart won his first U.S. Open at Hazeltine in 1991, in an 18-hole playoff with Scott Simpson. (Cannon/Getty Images)

Five Decades of Excellence

Dating back to 1962, Hazeltine National Golf Club's impressive history includes a PGA Championship, two U.S. Opens, a U.S. Senior Open and two U.S. Women's Opens.

By Tom Brakke, Contributor

Fifty years ago this summer, Robert Trent Jones first set eyes on Hazeltine Lake and the surrounding area. He was in the Twin Cities for the 1959 PGA Championship at Minneapolis Golf Club and was taken to the Chaska area to view a plot of land that was intended to be a golf course.

The countryside was dotted with farms and nearby Pioneer Trail was nothing more than a gravel road. Chaska proper was a quaint town that hugged the Minnesota River a few miles away. Today, Chaska is a sprawling and rapidly-growing city, and the land that Jones surveyed is known as Hazeltine National Golf Club. This week it hosts the 91st PGA Championship, adding to a résumé of championships unmatched by any club its age.

One man who would not be surprised by the success of Hazeltine National was its founder, Totton Heffelfinger. A former president of the United States Golf Association, Heffelfinger was a demanding dreamer who sought to create a venue for championship golf in Minnesota, specifically an “out of town” companion course to The Minikahda Club, which was hemmed in by development and threatened by a freeway expansion.

Minikahda had hosted a U.S. Open, as had Interlachen Country Club (during Bobby Jones’ “Grand Slam” year of 1930), and two PGA Championships were conducted at Keller Golf Course in addition to the one at Minneapolis Golf Club. But Heffelfinger thought there was room for another championship course, and when Minikahda decided not to approve his plan, he set about to make it happen anyway.

He created Hazeltine National as a club with two main goals to guide the membership: to uphold the traditions of the game he loved and to host the professional and amateur championships that define excellence in the sport. In all respects, his vision has come true.

Hazeltine National members are ardent volunteers for the game, support a robust caddie program that has produced 39 Evans Scholars, maintain an award-winning junior golf program, play by the Rules of Golf (on which Heffelfinger was an expert), and preserve a culture of walking that has been lost at many other clubs. One member, Reed Mackenzie, followed in Heffelfinger’s footsteps to become president of the USGA. Each succeeding championship has shown that the golf course is a worthy test, the members and other volunteers set new standards for championship operations, and the golf fans turn out in great numbers.

One mark of the success of Heffelfinger’s dream is that you will often hear nonmembers say “we hosted” when they talk about the championships. Hazeltine National is a private club, but it is Minnesota’s home of championship golf.

It was originally to be called the Executive Golf Club of Minnesota, a name proposed by Robert Trent Jones, who hoped to create similar clubs around the country that would have reciprocal memberships with each other. Such bold thinking was typical of Jones, who in many ways revolutionized the craft of golf architecture and who was always looking for new concepts to exploit.

Unfortunately, this one was ahead of its time and no other Executive Clubs were ever built; the club then adopted its new name from Hazeltine Lake (which had been named for an early schoolteacher in the area). Jones gained fame through his original designs and his alterations of major championship venues like Augusta National and Oakland Hills, the site of Padraig Harrington’s victory in last year’s PGA Championship. His philosophy of “hard par, easy bogey” translated into demanding courses that rewarded strategic play and penalized heroic shots that were not executed with precision.

At Hazeltine National, he was given the opportunity to create a championship course, but the property available to the course was slightly smaller than it is today and Heffelfinger wanted to have a children’s course on the premises. To accommodate Heffelfinger’s wishes, Jones placed the children’s course between the first and ninth holes and created a series of sharp doglegs in the holes in the vicinity of the clubhouse. That decision would prove fateful.

An Emphasis on Championships
Shortly after the course opened for play, Heffelfinger began lobbying to host championships. The first USGA championship held at Hazeltine National, the 1966U.S. Women’s Open, was contested when the course was less than four years old. Patty Berg, the legendary Minnesota golfer, was both the honorary chair of the event and a competitor.

While Carol Mann, who had already won several tournaments during the year, and Mickey Wright, who carded the only under-par round the entire week, battled for the victory, it was ultimately unheralded Sandra Spuzich who came out on top. She birdied the 70th and 71st holes to clinch the win.

The next year brought the announcement that Heffelfinger’s specific goal, “to bring the National Open here,” was fulfilled with the awarding of the 1970U.S. Open. Many of the players who would play in that championship got an early preview when the 1967 Minnesota Golf Classic was played at Hazeltine National, the only time a regular tour event has been held at the club. Lou Graham won, and the difficult course produced the highest winning score relative to par on Tour that year.

The original design by Jones stretched to 7,410 yards, with all four par 5s exceeding 600 yards, extraordinary distances for the time. The Minnesota Golf Classic was played at “only” 7,234 yards, but with more length to work with and given the USGA’s reputation for difficult course set-ups, it was feared that Hazeltine National would pose an extreme test in 1970. As it was, the playing distance was reduced to 7,151 yards, but the 1970U.S. Open was dramatic nonetheless, and proved pivotal in Hazeltine’s history.

Bob Rosburg, who won that 1959 PGA Championship at Minneapolis Golf Club (and who recently passed away just short of its 50th anniversary), was among the players trying to figure out the raw Hazeltine National layout and its doglegs – so many doglegs, Rosburg said, that Jones “must have laid it out in a kennel.” When the first day of competition came, the weather cooled and the wind howled and the scores exploded. Some of the best players in the game couldn’t break 80 and emotions were laid bare.

After the second round, Dave Hill, who ultimately finished in second place, let out his frustration in the press tent. While he later said that he was trying to be critical of the USGA for choosing a course that was too young to host an Open, his remark that all it lacked was “80 acres of corn and a few cows” would damage Hazeltine National’s reputation and hurt its chances to fulfill its mission to host major championships for many years. Meanwhile, Tony Jacklin, who had shot 71 that difficult first day, stayed above the media fray and won by seven shots.

The decade that followed was precarious for Hazeltine National, with financial difficulties endangering the club’s prospects for survival and the stigma of the U.S. Open impeding efforts to secure future major championships. It also marked the end of its formative era, during which Heffelfinger had dominated the club’s affairs. Change was afoot, nowhere more visibly than on the golf course.

The modifications were minor at first. Jones repositioned some tees to make the doglegs less severe and the dramatic slopes in a few greens were softened. The basic routing remained the same, however, even as the USGA and The PGA of America were courted in the hopes of securing future championships. Top players were also sought out for their opinions on changes that should be made.

In 1977, the last championship was held on the original course. The Women’s Open returned and the crowds were captivated by a young player in her first Open as a professional. Her name was Nancy Lopez and her play at Hazeltine National gave a hint to what was to come in her breakout year of 1978. In the Open, she fell two strokes short of a victory in the championship that eluded her.

Hollis Stacy had a game suitable to Hazeltine National and to the Open, and she won her first of three titles to go along with the three consecutive U.S. Girls’ Junior Championships that she had claimed. Modifications to the Course

After the Women’s Open, the changes to the golf course began in earnest. With the addition of a small amount of land and the elimination of the children’s course, Jones reconfigured the holes around the clubhouse, eliminating the doglegs on the first, ninth and 18th holes, and transforming the par-3 eighth hole. It was on this revised layout that Lanny Wadkins won the one-day 1980 PGA Grand Slam of Golf.

Next came the modifications that created the hole that is Hazeltine National’s most famous. The original 16th was a downhill par 3 that played toward Hazeltine Lake. It was followed by the short and tricky par-4 17th hole. The new design integrated the lake into the golf course on the 16th hole, a demanding par 4 on which both the drive and the approach shot risk winding up in hazards, especially when the legendary Hazeltine wind is up. The green site of the old 17th hole was maintained, but a new tee was built, converting it into a par 3.

The first championship played on the new Hazeltine National was the fourth U.S. Senior Open in 1983. It was a tremendous success, with Billy Casper winning in a playoff versus Rod Funseth. Casper and others who had played in the 1970 Open faced a different golf course than they had before, and its rave reviews led to the awarding of the 1991U.S. Open.

Another transition would take place prior to that championship, as Rees Jones, the son of Robert Trent Jones, made the modifications to the golf course that were needed to prepare it for the best players in the world (as he has continued to do in subsequent years).

Payne Stewart came into that Open having missed the Masters due to injury and with few prospects for victory. Yet he played masterfully. His 57 pars were the most of any player, and he finished strong each day, in contrast to many in the field, for whom the final three holes were costly. Tied with Scott Simpson after 72 holes, Stewart won the Monday playoff to win his first U.S. Open.

Fresh off of the success of the Open, Hazeltine National looked for the next major opportunity (and purchased adjacent land to support the infrastructure needed), and hosted a number of notable amateur championships. In 1994, Tim Jackson defeated Tommy Brennan, 1-up, to win the U.S. Mid-Amateur. Five years later, the leading collegiate golfers played in the Division I Championship, with current professionals Luke Donald of Northwestern winning the individual title and Ryuji Imada leading Georgia to the team championship.

The 2001 USGA State Team Championships were played in Minnesota to celebrate the centennial of the Minnesota Golf Association. Hazeltine National hosted the men’s championship, which fittingly was won by the Minnesota team of John Harris, John Carlson, and Jered Gusso. Amazingly, the Minnesota women also won (at Woodhill Country Club), making Minnesota the first state to win both titles in the same year.

The following year, the PGA Championship came to Hazeltine National for the first time. In the 12 years since 1991, the course had been lengthened, but it still played at less than its original yardage. Despite his hopes for a calendar Grand Slam having been dashed at the British Open at Muirfield, Tiger Woods dazzled the crowds with his remarkable shot from a fairway bunker on the 18th hole (which he said was his best ever) and the spectacular four-birdie end to his final round, arguably the greatest finish by a contender in major championship history.

He fell one shot short, as Rich Beem was propelled by an eagle on the 11th hole (the only one on that hole all week) and a birdie on the 16th to claim the Wanamaker Trophy. In 2006, the U.S. Amateur Championship was held at Hazeltine National for the first time, with stroke-play rounds also being held at the Chaska Town Course, where Billy Horschel became the first person to shoot 60 in a USGA championship. He followed it with a 78 at Hazeltine National to earn medalist honors, but the week belonged to Richie Ramsay, who captured the title with a match-play victory over John Kelly.

Ramsay became the first Scot to win the Amateur in more than a hundred years. This week, history will once again be made at Hazeltine National during the PGA Championship, and the 2016 Ryder Cup is on the horizon.

The golf sanctuary that Totton Heffelfinger envisioned did not come easily. The dream seemed realized in a rush of early success and then dashed, maybe forever. It was revived through years of sacrifice and hard work by the members of Hazeltine National. Today they play one of the most challenging courses in the game, across the rolling land that Robert Trent Jones saw in 1959. And for one week every few years, it is transformed into the center of the world of golf.

Let the roars begin.

Editor's Note: This story appears courtesy of The 91st PGA Championship Journal.


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