The Missing Links

A green sign on the east end of the National Sports Center in Blaine beckons young golfers with a verdant 18-hole putting course called “Tournament Greens.” On a late July afternoon, the course crawls with boys and girls as young as six years old practicing their putting. They wear lime-green T-shirts that advertise the Southwest YMCA in Eagan. They’re on a big field trip to learn a game that enthralls and frustrates millions of Americans, and they seem pleasantly amused while watching their balls roll lazily on perfect grass, oblivious to the noise of trucks and earthmovers tearing apart landscape beyond the chain-link fence surrounding the putting green.

The rolling brown hills and occasional thirty-foot-high dirt mountain beyond the fence reveal the beginning contours of fairways, tees, greens, berms, and sand traps. Just to the east of Tournament Greens and across Radisson Avenue, periodic dust storms whip up as trucks full of dirt and brush roll noisily by. A heavy-metal chorus of bulldozers and earthmovers can be heard braying. It’s hard to imagine now how this battered landscape will soon be Minnesota’s premier youth golf course and a training ground for future stars.

But it will. Proponents promise the 450-acre course will be a first-class facility and they hope it will introduce golf to a generation raised on skateboards, videogames, and other less noble sports. The project is being built by the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission, which operates the sprawling NSC complex in Blaine that also features soccer fields, ice rinks, and even a velodrome. In a tough year at the legislature, during which budget cuts were visited upon dozens of programs, the course project survived, in part because it is a product of a $3.1 million commitment legislators made back in 1998. But the effort has had its share of setbacks. The commission’s handling of it has raised a lot of hackles, earning an investigation by the state auditor’s office, a barrage of criticism from private golf-club owners, and the continued skepticism of legislators.

To Curt Walker, the course is a sham and a waste of taxpayers’ money. He points out that there are already three public golf courses in and around Blaine. They each have a program for junior golfers—as does every course in the metropolitan area. Walker is the executive director of the Midwest Golf Course Owners Association, which represents private golf course owners, many of whom are outraged by the construction of a course they say is not needed, competes with existing links, and looks to be far more difficult than most young golfers can handle. “We believe the allegation that golf is unavailable to youth through conventional means is bogus,” he says. “It’s interesting that the $3.1 million was supposed to go for a golf course in Blaine and there is still no golf course in Blaine.”

Walker’s not opposed to municipally owned golf operations, since he realizes that most players begin there and graduate to private clubs. What he sees emerging is a scenario where the youth course may allow adult golfers at some point. They will play on what amounts to a subsidized course for fees that could be lower than private courses can offer. He questions, too, whether the golf course is less about growing the game and more about the Sports Commission building a state-sponsored empire in Blaine.

The debate over the course hinges on a simple question: Do the Twin Cities really need another golf course? For that matter, does the state need any more golf courses anywhere? Even golf’s proponents find it hard to make a case for building another course at a time when—both nationally and locally—there are more than enough tee times to handle the demand.

Standing up to developers is something Minnesotans don’t do very well, but there seems to be a growing contingent willing to say no. And Minnesota’s not alone in bogeying golf developers’ plans; activists in New York and other states have fought the onslaught of tees and greens. They point to the sport’s dwindling number of participants and to a retrenchment in such golf capitals as Myrtle Beach, S.C., where links have died and been reborn as strip malls.

As it turns out, the national backlash, especially among environmentalists, has been inspired by locals. The Sierra Club’s national website prominently features efforts by activists here. Just a year ago, in Eagan, the City Council seriously studied turning a substantial part of its largest park, Patrick Eagan, into a championship golf course. An exploratory committee returned with a report carrying the sticker-shock-inducing sum of $20.9 million for land purchase and course development. Sensing a financial sand trap in the making, the council smartly scotched the concept.

Meanwhile, the Duluth City Council voted 5-4 in May to deny a proposal to build a golf and resort complex on Spirit Mountain, land considered sacred by Native Americans. Though Native Americans played a part in the defeat of the measure, many city residents joined a protest group to argue for preserving the lovely patch of undisturbed hardwood forest. Refusing to pull back from the fight, though, Duluth mayor Gary Doty still wants to continue exploring the issue after hearing from state officials that a course could be built if the city received land in exchange for it.

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