Minnesota Golf Architects
By RJ Smiley
In this chapter of Minnesota Golf History, Tee Times will add fuel to the fire of controversy and select the golf architect from Minnesota who had the biggest impact on Minnesota Golf History. Not the architect who built the best golf course.
Time and space will not allow us to mention every person who has ever designed a golf course in Minnesota. We have selected five architects who have their fingerprints on golf courses across the lakes, woods and prairies of Gopherland. Joel Goldstrand, Don Herfort, Kevin Norby, Garrett Gill and Tom Lehman have collectively designed, built or renovated over 200 golf courses in our state.
Fifty years from now when another writer is examining which golf course designer had the largest impact on Minnesota golf history Kevin Norby might be a finalists. Today, Kevin simply has not completed enough projects in Minnesota to be considered among the finalists. This takes nothing away from Norby’s ability or the quality of his work. Norby, who is currently the only active golf course architect living in Minnesota and a monthly contributor to Tee Times, missed the golf course boom of the 80s and 90s. Kevin was introduced to golf course architecture in 1990 when Don Herfort suffered a heart attack while working on the Superior National project. He asked Norby to help finish the work. Previous to that meeting, Norby was enjoying a career as a land planner and landscape architect. For the next 10 years, Norby worked with Herfort and together the duo was responsible for more than 80 projects throughout the central United States, Canada and the Caribbean. Norby is currently active in golf course projects across America, something Herfort intended to pursue. Don Herfort passed away in 2011 but Kevin has kept the “Herfort” name (Herfort-Norby) out of respect for his friend and mentor. Today, Kevin Norby specializes exclusively in the design of golf courses and long-range master planning for golf courses. For a sample of Norby’s fine work in Minnesota, spend a day at Greystone, The Refuge and Boulder Pointe. This author’s favorite Norby course is the nine-hole addition to Redwood Falls Golf Club in Redwood Falls, MN. That course is truly one of the golf’s best-kept secrets!
Another golf architect who did not make the cut for the finals is Garrett Gill, who actually lives in and works, just across the river, in River Falls, WI. Gill along with Tom Lehman are better known for golf projects completed throughout the U.S. than their Minnesota courses. Many golf purists would argue that Garrett Gill has the most impressive resume of great Minnesota golf courses including: Meadows at Mystic Lake, Willinger’s Golf Club, Legends Golf Club and Highland National Golf Club. Gill also takes credit for the very imaginative work at beautiful White Eagle Golf Club (WI). Every time I play Willinger’s, I think that if the USGA staged a national championship there, with long rough and rock-hard slick greens, few if any would match par. What a great test!
Tom Lehman, Alexandria native and a person that every Minnesota golfer claims to know, has completed a short list, but a very impressive list, of wonderful golf courses in Minnesota. The majority of Minnesota golfers will not have the opportunity to witness all of Lehman’s great work because three of his five Minnesota courses are private. GreyStone Golf Club in Sauk Center and Troy Burne Golf Club, located just across the river in Hudson, WI are the two public access courses where golfers can get the flavor of a Lehman design. Golfers will feel the Augusta National influence that is present in all Lehman designed courses, even though he never won The Masters. His three private courses are TPC Twin Cities in Blaine, Somerby Golf Club in Byron and Wind Song Farm Golf Club in Independence. Tom’s golf courses have earned a national reputation as great courses for big tournaments, where if a player has a flaw in his game – it will be exposed. Another small but very impressive piece of Lehman work, that most golfers will never experience, is the practice facility for the U of M golf team – designed, built and paid for by Tom. Lehman has also completed extremely good work at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon and the Gallery Golf Club near Tucson, AZ.
That leaves two Minnesota golf course architects, Joel Goldstrand and Don Herfort (neither active), who Tee Times believes are in a photo finish for having the biggest impact on Minnesota golf history. EVERYDAY TENS OF THOUSANDS OF MINNESOTA GOLFERS ENJOY THEIR COURSES. These two prolific designers come to golf course design from totally different directions and with completely different course signatures. To relate their work to noted artists, Goldstrand would be Picasso while Herfort would be Rembrandt.
As a kid, Goldstrand was a golf hero who won high school titles and then was part of an NCAA golf dynasty at Houston University. After college Goldstrand played several years on the PGA tour and competed in The Masters. Herfort was an accountant working for 3M when Tartan Park, their employee’s golf course, was in the planning stage. “Right from the start, I didn’t think the guy they had hired to build the course knew what he was doing. It was like the whole thing was wrong.” Herfort said in an October 2008 interview with Minnesota Golfer magazine.
Those comments and a few personal interviews with the strong willed and super confident Herfort led 3M’s executives to hire him to design and develop its golf course, even though he had no experience designing and building a course. He took on the challenge.
Word quickly spread of Herfort’s vision in designing 3M’s Tartan Park. He soon left 3M to establish Don Herfort, Inc. where over his 40-year career; he became Minnesota’s most prolific golf course architect, designing more than 140 courses in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan and North and South Dakota. Some of his most famous courses include: Dellwood Hills, Indian Hills, River Oaks, Como, Phalen and Superior National.
An interesting quote (that shows Herfort’s personality) from Ron Witten, GolfDigest course rating director, “I spoke to Don Herfort briefly that day at the Open at Hazeltine and while I don’t remember much of our conversation, I do remember two distinct impressions of the man. First, he must have big cajones to be criticizing Robert Trent Jones’s work while ‘the man’ himself was on the property. Second, he had clearly learned from Trent, for he was seizing an opportunity to promote himself and his work.”
This author recalls talking with Herfort when he explained, “Golf course design is just a matter of cuts and fills. Every time you move a yard of earth you must have a place for it!”
I had the privilege to work with Joel Goldstrand on two golf course projects, the Links at NorthFork, Ramsey, MN and Blueberry Pines, Menahga, MN. The thing I remember most – The Blueberry Pines site was an old Christmas tree farm with pine trees of all sizes and a lot of terrain change. Joel took a clipboard and a topography map and vanished into the woods. Four hours later he returned with a roughed-out routing plan for the course. The plan never changed. When you play this beautiful masterpiece it is hard to believe that a man could have such a vision in such a short time. Goldstrand got a huge break and proved how good he really is when Fred Boos selected him to design The Pines at Grand View Lodge. That one golf course was the beginning of GREAT GOLF IN THE BRAINERD LAKES REGION. The vision of Boos and the Goldstrand design brought national (golf) attention to region.
Goldstrand, who worked mostly on lower budget projects, proved to be one of the most prolific golf course designers with over 80 courses to his name. Many of the projects simply ran out of money and could not complete as designed. If those courses had completed Goldstrand’s design, he would have many more considered great, not just good.
In the final analyses we have called the match between Herfort and Goldstrand all square. Let the match continue and be reviewed again and again. These two fine designers were truly artists – the ultimate winner will be seen in the eyes of those who choose to pay to play their creations.