The 10 – Hiawatha Golf Club
By R.J. Smiley
|Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) golf courses that circled the thriving downtown area. With the experience gained from developing the four older siblings, one would think that the MPRB and Theodore Wirth would have had an easy time developing Hiawatha Golf Club, not so! 150 years ago Rice Lake (Lake Hiawatha) was a place where Native Americans harvested wild rice. Wirth, who hated marshland and swamps, envisioned Rice Lake (renamed Lake Hiawatha after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem Song of Hiawatha) as a perfect location for the fifth golf course for the MPRB. Construction of Hiawatha Golf Club was started in 1929 but the course was not open for play until 1934. Massive dredging was required to convert the swamp that was Rice Lake to the beautiful Lake Hiawatha that we enjoy today. The golf course was molded, contoured and shaped with the fill (dirt) created by dredging, forming the fairways, greens and tees that golfers still enjoy today, 80 years later. The original routing (architect unknown) for this now mature track has stood the test of time.
Because the golf course was originally a swamp, a constant battle continues with Mother Nature who wants to reclaim her wetlands from the everyday duffer. When Garrett Gill, modern golf architect, was brought in to improved the drainage by elevating some of the fairways and adding water hazards (as water collection areas) only minor routing changes were made to the original design. This summer, work on drainage continues with two temporary greens currently in play.
If Gross Golf Club is known by some as the finest golf course in the MPRB family, Hiawatha is known as the hardest. With small greens, tight fairways and elevated greens, this golf course is known to be the supreme test. If you played all the MPRB courses three times, the three scores at Hiawatha Golf Club would total the highest over par. Looking back at Hiawatha history, we see that the big money players from the past preferred Hiawatha over her siblings – as the true test. Those Friday afternoon “Big Hustle” games were made extremely interesting with the risk/reward, reachable par 5s on the back nine. If you really want to test your game take on Hiawatha from the blues.
In 1999, when Gill completed the work on the back nine, he was also commissioned to design and build a state of the art driving range and golf learning facility. The Fairway Foundation and the Minnesota Minority Junior Golf Foundation brought in Tiger Woods who made a special grand opening appearance. The state-of-the art driving range features 50 natural grass tee stations. All the improvements were part of a joint partnership between the MPRB and The First Tee (a national program that introduces kids to golf and the values that golf teaches), geared toward providing inner-city youth with the opportunity to participate in the great game of golf.
Today, Hiawatha Golf Club is thriving, with a golf course that is in better shape than ever and a Golf Learning Center that is anchored by The First Tee. Ask any long time Hiawatha regular golfer and they will tell you that in the old days (before the drainage improvements) the course was soft and swampy for most of the summer. These regulars, who love the layout, are amazed at how good the fairways are today. If you ask them for a one-word description of the golf course, the word most used would be “tough,” followed quickly with, “but fair.” When you add the water hazards that were created by Gill to the original natural hazards of Minnehaha Creek (that winds through the back nine, and the three holes that border Lake Hiawatha), you have plenty of risk/reward decisions to make starting on the first hole. Hiawatha is an easy walk but not an easy course in a beautiful old park. The next time you stand on the first tee at Hiawatha and look down the fairway with Lake Hiawatha in the background allow your mind’s eye to visualize the Native American people picking wild rice. Then imagine how proud Theodore Wirth would feel if he could see what his vision has produced for the citizens on the Twin Cities area.