The Queen – Gross National Golf Club
By R.J. Smiley
The story behind Gross National Golf Club, opened in 1925, reads like a modern day soap opera. Gross was the troubled child, but like many troubled children she turned out great when she grew up. Like its two older siblings Wirth and Columbia, Gross National Golf Club (originally Armour Golf Course), was the creation of Theodore Wirth and William Clark. However, this time the idea for the golf course was not that of Theodore Wirth. This time, the golf course idea was presented to Wirth by the Armour Meat Packing Company (from Chicago); who owned 800 acres along what is now St. Anthony Boulevard where they had once planned to build a meat packing facility. Armour offered to sell the land for the golf course to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) and pay for construction of the golf course. The debt was to be paid off from revenue produced by the golf course. Debt service requirements were set at a modest 4.5% interest annually on the outstanding balance.
With the huge success of Wirth Golf Club and Columbia Golf Club, Wirth thought it was a no-brainer and assured the citizens of Minneapolis that no taxpayer money would be spent. Until the depression hit!! Golf rounds dropped!! Then “The War” came!! Golf rounds did not come back! All MPRB courses were losing money!
During all this turmoil Armour Company actually paid for a new irrigation system for the golf course and added the amount to the debt balance, hoping rounds would increase. MPRB still could pay the annual interest.
In 1947, 22 years after the opening of the golf course, Armour notified MPRB that the note was in default and they had thirty days to pay off the full amount or the title would revert to Amour. MPRB bonds were issued and each of the MPRB golf courses would be accessed 10¢ per round until the bonds were paid in 1967.
Fast forward to today! Gross National Golf Club is believed by almost all Twin Cities golfers to be the most “pure golf course” among the family of MPRB courses. With a few course improvements and the relocation of four tees to lengthen the course, Gross was chosen to host the 1964 USGA National Public Links Championship. Gross was coming of age! For the 60 years since inception, Gross, the troubled child, had trailed all other MPRB courses in rounds played, then in 1987 Gross set an all-time record for rounds played at any Minneapolis course at 62,000. Think about that for a minute – in seven months between April and October there are 210 days, figuring no rain days. That means that 295 golfers per day played Gross. That number broke the old record of 58,000 rounds played at Hiawatha in 1963.
So, why do golfers love to play Gross? This author believes that the original design was perfect for the parcel of land owned by Amour. Unlike the other siblings, Wirth, Meadowbrook and Hiawatha, that were very swampy and the high ground was used for the greens, Gross was perfect for a golf course. William Clark copied the courses of renowned architect, Donald Ross and built slightly elevated greens with bunkers cut into the face and side of the green complex. What Gross gives golfers is a good routing plan that fits the property with mature trees and beautiful targets for greens. It is a course that stands up to the modern day equipment. Gross is a golf course that plays differently as the seasons and the wind change. Gross could stand a little spit shine like most older courses, but for a fun round of golf on an interesting piece of property nothing in the MPRB family beats it.
The MPRB added to golfers enjoyment with a new clubhouse opened in 1985. With the affiliation of The First Tee Program, Gross now provides wonderful recreational opportunities for Twin Cities’ youth. That is exactly what Theodore Wirth envisioned for all his children.