St. Paul Cornerstones – Como Park GC and Phalen Park GC
By Rhett Arens
The history that abounds in St. Paul’s golfing storybook is probably on par (no pun intended) with any of the great cities on the east coast. There are a handful of clear standouts in this group including Town & Country Club (1888) and Keller Golf Course (1929). As you can see, there is historical significance in this town. Several courses that snuggle alongside these stalwarts serving the eastern side of the Twin Cities with pride are Como Park Golf Course (1929) and Phalen Park GC (1924). Sure, these two don’t look anything like they did when they opened back in the day, but you can definitely feel the rich history as you navigate their fairways hunting for a few lost birdies. The old-timers who tee-off in the early mornings on these courses will tell you stories until the cows come home.
What’s important today is fun! The type of fun that comes with spending four hours playing with friends and one hour securing your bragging rights after the round over a couple pitchers of cold beer. Fun is the not-so-secret ingredient that General Manager Chris Bettinger is most concerned with. This won’t surprise anyone who has recently walked up to the Como Clubhouse to start a round where the music is playing, the smiles are sincere, and the inside jokes are flying around like errant wedge shots out of a bunker. Chris exudes a positive energy that is contagious, maybe even a little infectious (I don’t want to scare anybody). In fact, his vibe has clearly rubbed off on his staff and chances are it will rub off on you as you square up to that first tee box with a little Tom Petty cranking in the background.
Chris is part of the management team that operates both Como and Phalen. He shares responsibilities with Tim Kuebelbeck over at Phalen and they both meet regularly with Food and Beverage Manager, Jon Olson. They compare notes and make sure all the cylinders are firing on the same stroke. This team crisscrosses paths and courses over the season sharing best practices, resources, and great ideas. One such example shared by Jon was the addition of a custom, locally sourced craft beer from Roseville based Bent Brewery called ‘Nordic Blonde.’ It has been a huge hit with players and non-players visiting the iconic clubhouses for a little liquid refreshment.
Como’s Cozy Pub is a midtown institution that serves up not only the Nordic Blond, but 40 other types of beer and hard seltzers. Sitting on the wrap around deck at the Cozy overlooking the 18th green is a favorite pastime. The burgers come out hot and juicy every time and the fryer goods always crispy. The staff at the Cozy put a lot of love into what they do and manage to keep the fun flowing.
These two courses come from a similar era, but over the years and through various iterations have arrived at a very different style of play today. Where Como has a selection of open, free-swing type holes; Phalen has shorter, tree-lined, doglegged testers. Both courses have matured beautifully over the years, and both offer their share of challenging spots as you navigate the 18-hole designs. Let’s take a look at each individually.
Como Park Golf Course has brought in a new superintendent, Dave Johnson. He’s not in charge of fun per se, but he is responsible for making the round play fun and he has hit it out of the park… playing conditions are great this year. Some reworked bunkers and strategic landscaping changes have improved playability, i.e. fun. The greens are running quick, but fair which helps when you hit a 3-hole stretch like 7, 8 and 9. If you can roll into the turn 1 or 2 over after this stretch you’ve put together a solid effort thus far. That series of holes never gets lazy or easy.
The back nine at Como holds some surprises and unique design features. The narrow and elevated (in both directions) par 4, #11 isn’t long (300 yards) but it’s still a tough par. That changes at the par 3, 16th where you get to watch that arcing iron or wedge come into a nice-sized green fronted by water. Pars abound here, so do geese and so does beautiful scenery, enjoy it all. The round closes with a par 5 that continuously curves to the right until you run out of fairway and need to hop the bridge. Laying up is really the way to play this hole, so put some faith in your short game coming in. Chances are good you’ll have an audience up on Cozy’s deck watching you, so finish with style.
Phalen Golf Course is a tree-lined oasis situated in the heart of the East Side. Those hundred-year-old oaks seem to do a great job dampening the surrounding city’s white noise while providing a shady canopy and plenty of opportunities to perfect your punch-out shots. The 3 and 4 irons will see some work as ending up under trees is inevitable across 18 holes of this parkland style beauty. The course is short by modern standards… thankfully! Many of the fairways bend around corners and many of the tee box looks are deceptive in their appearance. I’ve played the course many times and I’m still tempted to trim yardages at the doglegs, and I usually pay the price. It’s a great shot maker’s course with mid-irons and woods carrying much of the burden. Don’t worry the driver will see enough action.
The opening hole is a classic ‘feel good’ opener even if the green is tough to read, so go get your par 4 birdie here. The very long par 3, third hole is another story and there’s a good chance you will give that birdie back with a bogey here. I resign myself to it every time I play. The long par 4, number 7 is the toughest hole on the course, straight but finishing uphill onto a tilted green. Hey, golf wasn’t meant to be a cakewalk through the park.
The second half of the round is characterized by a series of tall trees encroaching on both sides of most fairways and some type of slight dogleg, either right or left. I like this set of nine holes as much as anything in town. Not only is it a mother nature’s delight, its risk reward challenge all the way through to the 18th green. The back nine closes with a banked right turn rising to a bunker protected green. Play it smart and the birdies may chirp for you here.
St. Paul has been a golf stronghold for decades. It’s where Minnesota put itself on the national map over at Keller. It’s where the titans of industry commiserated on deals at Town and Country. It’s where retirees and dedicated regulars march to the beat of the golfing drum every day. Stop in at either of these cornerstones this summer and maybe you’ll hear a bit of storytelling or maybe you’ll create a story of your own.