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Why Hazeltine keeps nabbing huge events like the Ryder Cup

When golfers from the United States and Europe tee off against one another in the Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska this week, it will be a rare feather in the collective cap of the club's several hundred members.

Hazeltine will have been host to a U.S. Open, PGA Championship, Women's Open, Senior Open, U.S. Amateur and the Ryder Cup -- essentially the canon of American golf events outside of the Masters, which is always played at Augusta National. Only one other course, North Carolina's Pinehurst, can claim such a resume.

Not bad for a patch of scrubby farmland in once-rural (now suburban) Minnesota.

Hosting such events -- this week's Ryder Cup is projected to draw 250,000 people, including more than 800 working members of the media -- does not come without a price. Since last year, bulldozers and other heavy equipment have been frequent sights at the course, first pocking the lush landscape with concrete slabs upon which crews have since erected a small village of tents that is home to everything from restaurants to retail superstores.

For much of this summer, the club's 300 or so golfing members, who pay roughly $35,000 annually for the privilege to play the course, were required to hit from mats throughout the course. For the past several weeks, the golf club has banned golf altogether in an effort to keep the turf pristine for the 24 Ryder Cup players swooping in for a week from facing divot, at least not during their pre-competition practice rounds.

Membership has its privileges?

"It's kind of like habit at this point," says Patrick Hunt, a member of 22 years and general chairman of the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine. "An event comes and everyone starts volunteering and new members see that and they chip in."

FOUNDED FOR MAJORS

None of this is by accident. Hazeltine was established 54 years ago by Totton P. Heffelfinger, a former president of the U.S. Golf Association, with the express goal of building and maintaining a golf course "suitable for the conduct of national championships."

Yes, the exclusive golf club was founded not on the idea of a tony clubhouse where non-members weren't welcome, but with the very idea that every so often, a bunch of non-members come and take over the clubhouse.

Noted architect Robert Trent Jones created a long and challenging course. It opened for play in 1962, hosted the Women's Open in 1966, nabbed the U.S. Open in 1970, and the rest is history.

Well, not quite.

The 1970 U.S. Open featured a young and largely featureless course full of doglegs buffeted by winds that ripped across the northern prairie.

Players were not amused.

"It was really too young then," Al Geiberger, who played in that Open, recalled this summer. "It wasn't mature enough. ... They jumped the gun. It was too early for a major tournament. We all kind of agreed with Dave Hill. He was the only one that could say it. What did he say?"

What Hill famously said was this: "What it lacks is 80 acres of corn and a few cows. They ruined a good farm when they built this course."

REBIRTH AND REINVENTION

The club's leaders resolved to right the wrongs. After all, if the course couldn't host a U.S. Open, what was the point?

And so began a pattern at Hazeltine: Improve course and facilities. Host major event. Learn and assess. Improve course and facilities. Repeat.

The most enduring changes following the 1970 Open were in hole designs, straightening holes and removing blind shots. Among the results was a rebuilt 16th hole, a sweeping challenge alongside the course's namesake Lake Hazeltine, culminating in a green thrust into the water. It's now the course's most famous hole. (For this week's Ryder Cup, those closing holes have become the final holes of the front nine, the result of changes intended to make for a better spectator experience.)

Following successful hostings of the 1977 Women's Open and 1983 Senior Open, Hazeltine bagged its second U.S. Open in 1991.

By then, golf was becoming bigger -- both in terms of the distances players could hit the ball, and for the infrastructure needed to to host an event that would be broadcast to a growing TV audience. Many of the old country clubs of America found their resources strained by real estate and antiquated infrastructure.

Hazeltine took the proceeds -- the club generates income from events -- from the 1991 Open and bought up surrounding real estate, which at the time, remained farmland in Chaska, part of the rapidly growing west metro.

"That set us up wonderfully to get the 2002 PGA Championship," said Hunt, noting that by then, the Tiger Woods era of golf's greatest popularity had begun. "We had a property unlike any other. We could easily handle things like a 100,000-square-foot viewing platform."

In other words, Augusta can have its beauty, and The Country Club its history, but Hazeltine has something few venues can offer: Nearly unlimited space.

Last week, Derek Sprague, president of the PGA of America, surveyed the course from the commanding perch of the first tee, which is ringed with stadium-style seating to harness what will be a uniquely raucous crowd at the Ryder Cup. Following years of planning, it was Sprague's first viewing of the course all dressed up and ready to host. The sea of green fairway was bracketed by a fortress of red bunting -- red being the color of Team USA.

"Yes!" he said. "This is what we wanted. It's Hazeltine. You knew they could handle the Ryder Cup."

MISSION FOCUS

Of course, at the heart of a great golf event lies the course. Hazeltine boasts a beast of a track, measuring 7,628 yards.

During the 2002 PGA, parts of the course flooded, prompting the Chaska Fire Department to bring out a pumper truck. Learn and assess. The drainage was improved before the 2009 PGA Championship, which it hosted as well.

Following that event, the club essentially closed and undertook its most ambitious changes: $13 million in improvements. They included rebuilding all sand traps and the drainage systems associated with them, growing new grass in all the fairways, creating a new practice facility and building a new clubhouse.

"We may be the only clubhouse ever built under time and under budget," said Hunt.

The club's finances aren't public. Nor are its contracts with the PGA of America, which involve revenues generated from broadcast rights, sponsorship and merchandise sales. But Hunt said in the long term, it's a break-even venture, with the club using proceeds from major events to pay for past improvements.

"If we had to fund it purely as a membership, I don't know how our vision would be executed," he said, noting that only the biggest events generate significant revenues above expenses.

Throughout it all, the members -- some 300 golf members and a similar number of "social members" -- are on board.

"It's actually kind of simple and magical," said Hunt, the president and CEO of the Hunt Adkins advertising agency in Chicago. "I've been in business for over 30 years, and I don't know if I've ever seen a mission statement followed so closely. Members are committed, and sacrifice all the time. Everything is focused on what's next: What improvements to host what major event."

For the record, here are the championships Hazeltine has hosted:

1966 U.S. Women's Open Championship

1970 U.S. Open Championship

1977 U.S. Women's Open Championship

1983 U.S. Senior Open Championship

1991 U.S. Open Championship

1994 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship

1999 NCAA Division I Men's Championship

2001 USGA Men's State Team Championship

2002 PGA Championship

2006 U.S. Amateur Championship

2009 PGA Championship

2016 Ryder Cup

This article was written by Dave Orrick from St. Paul Pioneer Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Jace Frederick contributed to this report. 

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