The rainy morning had given way to bright sun, just in time for 32 old duffers to stretch out and take a position at their designated holes at the Hiawatha Golf Course, something they have been doing for more than two decades.
Among them were some of the Twin Cities most prominent black leaders, many now retired from jobs as businessmen, lawyers, and teachers. Former Vikings wide receiver John Henderson plays, as does Northwest Airlines’ first black pilot, Woody Fountain. They form an informal league that provides them with friendship, bragging rights and good humor, every summer Tuesday at 10 a.m.
The golf course, whose fairways undulated like a spongy bog following the rain, is under threat. Much of it is at or under sea level, which requires pumping 262 million gallons of water into nearby Lake Hiawatha every year to keep the course and surrounding homes dry. Minneapolis Park Board members must decide whether to keep pumping at that rate or reduce it to 94 million gallons a year, which would keep nearby homes dry but flood the course. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has jurisdiction over groundwater pumping and favors the reduced pumping option. That would wipe out the course and with it, a weekly ritual for the 32 friends.
“Last call,” someone yelled to the group, and they were off.
John J. Henry, a businessman and inventor, has been golfing with the group for four years and is nearly a scratch golfer. The guys joke that they should play the song “Blue Bayou” when he tees off because it feels like the golf ball “blew by you.”
“There’s a lot of power in that young man,” someone said as Henry took a mighty swing and sent the ball whizzing toward the first pin.
“Let’s rock ‘n’ roll, gentlemen,” Henry said as they jumped in their carts.
The group was started by Earl Bowman, who coached football and golf for Macalester and later became the president of Minneapolis Community and Technical College. Bowman started with 12 friends as a way to stay connected. The group they call the ONGL, or Old Negro Golf League, has grown and changed faces over the years as its members aged and a few, including Bowman, died.
Harry Davis Jr., a longtime civic leader and son of Harry Davis Sr., former school board member and civil rights activist, said the group chooses to play at Hiawatha because it’s a center point for the golfers, who live all across the Twin Cities. Many of them went to North High, Minneapolis Central or Roosevelt and learned the sport at Hiawatha, so the place holds good memories.
When the group formed, it was also a place where a black person could feel comfortable playing golf. “The management here is very close to the players,” said Davis. “They treat us very well.”
Davis said seeing the course literally go under water would be a shame.
“They’ve been talking about this for a few years,” he said. “They have been thinking of how they can be profitable in a cold weather state. Well, they can.”
Andrew Johnson, the Minneapolis City Council member who represents the area, said it’s more about the reality of the flooding. “This is a situation the Park Board inherited from a decision [to dredge the lake and make a golf course] long ago,” Johnson said. “Some said at the [Wednesday] meeting that we continue to invest in a decision that was wrong in the first place.
“The thing I don’t personally buy is that golf shouldn’t be a recreational activity” because of environmental concerns. “I think it is important to have a wide variety of opportunities in a city. I have heard from people who are golfers who have these experiences of how golf has had a big impact on their lives.”
Davis would be one of them.
“It’s a beautiful course,” Davis said. “I have friends from other states that stop at the airport on a layover, and if they have four hours they’ll take light rail here and play nine holes. We come for the conversation. It’s fun and you get together and keep up with everybody.”
Al Nuness, ex-Minnesota Gophers basketball star and former Central High School coach, has been golfing with the guys for about five years, when he’s not mentoring kids in Hopkins.
“This keeps you going. You get some exercise, you get to see your old friends — and rivals,” Nuness said, pointing at former North High basketball coach Alex Rowell.
John Robinson, who is retired from Control Data, shook his head when the subject of closing the course was mentioned. “That would not be good for us,” he said.
Despite pulling his tee shot and hitting a tree, Henry rallied for a par on the first hole. At the second tee, Davis lofted his shot down the middle of the fairway. Henry poked me and whispered, “Watch him strut.”
Davis walked confidently from the tee and Henry busted out laughing. “See, he hits a good one, then he struts.” Davis shot him a look.
This is why this refuge of green, with Minnehaha Creek running through it, is special to these guys. The golf, the camaraderie, the good-natured ribbing. It keeps them young.
Davis hit another beauty from the fairway.
“Look at him,” Henry said with a laugh. “He’s struttin’ again.”
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