Minnesota’s reputation as a national leader when it comes to excitement for golf spectating reached its zenith in the fall of 2016, when the Ryder Cup arrived at Hazeltine National and created what surely was the greatest cash grab in the history of the PGA of America.
The 50,000-plus that were allowed on the course daily from Friday to Sunday emptied a phenomenally large merchandise tent, consumed as much beer per capita as visitors to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and caused NBC golf announcer Dan Hicks to repeat several times over this past weekend that they were the loudest golf crowds he has ever heard.
Yeah, an average blood alcohol content of .215 for the 25,000 males between ages 18 and 45 in attendance did have a tendency to create memorable roars, not to mention nonsensical bellowing.
The profits were outrageous, the competition was one-sided in the United States’ favor over Europe, and Hazeltine became the first American golf course to receive a second Ryder Cup — scheduled for 2028.
There was also a deal made to host the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, an event started in 1955 as the LPGA Championship and adopted by the PGA of America in 2015.
Hazeltine was named the 2019 host, and the best women’s players in the world arrived in Chaska last week. Those players were last here in 2008, for the U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen.
Maybe it was the acreage on which the competition took place that made the crowds appear so much larger. Maybe it was because Michelle Wie, then 18 and still the phenom-to-be, brought in the curious rather than just the golf fans.
Perhaps it was the branding: U.S. Open. Easy to understand that it’s as big as it gets in women’s golf. The KPMG Women’s PGA — not as simple to grasp in importance.
Plus, there’s also the fact that 10 days from Sunday, a PGA Tour event returns to the Twin Cities after a 50-year absence with the 3M Open at TPC Twin Cities. Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka are both announced to be here, cross tournament boss Hollis Cavner’s heart and hope they make the 36-hole cut.
Take your choice of options. The bottom line is Minnesota’s reputation as a golf mecca took a hit over the four days of this tournament at Hazeltine, our home to championship golf, with small galleries.
How small were they?
I was on the course for a couple of hours Saturday and again Sunday, and never encountered a drunk. Heck, when we were leaving the course 2½ hours after the Ryder Cup, I distinctly remember seeing one of those still sleeping under a tree.
This is golf, of course, so we will be assured the crowds were excellent, and KPMG, the LPGA and the PGA of America can’t wait to come back, and Hazeltine can’t wait to have them return.
And that’s fine, but it doesn’t change the fact there were far fewer spectators than you would anticipate in allegedly golf-crazy Minnesota.
Eight thousand per day on the weekend? That would be a reasonable guess.
Go back 11 years to Interlachen, and the ball is now being hit much farther by the women, just as it would be in a comparison for the men. As Mark Craig pointed out in a Star Tribune piece last week, Lorena Ochoa was the driving distance leader for the 2008 season at 269.3 yards — and that would be 30th in today’s LPGA.
So, there’s power. There’s more great players than ever, as with the men. And there was a great underdog story all week when Australia’s Hannah Green — rated No. 114 in the world — took the lead with a 68 on Thursday and held on through a nerve-racking final hole.
It has been over two decades (1998) since Se Ri Pak arrived from South Korea and won both the U.S. Open and the LPGA.
We Minnesota golf fans who keep getting patted on the back should have accepted long ago that this is the most international of golf competitions. And having all the best in the world here is a good thing, right?
I have confidence in us. I’m choosing to believe it was a week with too many graduation parties for relatives to attend, too much rain in the forecast, too much competition with the inaugural 3M Open around the corner.
Whatever the reason, the crowds were small by Minnesota’s lofty standards to take in the wonderful tale of an ultralong shot getting up-and-down from a short-sided bunker on the 72nd hole to win by one stroke over the defending champion (Sung Hyun Park).
Take your seat, Hannah Green, next to Rich Beem and Y.E. Yang at Hazeltine, home of improbable PGA champions, and we’ll try to be more appreciative if and when you return with the rest of the best.