Midland Hills Country Club
Master Plan Process
Seth Raynor, Architect of Midland Hills
Midland Hills’ Clubhouse, 1921
“Remember that our club is still in the making and that we want to make it such a club that because of the physical exercise in the open, because of the good friendship and good sportsmanship, you are a better companion, more efficient in your daily life and a greater source of happiness in the family circle.”
1920 Annual Meeting Notice
The year was 1919. The Twenties were about to roar, and golf was exploding in popularity, when a group of University of Minnesota professors and local business leaders met to develop plans for a new 18-hole golf course on farmland adjacent to the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus. At that time, the 110-acre Walsh farm and an adjacent 40-acre tract were available for lease, and the club members executed a 20-year lease on these properties to build their golf course.
Original MHCC Layout (clubhouse in rectangle, off Eustis Street; range at arrow)
The newly formed club hired Seth Raynor, a protégé of the great Charles Blair Macdonald, who was the father of American golf-course architecture and the winner of the first U.S. Amateur, in 1895.
Macdonald, a wealthy Chicagoan, had attended the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland. While there, he fell in love with golf – and, under the tutelage of Old Tom Morris, set out to study the great courses of the United Kingdom. When he returned to America, there was nowhere to play! So he took it upon himself to become the first American golf-course architect.
His masterwork — his “ideal course” — was the National Golf Links of America, on Long Island, New York. Each of its holes was modeled after one of the European holes Macdonald considered best. These were the so-called “template” holes that would appear in course after course throughout Macdonald’s career.
Macdonald hired Seth Raynor, a local construction engineer, to build the National Golf Links of America — and Raynor learned his lessons well. He went on to co-design many courses with Macdonald, until he was ready to go out on his own.
Raynor’s designs, like Macdonald’s, featured the “templates” from the National – not copies, but renditions using the same design strategies superimposed on a variety of landscapes and natural surroundings. For instance:
- Our No. 2 is a Road hole, modeled after the 17th hole at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
- Our No. 7 is an Eden, after the 11th at the Old Course at St. Andrews.
- Our No. 12 is a Biarritz, a tribute to the 3rd hole at the Biarritz resort in France.
- The bunkers on our 14th hole are the Alps bunkers, from the 17th at Prestwick in Scotland.
- Our 16th hole is a version of the original Redan, the 15th hole at North Berwick in Scotland.
- Until the clubhouse moved to its current location, we had a classic Short hole — a short par-3, modeled after the 5th at Brancaster, with a plateau green surrounded by bunkers. (It played from our current 1st tee, as you can see on the map of the original layout.)
Raynor had been hired to design the Somerset Country Club golf course in Mendota Heights. After viewing the rolling hills of the future Midland Hills, he was excited to take on Midland’s design for the princely sum of $1,500.
Midland’s golf course construction began on July 15, 1920. A founding member and University mathematics professor, Ralph Barton, supervised the course construction and reported directly to Raynor.
A crew of local laborers was organized: 33 men and three teams of horses. Rocks were removed, often by hand. An old tractor was used to shape tees, while the crew dug the bunkers by hand. Greens were raked and covered with topsoil. The club held work festivals each weekend, so that members could pitch in with the project.
The course opened for play on July 23, 1921.
Midland’s Clubhouse and Fairway Mower, 1935
Raynor designed and remodeled only about 100 courses, including Midland Hills. He died of pneumonia at just over 50 years old, in 1926. Compare that to the 400-plus courses Donald Ross designed, and it’s evident we are the stewards of a rare piece of golf history — history stretching back not just to 1919, but for centuries, and across the Atlantic.
Raynor is now recognized as one of the top golf architects in history. Thirteen of his designs or redesigns are in Golfweek magazine’s Top 100 Classic Golf Courses in the U.S. These courses have created Master Plans, which led to restoring and renovating, promoting Seth Raynor’s original intentions and strategies. (Thank you to Jon Cavalier (@LinksGems) for photos.)
Fishers Island (Fishers Island, New York) #9
Chicago Golf Club (Wheaton, Illinois) #10
Shoreacres (Lake Bluff, Illinois) #14
Fox Chapel Golf Club (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) #67
Yeamans Hall (Hanahan, South Carolina) #46
Piping Rock Club (Matinecock, New York) #21
Mountain Lake (Lake Wales, Florida) #69
St. Louis Country Club (St. Louis, Missouri) #64
Sleepy Hollow Country Club (Briarcliff Manor, New York) #57
The Creek Club (Locust Valley, New York) #79
Yale (New Haven, Connecticut) #49
Camargo (Cincinnati, Ohio) #18
Country Club of Fairfield (Fairfield, Connecticut) #89
In fact, Raynor’s work was already so highly regarded in the 1920s that he was hired to design Cypress Point in California. He managed to complete the routing, but died before he could complete the design. The course was finished by Alister MacKenzie, who kept most of Raynor’s original design and routing. George Bahto, golf historian and Raynor expert, said that MacKenzie acknowledged that it was Raynor who had designed the famous 16th hole at Cypress Point.
Fast-forward to 2018. Most of Midland’s golf course is now 98 years old — an impressive run, already. Over that century, the golf course and membership have evolved, but one thing has been constant: The golf course is the engine that brings great people together. The professors’ original idea — hiring one of the greats to design a golf course that would endure the test of time, provide a fantastic walk and create as much camaraderie as sport — has been a pillar of Midland Hills’ success.
A golf course is a living, breathing, evolving thing, and since its opening on July 23, 1921, our course has never stopped changing — often, but not always, for the better. Nothing built of soil keeps its shape forever. The golf course’s soil foundation itself moves ever so slowly. Over 98 years, it has slowly moved a lot — aided by maintenance practices such as topdressing and aerification, and by winter freeze/thaws, heavy rains, and erosion.
Earliest known aerial of Midland Hills, 1937
Below is a comparison from 1945 to 2015. Note how much narrower many of the fairways are today. (Examples: No. 10 & 14.) Note how much closer to the greens some of the greenside bunkers are. (Examples: 2 & 5.) Note how much smaller some of the greens are. (Examples: 13 & 14.) Also, note that tree plantings have already occurred from 1937 to 1945, specifically around holes 2, 3, 5, and 8.
We know that not all of Raynor’s architectural features ever came to fruition. Raynor was not on site continuously to supervise the construction; that was one factor — as was a shortage of money as opening day approached.
What we also know, from the history of his other courses, is that Raynor courses which had the proper funding and site supervision became masterpieces.
By 1943, with the U.S. at war, membership numbers fell. What happened at Midland, as at most clubs, was that several key design elements of the course were removed to save time and labor. Greens and fairways shrunk, tees were eliminated, bunkers were buried and grassed over.
As the economy picked back up after the war and started to boom, those key architectural elements were forgotten — or were not considered important enough to restore. In the 1950s, as the “Keep America Beautiful” campaign gained steam, tree planting took off in national, state and city parks. Homeowners caught on as well, planting trees on their boulevards and yards.
Planting trees on golf courses was also popular, especially at Midland Hills. The members and the management planted non-native trees (pine, spruce, ash), without any regard to the angles of play Raynor had created, and with no regard to what would happen to the contours and grass lines when those trees matured. Slowly, over several decades, the thousands of trees grew larger — and all the while, the golf course’s corridors narrowed and green complexes shrunk. Raynor’s original architecture — offering many alternative lines of play — fell victim to a one-dimensional variety of golf, rewarding shots straight down the middle between walls of trees.
This phenomenon happened to most Classic-era parkland courses in the United States. The recent trend of removing trees — restoring the original corridors and strategies — has the added benefit of improving turf health and vitality.
Midland Hills, 2004
As part of the process of discovering our past, in 2005 we hired the late George Bahto, an expert on the golf courses of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor, to review Midland Hills for us. Bahto was succinct in his analysis. He told us that we were fortunate to be playing a Seth Raynor golf course, but that our course was missing some essential elements of a Raynor course; that, owing to early financial difficulties, a number of Raynor’s template holes were non-existent or had become unrecognizable. He said that Raynor’s typical fairway bunkers had either not been constructed or had been removed, that the relocation of the clubhouse in 1960 necessitated the removal of three holes, and that the new holes weren’t “Raynor-like.”
Combine all of these factors — (a) 98 years of natural evolution and maintenance practices; (b) not implementing all of Seth Raynor’s design elements because of budget constraints; (c) removing several design elements during the war years to save on labor; and (d) mass tree plantings — and it is easy to understand why, even though we all love Midland Hills, the course is not everything that it could be, nor what others experience as they play Seth Raynor’s best golf courses.
Since 2007, we have been working diligently to improve the condition of the golf course and property. Our turf was unacceptable because of all the trees competing for sunlight, nutrients and water. As trees were removed and land was uncovered, the turf and playability improved, and we rediscovered many of the vistas that Raynor saw when he routed the golf course. This campaign of improved maintenance started to show us, anew, what a special piece of property we have — so special that Raynor, not known for overstatement, called it one of the best pieces of land he’d ever laid a golf course on.
Over the past decade, we have started to renovate the course based on our best intentions. Tees were lengthened; trees were removed; several greens were expanded; and fescue/native-grass areas were planted.
That is where we stand — with a golf course which has been improving year after year, but which is still neither the course Seth Raynor envisioned, nor the best course our property and our finances would allow. Our course has started to get some overdue praise — but is still listed well down the lists of best Minnesota golf courses. We can do better.
But we need help to get us there. There are no golf-course architects among the staff or membership of Midland Hills. As we’ve been making our best amateur judgments regarding tree removals, fairways, native/fescue grass lines, green expansions, etc., it has become very clear that we require the services of an expert who understands classic golf-course architecture, strategy, construction and maintenance, and who is sensitive to the needs of all players — young and old, male and female, and low- and high-handicap. We need someone who has studied Seth Raynor and updated his golf courses, and who can help us improve and then protect the heritage of the course, so that it will no longer be subject to the “well-intentioned but sometimes misguided” Committees and Boards.
Over the past two years, the Greens Committee and Board of Directors have been discussing Midland’s current standing in the Twin Cities golf market, and how to position the club for future generations of members — to secure our success in the long run, with continued vitality. Our golf course is our principal asset, and it needs continual upgrades — just like our clubhouse and turf equipment. The cost of “doing nothing” is unacceptable for the long-term success of Midland’s vision.
We believe that now is the ideal time to prepare a Master Plan for the golf course — to take our very good Raynor golf course and make it one of the country’s indisputably excellent Raynor courses. What we envision is a blend of restoration and renovation — you could call it “restovation” — that will help us stand out in a competitive golf market.
We are happy to announce that we have chosen Jim Urbina, a renowned architect with deep experience at Classic-era golf courses, to help us create a Master Plan that will restore Seth Raynor’s design principles to Midland Hills, with conscious regard to the game of golf as it’s played in 2018.
Jim has an extensive background in creating Master Plans, in Classic-era course renewal, and in course construction and maintenance. His resume includes work at: Yeamans Hall, The Camargo Club, Shoreacres, Chicago GC, Mid Ocean GC, San Francisco GC, The Valley Club of Montecito, Pasatiempo, Rockville Links Club, Sankaty Head, Bob O’ Link GC, Garden City GC, and Paramount GC.
Jim has studied most of the great Raynor designs, and has completed renovations at some of the most highly regarded Raynor clubs. His construction background, working several decades with Pete Dye, then Tom Doak, gives him a unique skill-set: the knowledge of how to design features that not only are playable by golfers of all skill levels, but also are maintainable within our resources.
Jim is a very hands-on design/build architect — and an excellent communicator, skilled at conveying the reasons behind the changes he will recommend. Interviewing leaders of clubs where he has worked reaffirmed that we’ve made the right choice. All of them raved about his work; all of them reported very satisfied memberships. Jim worked with numerous clubs that found their golf courses in the same situation as Midland: tired from 100 years of use and in need of direction going forward.
For more information on Jim Urbina, visit his website: www.jimurbinagolf.com
The Greens Committee and Board of Directors brought Jim in for a site visit in June 2016, to look at the golf course, give us his expert opinion on the changes in the golf course over the past 98 years, discuss what it would take to restore and renovate properly, and, most importantly, visualize how we can maximize the enjoyment of the golf course for all levels of members today and tomorrow.
The following is a rough timeline of how Jim will complete the Master Plan process.
Master Plan Process Timeline
April 2018 — Midland Hills will hold a Town Hall meeting for all members to come hear Jim Urbina discuss Seth Raynor golf architecture, what a Master Plan entails, how it is carried out, and what changes might occur.
May/June 2018 — Jim will visit Midland Hills for several days, researching/documenting hole-by-hole, playing the golf course with players of various skill levels, and meeting with club personnel to learn about the course and how it plays.
June/July 2018 — Jim will use information from his research to develop a preliminary Master Plan, to present to the Master Planning Committee. After discussions, and incorporating any agreed-upon changes, a final Master Plan will be developed. This Master Plan will clearly state all work objectives, and will outline specifications, costs, and a schedule of priorities.
July/August 2018 — Jim will return to Midland to present the Master Plan to the membership.
September 2018 — Pending approval, the Greens Committee and Board of Directors will decide on an implementation plan of the Master Plan. A timeline for the work selected in the Master Plan will be agreed upon.
This is a very exciting time at Midland Hills. We are confident we are heading into a prosperous future, having hired Jim Urbina to study our golf course and unlock its potential.
Golf courses across the country are rediscovering their heritage, especially those courses that were designed by the great architects — C.B. Macdonald, Donald Ross, A.W. Tillinghast and Seth Raynor. These courses have undergone renovations, not to restore original routings or make them more difficult, but to update them and make them more fun to play, bolstering their ability to attract and retain members.
Frequently Asked Questions
We understand there will be several questions about the process:
- Will there be an assessment?
- The Audit and Finance Committee and Board of Directors have a plan to be able to do the project with no assessments.
- Will the course close for the work?
- The entire course would never close. Worst case, we would close nine holes after Labor Day, in each of two consecutive fall seasons. That is the most efficient and economical way to manage any construction.
- Would we get better bunker sand during this process?
- The bunkers and sand in them will be part of evaluating the course and prioritization of the Master Plan.
- Have we already committed to the work?
- We are committed to the Master Plan, but to nothing beyond that.
- Will we be re-routing the course back to the original?
- It’s possible that Jim Urbina will propose restoring some lost template holes, but the original routing is now impossible.
- Will bringing back more Raynor to the course just make it more difficult?
- That is certainly not the goal. The goal is to make the golf course more interesting. Some holes might become harder; some might become easier! Strategy will become more consistent throughout all holes.
- Why do this when I already enjoy the course as it is?
- We all enjoy the course as it is. That’s why we are members. The goal of the Master Plan process is to wind up with a unique Seth Raynor course that you and your guests will enjoy even more. In the long run, that is what will guarantee Midland Hills’ ability to attract new and retain current members, and prosper well into the future.
We urge you to attend the Town Hall meeting in April to meet Jim Urbina, discuss the history of Seth Raynor golf-course architecture, and learn more about the process for completing our Master Plan. In the meantime, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask them.
The Midland Hills Board of Directors and Greens Committee