Lester Park Golf Course

The 1932 rustic pagoda-style rain shelter built by Duluth WCA workers still stands on the Lester Park links  (Image: Zenith City Press)

Eighty Years of Golf at Lester Park

Since the course was dedicated, its history has been relatively quiet, which is expected with such a facility. The course has sponsored formal and informal leagues since the beginning, including a Men’s League, a Women’s League, a Senior’s League, the Lakeview Club, the Sunrise Club, and the “Red Caps” (another group of seniors), among others. The course has also hosted youth programs and countless tournaments, including charity scrambles and the annual Lakeview Medal, which is still played today.

Generations of Duluthians have enjoyed the course over the past 80 years—many of them learned the game at LPGC. They participated in tournaments, league play, youth programs, and informal outings with friends. For some, the course grew to become more to them than merely a place to play. While many of those have passed on, they are not forgotten—at least not on the golf course. Today, anyone playing Lester Park Golf Course can see its history on the tee box of nearly every hole, where either the hole sign or a bench is etched with the names of those who loved the course, particularly time spent there in the company of friends.

Andy Anderson retired in 1964, replaced by 10-year LPGC veteran Buck Wiley. Wiley stepped down just three years later, turning the reins over to Jim Anderson, Andy’s son, who at that point had 22 years of experience on the course—he started there in 1945 while still a student at Central High. Jim Anderson managed until his retirement in 1983, marking the end of 57 years of Anderson men maintaining Duluth’s municipal golf courses. Andy passed away in 1981, Jim in 2005. The greens on both courses are now seeded with PennCross bent.

Many others worked at the course over the years holding titles that included “manager,” “supervisor,” and “pros,” including Bill Rosen, Norm Johnson, Rick Liljedahl, Mark A. Carlson and others. Mary Thorene ran the pro shop in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Over the years the course has seen few capital improvements, a testament to its original construction, which included the most sophisticated watering system in the region. According to a 1991 article in the Duluth News Tribune, at different points during the life of EPGC and LPGC, citizens have criticized city leaders for not doing enough with their public golf courses. During the 1980s, Duluth Mayor John Fedo changed that.

Encouraged by the expansion of I-35 through Duluth and improvements to the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center, Fedo and other city leaders felt Duluth was poised to become a convention center—and that the rest of the city needed to help attract those conventions. Since the popularity of golf was on the rise nationally, one improvement idea involved adding nine holes each to both LPGC and EPGC, expanding both to 27 holes and Duluth’s total public links to 54.

The city hired Denver’s Richard Phelps to design both additions. At Enger Park, he found a spot between the original front and back nines to create what is known as the Middle nine today. At Lester Park, Phelps took a heavily wooded area along a sloping hillside west of the front nine and transformed it into a set of links known as the Lake nine. The total costs came to over $4.1 million (roughly $7.6 million today), which the city paid for with a loan at 6 percent interest. Interest brought the total expense to over $6.5 million or more than $12 million in today’s dollars.

When the Lake nine first opened at Lester Park in the summer of 1991, it was met with mixed emotions. First, it was immediately considered the most beautiful stretch of links in the city. Duluth News Tribune sportswriter Joe Bissen described it in October 1991:

Aesthetically, the Lake nine can’t be matched anywhere in town. Hole for hole, not even Northland Country Club can match the sweeping panoramas on Lester’s Lake nine….the Lake nine embodies everything that northern Minnesota does.

Bissen’s article also mentioned one of the biggest complaints of those playing the Lake nine: lost balls. The Lake nine’s fairways are  more narrow than those on the front and back, and most of it is built on the side of the hill. Arrant tee shots often found the woods, especially on the first four holes for any golfer with a hint of a slice—and still do. (Some say this phenomenon holds true on the first nine holes, whether you slice or hook….)

According to a 1998 article in the Duluth News Tribune, it wasn’t until 1997 that Duluth first hired Professional Golf Association professionals to manage its courses. Paul Schintz, who currently manages both courses, was hired to run Lester. During their first year in Duluth, Schintz and his wife Amy actually lived on the second floor of the course’s clubhouse.

In 1998, a Golf Digest poll rated Duluth as the “best city in America for public golf.” Essentially, the magazine called Duluth “the best urban center in America when it comes to offering excellent and affordable public golf.” The article specifically mentioned EPGC and LPGC as testament to the city’s dedication to public golf.

When Herb Bergson became mayor of Duluth, he turned his attention to Duluth’s municipal golf courses. Despite overwhelming popularity, the courses were losing money. According to the Duluth News Tribune, part of this was due to the fact that the city was still paying on the 1990 expansion loan with annual payments of $365,000. In 2003, Duluth still owed over $1.3 million on the loan for the 1990 expansion, and that wasn’t expected to be paid off until 2007. Bergson, the former mayor of Superior, had helped turn Nemadji Golf Course around in the 1990s through privatization and thought he could do the same for Duluth. His administration re-examined the way the courses were operated, considered selling them to private parties, and even tried to entice developers to build housing alongside the courses, a building trend that was in vogue at the time. In 2007 Duluth’s Chief Administrative Officer concluded that “privatizing golf courses is not a financially viable option.” The housing development idea was dropped as well.

Paul Schintz Managed LPGC from the late 1990s until 2015. During his tenure Schintz, his staff, and city workers vastly improved LPGC. By removing trees and other obstacles, the Lake nine is much more playable for slicing or hooking amateurs—and the view still can’t be beat. Drainage issues that plagued the course for years were also addressed. After the torrential rains of Sunday, August 24, 2014, LPGC was playable by 7 a.m. the next day.In 2014 Duluth mayor Don Ness proposed selling Lester Park Golf Course to private developers to create housing. Following much public outcry Ness shelved the idea. As of 2016 Duluth’s municipal golf courses were operated by a private company.

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