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The Chilly Open: A Minnesota winter golfing tradition

Kiel ChristiansonBy Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer

The Chilly Open WAYZATA, Minn. - Ah, Minnesota in February. A big, frozen lake, ice-fishermen hunched over holes in the ice, and - golfers putting into holes in the ice?

Welcome to the twentieth annual Chilly Open, "The Premier Winter Golf Event of the Twin Cities."

The name, of course, suggests that these crazy northerners hold more than one winter golf event. Garrison Keillor would be proud.

Minnesotans are rabid golfers, and far be it from them to let a little thing like winter get between them and their beloved game. For twenty years, armed with golf clubs, hockey sticks, sleds, snowmobiles and tennis balls (which are easier to see in the snow), golfers and non-golfers alike have been traipsing out onto the two-foot thick ice of Lake Minnetonka and playing ice golf.

This year, PGA Tour player and Minnesota native Tim "Lumpy" Herron designed the two nine-hole courses spread out along Wayzata Bay. Each hole is sponsored by a local business, and Edina Realty sets up a hospitality tent for folks to warm up in. This year, the event drew an estimated 1,000 players and spectators.

Sloppy Open?

Tumble-Trees This year's tournament should have been renamed the Sloppy Open, as the weather turned unusually warm, with temperatures reaching 50 degrees. With the course turned into one big body of casual water, golfers were forced to use more lofted clubs than in past years.

Players with hockey sticks were at a distinct disadvantage.

Despite the sloppy conditions and 20 mph wind, few folks were complaining about the weather, though. Eight-year Chilly Open veteran Kirsten from Big Lake said she'd never seen it so warm. "Two years ago," she said, "the beer froze."

So what brings people out to golf on a frozen lake? Love of the game, fun, fellowship, and lots and lots of beer.

Scott Regan, one of the founding members of The Spillers Group, has been playing in the Open since it began in 1985. "We used to have 100 people in our group," he says, "but now it's down to 25." When asked the reason for the attrition, Regan gives the same reasons that summer golf has been on the decline: time, age, and family responsibilities. "But the kids are getting older," says Regan, resplendent with his fox hat (complete with legs, tail, and head) and airline liquor bottles filling his mock ammunition belt, "and I think they'll be coming back over the next years."

Bushwood 3 Keri and Zack Swanson from Minnetonka have been playing in the Open for six years. This year, they introduced Bushwood 3 - their latest incarnation of a custom golf club/beer trailer pulled by a four-wheel ATV. "We make a day of it," says Keri Swanson. "Our group gets together for breakfast, then afterwards we have lunch. And this year is the first year I haven't needed snow pants and a parka." Keri says she usually comes in near the top of her group in scoring, "Because I drink less than the guys."

First-year participants Team Bob, in full Sponge-Bob Square Pants regalia, are pumped for their 1:30 tee time. "We've got one guy on our team from Texas," says one player. "He came all the way form Texas just to play in the Chilly Open."

Not a bunch of yokels

Despite the crazy premise of the Chilly Open, and the profuse alcoholic consumption, this is no bunch of yokels sliding around on the ice. Wayzata is one of the wealthiest suburbs of Minneapolis, and the shores of Lake Minnetonka serve as home to Minnesota celebrities such as Prince and Bob Dylan.

Team Bob Wayzata is filled with well-heeled, high-paid people whose yearly property taxes outpace the salary of most golf writers. And the local businesses consist of a surprisingly eclectic mixture of high-fashion, high-brow literature, and high-end art.

Each hole at the Open is sponsored by local businesses, including real estate brokers, banks, radio stations, and BogeyPro (www.bogeypro.com), the golf company "for average to lousy golfers." BogeyPro co-founder Arik Nordby is enjoying every minute of the Open. "These are our people," he beams as he takes a photo of a twosome in snowshoes, and another foursome in horned Viking helmets.

BogeyPro sponsored the 67-yard, par-3 second hole. "We have a blind pin here," points out Nordby, "and anyone who gets a hole-in-one gets a free hat." BogeyPro is also giving away "free miniature heaters" - otherwise known as cigarette lighters.

Croquet Mallet Nordby spots a player over a shot. In his bag, the guy has a golf club, a hockey stick, a canoe paddle, a squeegee, a croquet mallet, and a lacrosse stick. Nordby asks him, "What are you going to play here?" The guy answers, "I'm waiting on the wind, but it looks like a croquet mallet to me."

OK. So maybe these folks don't play by USGA rules. And maybe the strong winds are turning Tim Herron's strategically located spruce trees into tumbleweeds, and flipping the occasional sponsor's tent. And maybe only Minnesotans would be putting their beers in can-coolers in February (isn't the air cool enough, even in this weather?).

But this is what makes Minnesota - and Minnesota golfers - unique. If you don't believe me, just ask Garrison Keillor.

Kiel Christianson has lived, worked, traveled and golfed extensively on three continents. As senior writer and equipment editor for WorldGolf.com, he has reviewed courses, resorts, and golf academies from California to Ireland, including his home course, Lake of the Woods G.C. in Mahomet, Ill. Read his golf blog here and follow him on Twitter @GolfWriterKiel.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
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    zap rowsdower wrote on: Oct 24, 2011

    I haven't heard of ice golfing before, but it sounds kind of fun. Wayzata Bay is part of Lake Minnetonka, correct? I think I would plan a winter trip out there to play some golf on a lake.