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For years now, golf industry analysts have been concerned about the barriers to entry that deter newcomers from taking up the game. In response to these issues, a nine-hole short course is taking shape in the Minneapolis suburb of Chaska that could redefine accessibility in golf.

Golf is hard enough to learn, and all too often expensive, but how courses are designed can also be a barrier to entry. The general culture of a conventional, full-blown golf facility is also problematic when it is assumed that folks know their way around a course and can keep pace. Things get even more difficult for those with physical limitations who are often confronted by extensive hazards and steep slopes. For them, the course can seem as if it’s surrounded by an impenetrable wall. For those seeking to grow the game, there is increasing recognition that standard golf course setups can be very intimidating.

When Susan Neuville started playing golf three years ago, she found obstacles in the way. They were not intended to keep her out, but they certainly did not make her feel welcome. It was her sense that many others who were not playing were similarly put off or felt left out. As Neuville said, “There are so many people who would like to play golf who don’t play for all sorts of reasons.”

Even at the short, par-30 municipal track where she was trying to learn the game, the Chaska Par-30’s four lakeside greens and 15 bunkers got in the way of simply trying to get around the course.

Neuville, a working wife and mother of five children, has now become a leading advocate of open-access golf. She chairs a volunteer committee called Barrier Free Golf that is not only lobbying for more accessibility in the game but has also raised funds to help turn that local nine-hole course in Chaska into a facility that might help transform the entire game.

Welcome to The Loop at Chaska, a renovation that is converting a 50-year-old municipal layout into a truly welcoming golf experience that anyone can enjoy – whether you are a first-timer, a wheelchair user, or a veteran of the game looking for a fun one-hour golf experience. When it reopens for play in the middle of 2022, it will be open to all at a very reasonable rate – with no bunkers, no inaccessible slopes, and with only two water hazards that are easily avoided. The new design will also be totally amenable to different cart options for disabled players to use throughout the course – even on the putting greens themselves.

The impetus for creating Barrier Free Golf as a nonprofit advocacy group dates to 2013, when Chaska-based computer businessman Tim Andersen started thinking out loud about creating a public course that would be fully accessible to disabled golfers as well as to those who wanted to learn the game. A longtime member of Hazeltine National Golf Club – where his wife, Wendy, was heavily involved in the junior golf program – Andersen also served as a volunteer rules official at USGA junior championships. When efforts to develop a short course at Hazeltine came to naught, Andersen turned his attention to the town’s municipal par-30 short course that was within walking distance of Hazeltine’s front gate.

Back in 1971, Hazeltine’s architect, Robert Trent Jones Sr., designed the Chaska Par-30 on a 28-acre parcel. It operates under the aegis of the City of Chaska’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which also runs the town’s highly renowned 18-hole facility, the Chaska Town Course – designed in 1997 by Arthur Hills. Over the years, the Chaska Par-30 fell into a deteriorated state and play on the executive-style layout had declined. Infrastructure improvements were needed, and when the folks from Barrier Free Golf made their pitch to the city for a creative reimagining of the grounds, things started falling into place.

City manager Matt Podhradsky, a nongolfer, listened carefully to the argument for an enhanced municipal golf facility that would be fully compliant with standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In fact, the course redevelopment team described the terms to be followed as “ADA-plus.” That meant going beyond compliance and striving for greater equity among all golfers. As Andersen described it, “We sought to eliminate situations where a golfer with mobility issues would be forced to take a drop when an able-bodied player would be able to make a stroke.”

This, however, was not just going to be a golf course; it would be a community-based project whose design and operation would be oriented around four basic pillars: accessibility, environmental sustainability, financial sustainability and fun. 

"This, however, was not just going to be a golf course; it would be a community-based project whose design and operation would be oriented around four basic pillars: accessibility, environmental sustainability, financial sustainability and fun."

Andersen says he saw these values in play during a family tour of Scottish golf courses. During a visit to North Berwick, he heard about, but did not actually meet, an aspiring course designer named Ben Warren. The two would eventually connect and Warren shared his vision for what golf could and should be.

Warren is your basic wandering golf architecture junkie. A native of North Berwick, where he caddied during high school and university, Warren studied computer science but found the vocational market suddenly less appealing thanks to the dot-com collapse of 2000. Undaunted, he moved to Japan to indulge his love of snowboarding. He supported himself (barely) through freelance tech jobs and English-language coaching, all while learning Japanese – a language he is now fluent in. He also stumbled upon, the esoteric architecture website that gave him his first clues about the widespread appreciation of classical course design. Back home to visit family, he talked himself onto the grow-in team at Tom Doak’s Renaissance Club just west of North Berwick. Warren was indulged with occasional fine-tuning work and his first experiences doing basic shaping. “That’s when I realized golf architecture could be a vocation, not just a fascination,” he said.

A meeting with Jonathan Smith, founder of the nonprofit Golf Environment Organization (GEO), led to Warren working for five years there on the software for GEO’s online certification. Along the way he traveled to every corner of the golfing world and attended meetings with the likes of then R&A Chief Executive Peter Dawson and European Tour Chief Executive George O’Grady. But the architecture bug proved too much, and eventually Warren landed a job with Tom Doak’s team building the Grand St. Emilionnais Golf Club in Bordeaux, France. Other freelance shaping assignments followed, including six months at the Rio Olympic Course under Gil Hanse and on projects in Japan, the U.S. and Morocco. By the time the RFP for the Chaska job arrived in his inbox in 2018, he was well-versed in all aspects of sustainable design.

Warren won the job against a field of national and international applicants. The key to his presentation was an elegant and simple drawing of the proposed routing, with an advisory that it emulated the famed Himalayas putting course at St. Andrews. “A nine-hole version of the Himalayas,” he called it.

Utilizing what Warren called the “Humpty Dumpty” character of the Himalayas would provide ground-game interest for all while keeping the course playable and accessible for everyday players, beginners and those using mobility aides. He also explained his idea of drawing on several talented shapers to build the course, making what Warren called “cameo appearances” in succession. “They could use their time in between other jobs to help us, and of course we’d pay them for their time,” said Warren. A talented band of bulldozer artisans helped with the feature shaping, including Jim Craig, Brett Hochstein and Jonathan Reisetter.

As with all such jobs, money would be an issue. The process of deconstructing an existing course and building a new one in place would end up being budgeted at just over 2.5 million dollars, including a modest clubhouse. A third of the money was raised by Barrier Free Golf and given to the project with no strings attached. Two-thirds of the funding came from Chaska municipal funds. Work began in September 2020, with the course shut down entirely for the renovation.

The key to handicap-accessibility of the new course will be the low-profile, clockwise routing with an easy linkage between greens and the next tees. There is also the noticeable absence of bunkers; their presence would have created difficulties for people with mobility issues and increased construction and maintenance costs.

"The key to handicap-accessibility of the new course will be the low-profile, clockwise routing with an easy linkage between greens and the next tees. There is also the noticeable absence of bunkers; their presence would have created difficulties for people with mobility issues and increased construction and maintenance costs."

Plans call for a total of 2 acres of putting surface for the nine greens on the course plus a 6,000-square-foot practice green and an additional 25,000-square-foot Himalayas-style putting course. The greens are built with 10 inches of sand-based rootzone mix, no gravel layer, and plenty of drainage underneath. They will be planted with ‘007’ bentgrass and maintained at a height that will allow for average speeds between 8 and 9 feet on the Stimpmeter. That will allow the layout’s intense putting surfaces to retain their playability.

“The greens are the hazard,” said superintendent Mark Moers during a course tour. By combining dramatic putting contours with low-mow bluegrass surrounds, Chaska Loop manages to feature short grass everywhere and dispenses with the standard array of punitive framing or cross hazards that make so many golf courses today difficult to play and more expensive to maintain.

Along the way, Warren and the shaping team managed to evoke some classic architectural features such as a Seth Raynor “Double Plateau” green at the 73-yard fourth hole. Chaska Loop’s only par 4, the third hole, called “Long” after the 14th at St. Andrews, measures between 363 and 217 yards and comes with multiple playing routes tacking through a 100-yard-wide fairway. There is a retro version of a traditional squared-off green in the form of a “Pizza Box” at the eighth hole. Some modest dimpling in front of the sixth green recalls the feel of Prestwick’s legendary Alps hole, minus the blind bunker that protects the famous original green. There is also an engaging nod to modernist styling with the “Skatepark” green at the second hole.

Plans call for the greens to be mowed with a triplex unit. Everything else out there will be mowed at one uniform height with modest gang units. This will greatly simplify maintenance and make it easier for people to play and move through the course. The Toro Company helped out by providing a 130-head irrigation system at a substantial discount. Plans call for reopening the course in late summer 2022. What had been a par-30 course with a length of 1,723 to 1,531 yards will now measure as a par 28 that ranges from 1,234 yards to as short as 930 yards.

Day-to-day golf operations will continue to be run by the City of Chaska. Green fees will be kept modest at around $20. In recognition of its founding role in the Chaska Loop project, Barrier Free Golf will run onsite golf recruitment and retention programming that will include 4,000 discounted and 2,000 complimentary rounds out of the 25,000 starts anticipated annually.

For Barrier Free Golf, this project represents the culmination of years of work that, it is hoped, will encourage people to rethink what golf is all about. Those four pillars of the project – accessibility, economic sustainability, environmental sustainability and fun – will breathe new life into an old facility and make the game more welcoming for more people.