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"Running Its Course"

by Jeffrey J Knowles
May, 2005

We live on a sea of stories. Virtually everything - from the tiniest speck of single-celled life to the universe itself - has the vital beginning/middle/ending chemistry needed for a good story. So, too, for golf courses.

Like cornfields and city skilines, the ubiquitous golf course greets Ohioans at nearly every turn - and many straightaways. There are at least 800 courses in Ohio, and the state is considered among the top five in the country for good courses, our sharp seasonal variations nonwithstanding. The passing traveler is usually indifferent to these bursts of neat organization amid Nature's sometimes cluttered housekeeping. Yet each Ohio golf course, like each farmhouse, graveyard and factory, has a unique story - avid golfers would even say a personality. My "home" course is an aging matron with loads of such personality.

The Minerva Lake golf course is a grand old lady who has draped her warm, tree-lined fairways in the middle of Columbus for three quarters of a century. Once considered one of the area's sportiest and most spacious public courses, Minerva has long since retreated to a leafy seclusion, walled off by the serious business conducted on four of Columbus' major highways. The Yellow Pages lists 88 public courses in the Columbus area, but Minerva is the only privately owned such course left within the city limits. Before World War II, Minerva was part of a golf-course mecca, but nearby Indian Springs, Beaver Ridge and Wyandot all closed or moved, prompting complaints from Columbus reporters as early as the 1950s that "nearly every other public course is being pinched into oblivion by housing projects." Minerva became an increasingly reclusive and shrinking plot in a part of the city that was heading in other directions. Indeed, I lived in the next-door Beechwold area and regularly drove Minerva's heavily traveled perimeter roads for 20 years without ever knowing there was a golf course tucked into that sea of asphalt and neon.

Few golf courses can match Minerva's story. The course was built by Harold Pollock during the bleak economic days of 1930 when few people were investing in construction projects or leisure amusements. Pollock endeared himself to his customers as a 90 and-up golfer, but the same could not be said for his son, Jimmy, who started making The Columbus Citizen sports page at age 8. The boy was routinely challenging 70 at Minerva (then a thousand yards longer than it is today) at age 14, and enjoyed much local renown as an ameteur for years after that. Jimmy died this past Christmas after an American-dream life as a successful surgeon. His nephew and the current Minerva proprietor, Jim Groezinger, says his uncle played golf well into old age and Parkinson's Disease, the shakes miraculously disappearing once he stepped up to the ball. Many present Minerva golfers cite their own historical attachments to the course, memories of dads teaching sons to golf there, and of those sons teaching their sons. Course manager Dave Limes has four generations invested in Minerva.

Each hole is a treasured historical chapter in itself. The tens of thousands of golfers who have walked those fairways might have heard the faint echoes of each one had they not been distracted by the maddeing demands of the game. Even the putting green has its story. An aging photo captures a sign asking putters to limit their practice time to 15 minutes, a restriction necessitated by the propensity of local gamblers to run betting games on the green after their favorite nearby course closed down. Meanwhile, my consistent and frustrating bogey of the very par-able first hole is softened when I see the old scorecard showing that high-schooler Jack Nicklaus did the same thing in 1957 on his way to a new Minerva course record of 65. The 10th hole always causes amusement for first-time Minerva visitors because it, not the standard ninth hole, closes out the "front nine" at the clubhouse (resulting in different pay rates for each "nine.") The original construction saw three holes on the other side of the railroad tracks, but when that extended property was sold off in 1954, the reconfigured, squeezed course left the unequal halves.

Golf was a different game in the early days, and among the echoes from the time is one that suggests something more exclusive (despite the 35-cent green fees) and today's wildly popular, everybody's-doing-it game. Minerva's rules outlawed women's high-heeled shoes on the greens, while nearby Wyandot initially banned women until after 3:30 p.m. on Saturdays and on Sunday and holiday mornings - and winter rules required that every fairway shot had to be teed up in order to spare a less-resilient generation of fairway grass. Strictly construed,you could find yourself hitting a wedge off a tee.

A more distant echo can be heard on the seventh hole. This short par 5 invokes the memory of Minerva Park, for seven brief years (1895-1902) the queen of central Ohio's amusement parks. The park owed its birth to a transportation practice of the late 19th century that saw the Street Railway (interurban trolley) company plant additional attractions along desired connecting routes, in this case, Columbus to Westerville, to ensure business during non-rush-hour times and days. It was a wildly extravagant add-on. The 1897 Casino could seat 2500 people, drew some of the best-known acts of the day, and housed an orchestrion that cost a third as much as the building itself. there was also a zoo, dance hall, ball diamond, bowling lanes, bandstand, picnic areas, boat docks, museum, steam-driven carousel, wishing well, and the Shoot the Chutes water ride.

The lake was also created at that time, compliments of Kilbourne Creek, whose meandering ribbon of wet rocks still draws curses from golfers, and tens of thousands of gallons pumped in from Alum Creek. For 15 cents you could get a railway ticket that included the price of a Casino show. A scenic railway transported Minerva Park visitors through large simulations of the desert (with extra heat added), a winter landscape (with the aid of heavily fanned ice blocks) and an underwater scene. Kim Groezinger's mother, course co-owner Marilyn, cites the folklore that when the elevated green was built up for the seventh hole, the railway tracks were among the detritus thrown into the pit.

The 18th hole is a beautiful par 3 with an almost miniature-golf quality to its 100-yard chip down to the clubhouse. Golfers pay scant attention to a couple of old stone pillars in the woods that stand as lonely sentinels to the long-vanished dance pavillion built in the early '20s to promote homebuilding. The earliest home in the Village of Minerva Park does date to that period, but the golden age of the village was, like that of the golf course, the post-war years. By 1956 the beautiful homes and living environment had The Columbus Citizen salivating for annexation ("A Choice Plum for Columbus" said a headline), and it nearly happened. But the village somehow resisted the annexation craze that would beef up Columbus' municipal muscle in the mid- and late century, just as the course would resist the de facto annexations of housing developers. No doubt there is some connective tissue between the two stories.

Yet, centuries turn, and golf courses move out to greener pastures. For years there have been rumors about making Minerva's fairways into lawns. Newspaper speculation about a sale go back to 1954. In 2004 Dominion Homes made considerable investments in what was supposed to be a $7 million deal for the course, even to the point of presenting probable housing grid layouts to several hundred Minerva Park area residents.

That plan fell through in January, 2005, so the fine old course continues its story into yet another decade. But the handwriting may be on the wall. Several years ago a housing project ran up against the golf course's southern property fence and abruptly stopped, like a drooling dog jerked back at the end of its leash. There is no standard cul-de-sac where the project meets the fence behind the 13th green just a stubbed road. That dog will stay leashed - the village takes pains to ensure that lot and home sizes meet their traditional standards - but other offers are in the air. Meanwhile, the Groezinger family owners, Pollock's daughter Marilyn and husband Herm Groezinger, now invest their senior years in Florida, far from the course they once ran. Maybe Jimmy's death was a final signal of sorts.

So I will be out on Minerva's fair links for one more summer, grumbling my way down her narrow fairways, renewing my love/hate relationship with a couple of very old and stubbornly intrusive trees, and endlessly seeking that frame of mind that means the difference between 78 and 92. And maybe - on a very good day - I will remember that that silliness is but a sentence, or word, in a very long and fine book.