Minnesota brought ‘we can’ attitude to 1991 U.S. Open, and golf gave us big-time tournaments in return

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Editor’s note: Third in a six-part series. The 1991 Stanley Cup Final started on May 15, and the 1992 Final Four came to a conclusion on April 6. A Minnesota team or venue was involved in those two major events and three more in between. What a run. We will look back at that stretch of Minnesota sports history each day this week.

. . .

Twenty-one years after it left town uncertain it’d ever be back, the U.S. Open returned to Hazeltine National in 1991 and changed everything, from the course’s reputation to the way major championship golf is run.

Hazeltine National’s course was eight years old, immature and ridiculed when the U.S. Open arrived for the first time in 1970.

By the time the Open came back two decades later, the 18-hole layout had been redesigned and golf’s majors had been reimagined. Even more transformation came during a week in June that withstood tragedy after lightning killed a spectator the first day and crowned Payne Stewart champion on the last in a two-man Monday playoff that drew more than 25,000 fans to Chaska’s rolling hillsides.

Once deemed by outspoken tour golfer Dave Hill as lacking “only 80 acres of corn and a few cows to be a good farm,” Hazeltine National with the 1991 Open established itself as a true major-championship test. In the 30 years since then, it has successfully hosted two PGA Championships, a Women’s PGA Championship, the U.S. Amateur and one Ryder Cup – with another Ryder Cup on the way in 2029.

The Open’s return to Hazeltine came within an 11-month span when the Stanley Cup Final, the World Series, the Super Bowl and the NCAA Men’s Final Four all also were played in Minnesota. The 1991 Open that drew massive crowds daily proved itself to be both innovative and lucrative.Then-operations director Hollis Cavner calls it a “prototype” for major championships and the “precursor” to a yearly Champions senior tour event in Minnesota that now is the PGA Tour’s third-year 3M Open.

“What they put together set the tone for everything that has come since,” said Cavner, who directed the 1990 U.S. Open in Chicago, moved to Minnesota for the 1991 Open and stuck around to establish the senior tour event in Coon Rapids and Blaine for the next 25 years. “It really did put Hazeltine on the map as a premier championship course.”

Roads less traveled

Local lawyer Reed Mackenzie was a Hazeltine member and USGA rules official who worked all its major championships. He later served on the USGA’s executive committee member and in between helped convince it to bring the Open back to Minnesota.

He was tournament chairman for an engaged club membership that included retail sales and advertising executives on its championship committees and sub-committees. Together, they rethought what a major and the Open could be. They did so with strategic public ticketing, corporate hospitality and merchandise sales aimed to prove a club in flyover country could do it right and prove any lingering impressions left by the 1970 Open wrong.

Mackenzie now credits many things — a committed Hazeltine membership and corporate community foremost among them — for a show that showed “we do it better than everyone else.” An army of 5,000 volunteers organized by Jane Mackenzie, Reed’s wife, didn’t hurt, either.

“We went down some roads less traveled by USGA standards at the time,” said Irv Fish, a co-founder of Fallon McElligott Rice advertising agency a decade earlier who led “whatever was sold or told” for the 1991 Open. “There was this infectious enthusiasm that we can, we will and I think we did. And I do think we did.”

Blessed with such an expansive site sloping toward Hazeltine Lake, organizers terraced tents on course borders, particularly at the “new” signature lakeside 16th hole, so corporate partners could see the golf.

“You could see the golf from the tents,” Cavner said. “They were so far ahead of their time.”

Minnesota made

Hazeltine committee members with department-store backgrounds at Dayton’s envisioned not a traditional counter, but a large merchandise tent with aisles, an entrance at one end and an exit at the other so fans could walk through and put their hands on the goods.

The tent was moved from a distant location in a parking lot to prominence between the No. 1 and 9 fairways.

They also opened the merch tent the weekend before the tournament to anyone who wanted souvenirs, whether they had tickets that week or not. For the week, they tripled the sales from the U.S. Open at Medinah the year before.

“We did pretty good, nobody had done that,” said Mackenzie, who has worked full-time at his law business for the past 50-plus years. “To my knowledge, that’s that first time and then it became standard operating procedure.”

That U.S. Open’s first round brought a sudden midday lightning storm that killed 27-year-old spectator Billy Fadell from Spring Park who stood beneath a willow tree near the 11th tee. Five others nearby were rushed to the hospital. Mackenzie and USGA president Grant Spaeth visited the Fadell family’s home and others in a hospital burn unit that night.

“It’s still emotional for me to this day. I’ll never forget it,” Fish said, his voice cracking. “We didn’t expect this. Why them? Why here? Why now?”

The final day was a Monday playoff bright and sunny and more people than anyone could imagine returned to Hazeltine to watch two men play an 18-hole match. Mackenzie still isn’t certain if that crowd indicated how golf-crazed Minnesotans are or just that they’re “a little thrifty” and had already paid for this bonus day with their week-long tickets.

The U.S. Open hasn’t returned to Hazeltine National, not after the PGA of America established a relationship that brought the club two PGA Championships and eventually two Ryder Cups.

A U.S. Open back at Hazeltine National sometime in the 2030s is likely, though. The championship currently is booked through 2027 at Pebble Beach. Pinehurst will hold it every six years starting in 2029 until 2047.

“It doesn’t work if the local people don’t support it,” Fish said. “It put Hazeltine and the patrons of Minnesota back on the map. World Series and Final Fours have done the same thing: You come to our community and we will do our best to do it right 100% of the time. I think we’ve earned that reputation.

“It’s a great memory, a wonderful memory.”

. . .

America’s Sports Capital

This week we look back 30 years at Minnesota’s incredible 11 months of mega-sized sporting events:

Part 1: Patrick Reusse remembers the five events and reflects on their impact.

Part 2: The North Stars shocked us all and made the 1991 Stanley Cup Final.

Part 3: The U.S. Open rocks and rolls across Hazeltine for five days.

Part 4: The Twins, Atlanta and the great ’91 World Series.

Part 5: Buffalo and Washington ran up the score in the Metrodome in the ’92 Super Bowl.

Part 6: Michigan’s Fab Five was an even bigger Final Four deal than Christian Laettner and Duke.

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