NEW LONDON, Minn. – Even before Jim Nantz stepped foot on property at Tepetonka Golf Club, he dubbed it “Minnesota’s masterpiece.”
Those words had a nice alliterative ring to them but now that he had toured the grounds for the first time, including what will become The Prox, a short course to be designed there by the team of Geoff Ogilvy, Mike Cocking and Ashley Meade, in the western corner of the Land of 10,000 Lakes, he smiled and doubled down, declaring in his familiar voice, “This land will become world-renowned.”
Nantz, the 64-year-old voice of CBS whom sports fans have welcomed into their living rooms and mancaves for more than three decades, may have a thing or two to do with that. He’s serving as design consultant on The Prox but as he so elegantly put it, “This is like centuries ago telling Michelangelo as he painted the Sistine Chapel, ‘Why don’t you do this?’”
Nantz’s only golf architecture credit to his name consists of a backyard hole, a miniaturized replica of the seventh at Pebble Beach Golf Links, that he created not far from the real thing. So, why is he being allowed in the sandbox to draw up holes? In a word, friendship, but stick around for the full story.
Mark Haugejorde’s special bond with Nantz dates 46 years back to their college days. They were teammates on the University of Houston men’s golf team and famed coach Dave Williams assigned Haugejorde, a senior at the time, to befriend the freshmen, which included Nantz, Fred Couples and another future PGA Tour winner, Blaine McCallister.
“He was this scrawny kid and all he wanted to be was a sportscaster,” Haugejorde said of Nantz.
Blue-tipped flags mark tees, red-tipped flags the center lines and green-tipped stakes for the greens at Tepetonka Golf Club in Minnesota. (Courtesy Tepetonka Golf Club)
Houston’s golf team was a juggernaut, winning 16 NCAA titles in a span of 30 years, though Nantz is quick to point out he contributed nothing to the cause.
“I was without question – I’m not trying to be humble about it – the worst player in the history of the program,” he said.
But Williams didn’t become a legendary coach without learning to build a team where every player had a role and he carved out a special one for Nantz.
“I was kind of the den mothe/r,” Nantz recalled. “I think he saw in me as someone who was a real goal-minded individual because the first time I met him I told him I didn’t want to be a professional golfer, I wanted to talk about professional golfers. I wanted to work for CBS since I was 11 years old. I wanted to call and host the Masters. That was what the dream was that was in my heart. So, he found a role for me. He put me in a room with the three best incoming freshmen. At the time, I was working hard to crack the top 10 and try to get close to the top 5 that would play the tournament. But I made sure every day that my roommates got up, ate breakfast, went off to school and did their homework.”
Nantz recalled Haugejorde as “a towering presence for us incoming freshmen and generous to us too as young kids.” They stayed in touch and a few years ago Haugejorde visited Nantz in California and they played a round at Cypress Point Club and had dinner at Pebble Beach. Haugejorde shared his dream to build a golf course, much like his father, who during a stint in the military was asked to build a golf course for the officer’s club in Japan in 1947. Later, his father spearheaded efforts to build Little Crow Country Club (now a 27-hole facility known as Little Crow Resort), a public course, two hours west of Minneapolis. Haugejorde picked up the game there and won the 1973 high school state championship. He was convinced that he had found land for a course and a motivated seller but when his business partner walked the site, he had to level with Haugejorde: “Mark, it’s just not special,” he said. Back to the drawing board.
Any sports fan worth his salt knows how the dreams of those young Houston golfers that Haugejorde looked after during his senior year panned out.
“Fred said he’s going to win the Masters. That’s all we ever talked about. That it was going to happen,” said Nantz, of what came to fruition in 1992. “And they all looked at me like naturally I was going to work for CBS one day. Not that I was entitled to it, but they were living the dream with me and they’ve lived it every step of the way for 38 years. They’ve been with me and I’m grateful for that. We were this amazing group of believers. I believed in them, they believed in me and our lives turned out the way we wanted them to be.”
A clearing for a future tee box at Tepetonka Golf Club. (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)
On May 22, 2021, just a few months after dinner with Nantz at Pebble, Haugejorde was driving his 94-year-old mother to Little Crow to play nine holes. Coasting past land where he used to pheasant hunt as a kid, he took a left turn and was struck by the expanse of farmland, the beautiful cedars and a ravine and slowed his roll as he continued half a mile down a gravel road. He looked out the window and said, “That’s it.”
He stopped the car and used onX, an app used by hunters with GPS tracker, waypoints, property lines and accurate land ownership names, to mark the spot and took a picture at 8:21 a.m.
“It’s going to be framed,” Haugejorde said.
The land, which has plenty of movement, reminded the architectural team of Ogilvy, Cocking and Meade of the sand hills of St. Andrews Beach back home in their native Melbourne, Australia. There’s Shockatee Creek, a tributary of the Chippewa River, which cuts through a quarter of Tepetonka’s property. Visiting the property for the first time over Easter weekend, the Aussies had to borrow jackets from Haugejorde when snow fell. Inside the warmth of Haugejorde’s home, Cocking and Meade sat with laptops facing each other as if they were playing Battleship as Ogilvy looked over their shoulders at the topography of the land.
“I was just doing laps around the table as we went back and forth saying, ‘What if we did this? What if we did that?’ ” said Ogilvy, the former U.S. Open winner.
The future site of “The Dead End,” one of the comfort and refreshment stands to be built at Tepetonka Golf Club. (Adam Schupak/Golfweek)
OCM figured they could get a hole or two along Shockatee Creek but it turns out the water will weave in and out of play and should be visually or strategically involved in the layout on seven or eight occasions. Some cut lines, paths and tree removal are underway with blue-tipped flags marking tees, red-tipped flags for the center lines and green-tipped stakes for the greens. Construction will commence in 2024 with a course opening scheduled for 2025.
“It’s a pretty well-worn marketing spiel that was used a lot on sites like this that God intended this to be a golf course. But it’s quite amazing how suited the land is to golf,” Cocking said. “It’s on coastal sand dunes. The spacing of the dunes and size of the dunes, the contours and scale of the dunes basically play through the valleys or the tops of the dunes, from dune to dune.”
When Haugejorde let Nantz know he had found his property, Nantz agreed to join as a founding member and tabbed the project his pal’s “true calling.”
“He’s finishing that script,” Nantz said. “His father brought golf to this area. Now he’s going to bring this part of the world and golf to the whole nation to see something this state has never seen before. He has these three genius guys to shape this land to make this an iconic place. He could not have chosen a better team, and it is a team, which is another thing I really admire about them.”
Tepetonka is Minnesota’s first entry into the private golf destinations category. The whole notion of destination golf began with Nebraska’s Sand Hills in 1994 and the model of excellence was defined by Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, which serves resort play, in 1999. If Bandon Dunes’ owner Mike Keiser had asked the National Golf Foundation to conduct a feasibility study, NGF president and CEO Joe Beditz said the answer would have been, why bother? In short, no metrics would have advised building one course let alone five that have each become bucket-list destinations. But what was once bold and audacious now is becoming commonplace.
“That’s where most of the industry is moving right now,” Beditz said. “In a survey we did just last week, 5 million golfers, 1 out of 4, are highly interested in visiting destination golf. The demand is there. Baby boomers are 59-77 years old with 10,000 a day reaching the retirement age of 65. The demand for a product like this especially in the vacuum of Minnesota is brilliant and I think it will become part of a very important Midwest rota as it pertains to golf.”
And so just last month Nantz flew in to West Central Minnesota ahead of broadcasting the BMW Championship in suburban Chicago and walked The Prox and broke bread with Haugejorde, several of his fellow founding members and “the three geniuses”who will integrate the short course into Tepetonka’s practice facility.
“I’m in awe of these three,” Nantz said of OCM. “I don’t know what I can impart at all because they’re on top of it. I’ve been lucky enough that I’ve spent a lot of my life around the greatest golf courses in the world. I’ve been a member at some of the finest golf courses in the world. I need golf like I need oxygen. And I know when I see things that are done the right way. If there is anything that I see that can make the club a little better, I will talk to my buddy Mark or Haugie.”
Nantz could have his pick of the litter of golf courses to associate his brand with if he wanted to. Make no mistake, he is here because of his fellowship with his fellow Cougar.
“When a brother comes over and says I’d like you to be a part of this, it’s all coming back full circle for me. I believe in him. I believe what’s inside that heart and inside that head. I believe he has great judgment,” Nantz said. “I plan on spending some time here. I’m at a point in my life where I want to do the things that make me happy. I think I always have but early in your career you’re trying to make sure you do all the right steps and your career is growing and you’re trying to manage a family at the same time, which is more important than anything. I’ve been able to do all that. The things that I want to hitch my wagon to these days are the two most important things: with people I want to be with and as a father.”
Nantz continued: “I want to bring my son here. I want to bring my friends here. It’s going to be great. This is just early stages, lots to do but it’s amazing to see where they’ve already gotten with the routing, the plan, the vision. It’s an incredible team. I can promise you one thing: Haugie’s going to make you proud, he’s going to make Minnesota proud. And I’m going to sit back and cheer him on every step of the way, just like we did for one another 46 years ago at the University of Houston.”