Reed MacKenzie, the former U.S. Golf Association president, spoke with MPR's Phil Picardi about this week's PGA Championship at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn.
MacKenzie, a longtime Hazeltine member, is on the Championship's rules committee.
Phil Picardi: Did the founders of Hazeltine design the course to draw large championships?
Reed MacKenzie: "We've always thought of ourselves as a big league sports community. Back when we were trying to get the U.S. Open in Hazeltine for the first time back in 1970, it was about the era where we were becoming major league in baseball and football, not yet in basketball. But that was part of the vision and the mission of Hazeltine that we would join the major league golf community, and we did that in 1970. And we've continued to follow that trend all the way up to the present time and in 2016 with the Ryder Cup coming to Hazeltine."
PP: In the 1970s, golfer Dave Hill criticized the course, saying, "All they need is 80 acres of corn and a few cows." How has the course changed since then?
RM: "Well, in addition to being out in the country, in the sticks then, the golf course was new. And the golf course obviously, since Dave Hill made those comments has matured greatly. The little saplings are now mature oak trees and everything else around the golf course has developed as well. So we're no longer isolated and the golf course is no longer a rookie. It's an experienced and well-developed championship venue."
PP: In 1991, Hazeltine hosted the U.S. Open. A lightning strike occurred, killing one person and injuring six. What do you remember from that?
RM: "Well, I was the general chairman of the Open for the club. So I was front and center in the middle of that tragedy. We had a fairly sophisticated warning system in place. Unfortunately, all of the sophisticated systems can't accurately predict the sudden formation of electricity, which is what happened in 1991. The storm center that produced the lightning developed almost instantaneously. And what I remember is the difficult job of going with the president of the United States Golf Association at the end of the day to visit the family of the young man who died on the golf course. That was a very traumatic evening and a very sad day. "But since then, each major championship employs a full team of weather reporters to try to document the severe weather. I think based on the experience in 1991 where someone died at the U.S. Open and also at the PGA Championship, that people are much more willing to blow the horn and get people off the course at the first sign of any possible danger."
PP: Going back to Hazeltine itself, how has the course changed in recent years?
RM: "Well, the course has changed just as the golfers have changed. Bunkers that were in the proper position in 1991 would not be defensive for the course in 2009. Length has been added to the course, and the position of bunkers has been changed so it defends the holes properly. That's just one of the evolutions that has to take place with any course, and which we've managed to do here at Hazeltine."
PP: Everyone talks about how a long course would favor a player like Tiger Woods, because he's big and strong and hits the ball pretty hard. Does he have an advantage at Hazeltine?
RM: "I can tell you that, with respect to Tiger Woods, there isn't any course you can design or maintain that will contain him. He is superior at any length, and in fact the holes here, the par 5s are so long that even a Tiger Woods will have difficulty reaching three of them in two shots. So I don't think that the length here is going to give Tiger any particular advantage that he doesn't already have by virtue of being the number one player in the world."
PP: When you look at a longer golf course, does it make golf a younger person's game?
RM: "Well, if you look at the driving statistics from the Senior Open that was played a couple of weeks ago, the leading players there were hitting at 300 yards, and that's only slightly short of what the leading hitters on the regular tour hit the ball. So I don't think that the distance in itself separates the players by age. It does happen that some players, as they get closer to that age of 50, you lose a little of the fine muscle control on those short putts. I think maybe if there's any difference between the younger players and the older players, it's in how the nerves hold up, especially under the pressure of a major championship."
PP: How often do you play the course?
RM: "I try to play it at least once a week. I don't play as well as I used to. I find that getting older and not being able to do the things that I used to be able to do is frustrating, but I have grandchildren that I'm getting to the point where I enjoy watching them more than I do playing myself."