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"The Park" Turns 100

St. Louis' first public golf course has never looked better

From left, Chris Cholley and Dale Roach, both of University City, and Alex Engelsmann of Ladue, on the green of the 600-yard ninth hole on the Dogwood course at The Norman K. Probstein Golf Course in Forest Park. The group’s fourth member, Patrick Roach of University City, is not pictured. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
May 09, 2012
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The Norman K. Probstein Golf Course in Forest Park — known simply as "The Park" for most of its 100-year history — has emerged from years of neglect to reclaim its rightful place as the Gateway City's preeminent public golf course facility.

The nine-hole Eisenhower Course, a flat layout designed to accommodate novice players, opened to the public in 1912. As city funds became available, a second and third set of nine holes opened in 1913 and 1915. This year The Norman K. Probstein Golf Course marks its 100th anniversary, and there is much to celebrate.

Fonde Wesley drops the ball within six feet of the pin from a greenside bunker on the par 3 ninth hole on the Hawthorne course. Wesley’s group included Lawrence Jaquess, George Green and J.R. Henderson. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Between 2001 and 2004, the 27-hole Forest Park Golf Course complex was completely redone, as was the city-owned Triple A Golf and Tennis Club on the park's south side. The ambitious project was funded by St. Louis developer Norman Probstein with a gift of $2 million, along with donations of $2 million from Eagle Golf, $2.4 million from the Danforth Foundation, $4.5 million from Forest Park Forever, and $1.6 million from the city of St. Louis.

The new Norman K. Probstein Golf Course in Forest Park has met with rave reviews. Several of the original and familiar Park holes designed by renown Scottish golf course architect Robert Foulis have been retained, while many other holes are completely new. A glass-enclosed clubhouse was built at the Forsyth entrance to the park and now includes banquet facilities.

"Everybody I've talked to just loves it," said golf course architect Stan Gentry. "It's so much better than it was before. There are better grasses, better drainage, better soils to work with. The city and the management company are very happy. There are receptions being held at the new clubhouse. The number of tournaments played had gone way down, but now they're coming back."

At the time of the redesign Gentry was chief architect for Hale Irwin Golf Services Inc. He said there were questions as to whether the course would remain 27 holes, or be taken down to 18. In the end, the current design was selected from 10 or 12 options.

The first hole fairway on the Redbud course as seen from the elevated tee. The hole once played as the old number eight. That’s Skinker Boulevard in the background. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"We went with the 27-hole option and a new clubhouse," Gentry said. "There are not too many golf projects located in the middle of a city, and I will probably not have an opportunity to work on another one."

The old numbers two, three and four holes, located in the area of the park's Grand Basin, were removed to allow for public use. Wells Drive was eliminated to accommodate the new layout.

"The course's infrastructure was falling apart. The drainage was terrible. You went from holes at Lagoon Drive and along Skinker that were flat and not draining. Then you had the upland holes — which today is mostly the Redbud course — that were just the opposite. We had to slow the water there. It was one extreme to another," Gentry said.

The three nine-hole courses are named for native trees — Dogwood, Redbud and Hawthorne. Hawthorne is flat, the holes run close together, and is easy to walk. Redbud has some of the most dramatic holes that in some form were retained from the original golf course layout. Dogwood begins with an original-course par 5 and ends with a new, 600-yard par 5 with a lake running down the left side for much of its length.

Three men playing golf on Forest Park golf course on Aug. 25, 1956. Photograph by Edward Goldberger Missouri History Museum Photographs and Prints Collections (click for larger version)
"We didn't want to go in and move extra dirt where we didn't really have to," Gentry said. "This is an old facility and we wanted to keep that feel. It's so pretty the way it is that we didn't have to do anything extra."

Course History

Forest Park Golf Course was not the area's first course, but it was the area's first public course — a distinction that would come to play an important role in St. Louis golf history.

"Without the opening of The Park, who knows how long it would have taken for public golf to take hold in St. Louis," said golf historian James Healey, whose book "Golfing Before the Arch" provides a well-researched, detailed history of golf in St. Louis.

"Dwight Davis got his friends together from St. Louis Country Club and they were the ones who promoted public golf in St. Louis," said Healey. "The only other area public golf course was Rock Spring, also opened in 1912, but that was in Alton."

In 1910 Dwight Davis was appointed as the city's parks commissioner. Healey said Davis opened up Forest Park to recreation, which until then was overwhelmed with "stay off the grass" signs. Davis also promoted public golf.

New to the golf business, city officials visited several municipally-owned courses throughout the U.S.

"They came back and said, 'We've visited public courses and we know all about them.' Rather than hire an architect, they decided they would design the course themselves," Healey said. "Davis was smart enough to say, 'I can't stop them,' but he hired Robert Foulis reasoning that whatever mistakes were made in the layout, Foulis could fix them."

The first nine of the 27-hole course opened in 1912, but was not the first golf course in Forest Park. That distinction goes to The St. Louis Athletic Club, which opened a private, six-hole course in 1898, and would later add 12 more holes. In 1901, the city entered into a 100-year lease agreement with The Athletic Club, offering a parcel of ground on the south end of the park for the club's north-end parcel. The city needed the Athletic Club property for the 1904 World's Fair.

The relocated Athletic Club became Triple A Golf and Tennis Center, a 9-hole course now owned by the city. In 2008, the renovated Triple A, with the addition of the city's only driving range, opened as the The Highlands Golf and Tennis Center. Both Norman Probstein and The Highlands are managed by Eagle Golf, with Jeff Raffelson serving as general manager.

The Forest Park Golf Course was laid out on land once traversed by thousands of World's Fair visitors. In a Top 10 ranking of the most important events in St. Louis golf history, Healey has the opening of Forest Park Golf Course at the top of his list.

The Bell Will Ring No More

For years Forest Park Golf Course served as the area's only public course — though for decades access to the course was limited to white-skinned players.

Severe restrictions were placed on African-American players who, prior to 1954, were allowed on the course only on Sunday evenings and on Monday mornings prior to noon.

"There was a bell located behind the old 13th green. At noon on Mondays the bell would ring and every black player had to be off the course," Healey said. "When segregation ended, it didn't completely end in The Park. There were white players who didn't like the fact that there were black players on the tee, and it got ugly at times."

Healey played a part in putting together a display highlighting the history and photographs of African-American players who were regulars at The Park. Also involved in the display project were Aaron Phillips, the late Booker Ford, Charles Johnson and course general manager Jeff Raffelson. The display can be viewed in the new clubhouse.

As far back as the 1930s black golf organizations such as The Paramount Club and The Lamb Golf Association held tournaments at The Park and attracted some big name pros, politicians and celebrities. Pros Charles Sifford, Ted Rhodes, Cal Tanner and Lee Elder played The Park, as did top amateurs such as Booker T. Ford, who just recently passed away. World heavyweight champ Joe Louis spent time playing The Park.

Forest Park Golf Course thrived until the mid- or late-1960s when, according to Healey, the city became financially strapped and course maintenance suffered. Though the greens were redone in the 1920s, (the course would host the 1929 National Public Links Championship), major infrastructure and other upgrades had not been made since.

"The Park went downhill quite a bit," Healey said. "White players had pretty much abandoned the park, and it was the black players who kept The Park alive for many years."

Healey said some city officials were ready to write off the city's first public golf course. Others were willing to invest in the course, and in the future of Forest Park. In the fall of 2001 The Park course underwent a complete redesign as part of a unique public/private restoration of Forest Park in its entirety. The golf project was completed in 2003-2004.

"It's a nice round of golf. You're not playing on dirt, but from tees that are in good shape, greens that are rolled and leveled ... people repair ball marks," Healey said. "Everyone involved in the investment in The Park are to be highly commended. Who knows what might have happened to The Park had that investment not been made."

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