The Skyway Open Has Become a Twin Cities Golf Fixture

March 23, 2016

Contrary to what people believe, there are two big-time golf tournaments in Minnesota this year.

Sure, it’s a Ryder Cup year, and it’s the first time Minnesota’s Hazeltine National in Chaska is hosting the event. But that’s not the only classic renewal taking place in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

I first heard about the 10th Annual Skyway Open from an email blast, but I did some research and came to the conclusion that it’s a pretty big deal. “Tenth annual” means you are doing something right. First, it’s a mini-golf tournament that wends its way through a section of downtown Minneapolis’s skyway system, which is about nine miles (and 69 blocks) long. The system makes it feasible for Minnesotans to walk freely downtown without stepping outside in the frigid winter temps.

The event lasts for three days in midwinter. It encourages its players to wear costumes, attracts more than 1,000 entrants and even has an awards banquet bordering on a party to conclude the first day.

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Even Hazeltine National head pro Chandler Withington is an admirer. “We are just hoping to get our greens to the speed of the skyways,” he says.

But can the Ryder Cup and the Skyway Open co-exist in 2016?

I flew to Minneapolis to investigate.

It was about 1:30 p.m. on a Friday in February, and I had barely registered and picked out my ball before I knew I was in for an intense day. A thirtysomething man walked by me with his pants hiked up and bright argyle green socks à la Payne Stewart blinding the room. He also had—get this—his own putter.

What makes the Skyway Open unique (besides, of course, being a mini-golf tournament held in a skyway system) is that each hole is different and designed by a local business. There’s no Astroturf or windmills or clown mouths or funnel holes. (Companies were encouraged to keep in mind this year’s theme when designing their holes: “Minneapolis: America’s Most Livable City.” With a $5-47 entry fee, the event also raised more than $2,000 for the homeless.)

Teeing off in the Minneapolis City Center, I started brilliantly, acing the first hole. But I stumbled to an eight on the diabolical third—a MSP Airport-themed terror—and tacked on a trio of 4s before I rode down the escalator to the ninth hole. At the Skyway Open, escalators are your golf carts.

Being that golf is a social sport, I met several folks during my round. There was the team dressed like construction workers (which won Best Dressed), another like country–club golfers and one more called “Team T-Rex.” The latter had matching T-Rex T-shirts that read: T-REX HATES … Push-ups … Pull-ups … Hi-Fives … Selfies.

Leif Arousen tried to think of a clever reason why his group decided on the name Team T-Rex. I had simply assumed they just really liked dinosaurs. One of his teammates quickly jumped in with the truth: “Because these were the only four matching shirts Ragstock had.”

On the 11th hole with busses, cars and taxis buzzing below us on Sixth Street, I sunk my second ace of the day. I raised my putter like Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters, but the couple who walked by looked at me like I was insane.

“What is this?” the thirtysomething male said to Mark Remme, the communications manager for the Minneapolis Downtown Council and my playing partner for the day, a silly question since this tournament (and not the Ryder Cup or baseball’s Twins) might be the talk of Minnesota sports in 2016.

“This is Skyway Open Golf,” Remme said, matter-of-factly.

After heading down an escalator and turning a couple of corners, we came to the maddening and confusing 12th hole, which was about 200 pieces of cardboard held together by nine small pieces of twine on the skyway level. I’m no da Vinci but I’m sure the hole had tremendous art value. I limped to a 6 and lost all the momentum from the previous hole-in-one.

We later made our way to the closing stretch in the gorgeous IDS Center. The 15th was modeled after a tranquil forest, and on the 16th you had to hit through a bunch of mini-trucks, cars, buses and ambulances on a conveyer belt. One ambulance was actually backwards, an ominous sign that it had been struck a few too many times by wayward shots.

The final hole, designed by 10 employees at Wilkus Architects, used four platforms to each represent a season. We teed off in the summer, hit the next shot to either the fall or spring, and finished on the winter platform. I pulled a five-footer and then had to tap in for a five just east of a painted Lake Nokomis, which is home to copious largemouth bass.

I finished with a 5-over 57, five shots behind Remme. (The tournament doesn’t crown a winner, but it does give trophies to the best designed hole, most challenging hole, favorite hole and best dressed team.) As I tapped in, Anne Pavlis, who lives in St. Paul, was finishing her round with her three kids and dad, Bill Giese. She had bought the round for her father, an avid golfer from Hudson, Wisc., as a Christmas present.

I asked her kids if this was better than the Ryder Cup coming to Minnesota.

“What’s the Ryder Cup?” the youngest boy asked.