Wirth Park Par 3 faces uncertain future

On one of the first truly beautiful days of the summer in late June, Scott Wylie and Boyce Mohn teed up to play nine holes at the Theodore Wirth par 3 golf course.

The friends, both retired and in their early 60s, are admittedly shoddy golfers. Mohn, when asked by a trailing threesome how he was doing, replied: “The weather is nice and I’m getting great exercise. Don’t ask about the golf.”

They’re not an uncommon golf party on the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board-operated course. Wirth par 3 is home to golfers of all types: From 10 year olds to seniors, beginners to experts and underrepresented golfing groups such as the disabled and minorities.  

Mohn, of Northeast Minneapolis, and Wylie, of Golden Valley, play the course because it’s a casual atmosphere where they can hack away while yakking away with course workers and friendly golfers. Others pick Wirth because they can’t afford to play 18-hole courses, can’t walk a full course, or want a short course to learn the game.

The 49-year-old par 3, however, is not filling up the way it once did. In 2000, when golf was booming as Tiger Woods electrified the sport, golfers played more than 31,000 rounds on the course. Last year, they played 15,000 rounds.

A group of stakeholders has been meeting for the past several months to decide on a wide array of changes to the park. One idea, floated by the City of Lakes Nordic Ski Foundation, includes using par 3 land as a staging area for cross country skiing as well as building a larger indoor center for silent sport athletes on the grounds of the current par 3 clubhouse. That plan would likely put an end to Wirth par 3 as a playable course.

Word of this idea reached Wylie and other golfers, who promptly started a “Friends of the Theodore Wirth Par 3 Golf Course” group that has put up a fight over any significant changes to the course.  

Wylie points out a few reasons to keep the course in play. The First Tee program uses the course to teach roughly 500 inner city youth each summer to play golf. It’s the only par 3 course in the city. It’s one of the most affordable golf experiences in the metro ($11 for 9 holes for adults, $9 for seniors).

And then there are golfers like Robert Dwyer, 69, and his friend Orville Erickson, a retired 93-year-old paratrooper of North Minneapolis who served in World War II and Korea. They play Wirth three times a week because the par 3 is shorter than most metro courses.

“The point we try to make is there is wide variety of users,” said Dwyer, a Southwest resident and member of the Friends of Wirth group.

While the course is an important place to many golfers, it’s also an important piece of property for the growing silent sport community in Minneapolis.

Wirth boasts a slew of outdoor activities for all seasons. It has hiking trails, biking trails, cross country ski trails, off-road biking courses, a snowboard park, a sledding and tubing hill, and a disc-golf course.

John Munger, executive director of the Nordic Ski Foundation, says the park has potential to be a regional center for year-round sports.

Munger and the foundation laid out a vision for the park in December, which includes improved trails with a new lighting system, new snowmakers, a cross country staging area and, the headliner: A $2.1 million welcome center complete with a bike shop, restaurant, warming room and office space. The Park Board has already added the welcome center to its bonding requests at the state legislature, which will take up a bonding bill in 2012.

“What [Minneapolis] does not have is a park devoted to lifetime activities — also known an active or silent sports. The northern portion of Theodore Wirth should be that park,” the Nordic Foundation wrote in the vision.  

While Munger said making Wirth into a silent sport hub may come at the expense of the par 3, he said the idea is not meant to hurt golf. Wirth Park also boasts an 18-hole course, and the Nordic Foundation is pushing for a renovation of the 17th and 18th holes to improve the grass and drainage.

“We want to get away from the idea that it’s our vision versus [the golf] vision,” Munger said. “A lot our elements improve golfing. Moving [the 17th and 18th] holes makes a lot of sense for everyone.”

While par 3 advocates tout the course’s service to youth, so too does Munger tout the trails as amenities for youngsters to get in shape and have fun. Hundreds of junior high and high school kids use the trails after school. The Minnesota State High School league is starting a mountain biking league and Munger says Wirth would be great place for competitions.  

Munger says a welcome center will not only be an added amenity for trail users, it will also help the park to attract more events to the city.

Wirth Park’s “silent sports” have increased Park Board revenue in recent years. Last winter, through ski passes, snowboarding passes and other revenue, the park brought in $322,000 at Wirth Park. Six years ago Wirth Park generated just $24,000 in revenue.

Revenue at the par 3 has dipped in recent years. In 2000, it peaked at $313,000, but decreased to $158,000 in 2010.

The two courses at Wirth Park share several expenses, so it is difficult to tabulate how much net income the par 3 generates on its own. When the two courses are combined, however, they generated $315,000 in net income from 2005 to 2009.