Bob Dylan may have made Highway 61 famous back in the 1960s, but it remains a popular highway even without his help. Northward, U.S. Highway 61 continues as Minnesota Highway 61 from Wyoming, Minn., through Duluth, along Lake Superior towards the United States-Canada border. Further south, it goes through St. Louis, then from Memphis, Tenn., through Natchez, Miss. for some 400 miles it follows the ancient Natchez Trace, renowned in early U.S. history as the scene of bravery and dastardly deeds. Even farther south, Highway 61 ends in New Orleans at an intersection with Basin St. (Tulane at Basin St.).
It follows the Mississippi very closely, so much so it is known as the Great River Road.
Google map link: River Oaks
In Cottage Grove, Minnesota, the Great River Road thrums its busy way a few feet away from a lovely municipal golf course, River Oaks, overseen by golf pro Bruce Anderson. Its views are of the Mighty Mississip; in fact, from the clubhouse you can see what I mistook for one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. It turned out it’s a wide spot in the river caused by a dam above Hastings, Minn., about a mile downstream.
Don Herfort, a well-known Minnesota golf course architect with more than 165 courses to his credit designed this 6483 yard layout, and it shows a mastery of terrain.
I was only able to play the back nine on that sunny July day after the Fourth, but it was impressive. There were woods, narrow fairways on some, generous on others; a lot of doglegs: 7 out of the back nine had bends, from slight to crooked. Sand was generous, with bunkers guarding many of the doglegs.
This compensated for the lack of water on the back nine, with only one pond, guarding the green on 12. Its distance, 169 yards, is about what I range with a 5-wood, I decided. I hit the ball well, but about a foot short. When I saw the splash, I remembered that 169 was my total distance, including bounce and run; and I certainly didn’t get any bounce on my run to the bottom of the pond.
Number 10 begins with a view of the river, and number 18 ends with one, as you look back over your shoulder on the home stretch.
Course condition was excellent. The fairways were so lush, when they water, the Mississippi must go down an inch. The taller grass off the fairways and greens was two inches tall, and so thick it damped roll very quickly. Taking a little longer club at 12 could have been offset by this dampening effect, if I’d only known. The greens, too, seemed to be a little slow; so getting the distance right with my pendulum-like swing was consistent.
I had asked my friend and host, Brian Quinnell, to bring along an ibuprofen when he met me at River Oaks after work, since he lives right off the course and had gone home to get his golf cart to drive over. Happily, my shoulder didn’t give me any great problems during the round. That may have been due to my dialing down the power rating on my swing; I decided if I swung with more restraint, I might not suffer such severe twinges, and I was correct. Even warming up on the driving range, shortening my swing and easing up didn’t seem to affect my length (not that I’m a long hitter at any time). I also have to credit shoulder exercises from the physical therapist with contributing a modicum of relief.
From left: Brian, Mark and I.
Brian is a computer guru, and our other playing partner, Mark Hogeboom, is a writer. The two of them traded stroke for stroke throughout the round, but Mark with his brand-new set of clubs won their challenge when Brian pushed his 5-footer on 18 an inch left. I was three strokes behind them, just happy about the lack of pain.
Brian and his wife bought their land thirteen years ago, after the landowners contributed the property for the course to the city of Cottage Grove in exchange for residential zoning. When the couple built ten years ago, he acted as the general contractor in a development of structures that sell in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. What set the tone of the development for me, though, was the sweat-stained man in levis and a torn-sleeved sweatshirt hard at work. He was tinkering under the hood of a four-car-long stretch limo, all parked on the street in front of a fabulous house and a gorgeous display of horticulture.
A very well-kept course on a sunny day but with a nice breeze, after spending hours in an office? Who could ask for anything more. I’m looking forward to trying the first nine at River Oaks, since Brian says it’s even prettier than the back.