Rocking on the renovation front

Features - Cover Story

A Minnesota course is undergoing a ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ to enhance its status in a crowded and golf-enthused market.

Subscribe
October 5, 2021

Montgomery National Golf Club in Montgomery, Minnesota, has been revitalized since being purchased by Greg McKush in 2018.
© montgomery national golf club

Regarded as having the nation’s most golfers and golf courses per capita, the seasonal fairway scene in Minnesota has added a unique play to its set list in recent years.

Branded (sans dispute) as “The World’s First Music Themed Championship Course,” Montgomery National Golf Club, located just shy of an hour’s drive south of the Twin Cities, is singing a unique swing since Greg McKush took ownership in 2018. McKush, who grew up the son of golf course owners and has spent four decades in the business, long had his viewfinder set on the property.

“About a decade ago, I saw this golf course for sale, though at a price which was too high,” he recalls. “Yet, about six years’ later, the price had come down nickels on the dollar, and I could figure out how to buy it. When the owners accepted my offer, I couldn’t sleep for a week because I was so excited to be back in the business.”

His long and winding cart path to ownership appears both well-timed, and well worth the wait: With a unique, Beatles-themed marketing approach to Montgomery National, McKush seems to have ideally metered the zeitgeist of golf’s surge in pandemic-era participation. Courting nascent, returning and non-traditional golfers alike, his grounds are also reaping the benefits of tee sheet green.

Paul Miller

“It’s about creating fun, not being stuffy, not having all these rules and thanking everybody for coming in,” McKush says. “It’s a different thing we’re doing, and the opportunity to be creative with it, I’m just loving it.”

Such love involves ample homages to the Fab Four across the grounds, including:

  • Every hole named after a Beatles tune
  • A guitar-shaped bunker on the par-4 10th (named “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”)
  • An actual yellow submarine on the home hole
  • “Help!” traffic markers and signage across the course to aid players with a thorough Montgomery National renovation and re-routing project.
J.D. Stanger

For McKush — himself a singer-songwriter who has played ample gigs (including in a band with his kids) — the Beatles theme didn’t come via a broad stroke upon purchasing the course, but, rather, note by note.

“It’s been baby steps,” he says. “In 2018, I saw the submarine on the side of the highway at a place called Hot Sam’s Antiques & Foto Park. It’s along I-35W, so a lot of people would just drive right by. The sub was painted gray, but when I drove by, I thought, ‘Holy crap. I need to check that out.’ So, after I bought it, I had one of my members, who’s an artist, paint it yellow. And then I come to find out that the sub was a prop for the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” They had two of them, and didn’t need (this one for) a second take. Soon, after I put it in, people started coming from far and wide just to take pictures with the darn thing.”

Evolution of the hole names also began by chance.

Greg McKush

“We had a gentleman who, three years ago, had a massive heart attack on our first green. Luckily, there was a helicopter overhead, it parked on the green, and he was saved. A crazy scene,” McKush remembers. “The guy is still a member — he’s doing great — and I said to him, ‘John, because of what happened, I’m gonna’ call our first hole, ‘A Day in the Life.’ And he said, ‘I’d prefer if it was called, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends.’”

Said fun with names find further highlights on No. 9 (aptly named “Number 9”), along with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the par-5 sixth that includes red-painted tee stones and actual strawberry bushes running alongside the hole.

Opportunity to chart his course with a melody unchained, McKush is finding further fun — and ample success — with marketing outside the tee box. To wit: A recent promotion offered free golf for those who brought in a Beatles album. The result? “I got 600 Beatles albums,” McKush laughs.

Painting the property with a creative brush has also brought a combo of city mice and Beatles diehards to the grounds.

© montgomery National Golf Club

“Couple weeks back, I had a group of 16 guys come out — all wearing Beatles T-shirts,” McKush says. “And they came from 100 miles away. Over time, as I’ve seen this coming into its own, this course, this property, has started to feel like one big canvas.”

According to McKush, he’s already been approached (twice) with offers to sell the course, but the owner isn’t jumping sub mid-stream. Rather, he’s doubling down on the grounds.

Reconnecting with Minnesota-based architect Paul Miller and his eponymous firm — the two worked together when McKush was director of golf at the Meadows at Mystic Lake, which Miller designed as a then-partner at Gill Miller, Inc. — Montgomery National is in the process of ample course improvements and a new clubhouse project.

“Like the Beatles theme, it started organically,” McKush says. “We began with little touches, people liked it and we started seeing more players. So, as the money kept coming in, I didn’t keep it in my pocket.”

Per the clubhouse, McKush envisions golf’s version of Hard Rock Cafe (he already bought a yellow submarine jukebox), a space that includes plans for an outdoor amphitheater — “where we’ll have live music a few nights a week, if the city doesn’t get mad at me,” McKush smiles.

© montgomery National Golf Club

On-course reinvestment in the 1970 design from Joel Goldstrand has seen a multi-year master plan taking shape between the McKush-Miller mind meld.

“We’re doing well, and, with all the changes, it’s exciting to see the transformation,” says superintendent J.D. Stanger, who was hired by McKush in 2018. “When I first got here, it was a good course, but with all the changes now and into the future, this has the chance to be something really special. We’ll just keep rocking and rolling with all the improvements.”

The thorough re-route has included a hole re-numbering to now bring Nos. 9 and 18 back to the new clubhouse. “I asked Paul one day how we could make our former No. 5 our 18th hole,” McKush says. “He grabbed a napkin and said, ‘Like this?’ That's how fast his brain works.”

The changes are aimed, in part, at improving course flow.

“For the most part, our job has been adding new cart paths to direct traffic, and, of course, putting up the Beatles ‘Help!’ signs to guide players," Stanger says. “The re-route is fun. It changes the course for the better, makes it a more enjoyable play than the original 18.”

Re-sodding multiple tee complexes, adding new tee boxes and tree removal projects on Nos. 2, 10, 13 and 18 have also been part of the agronomy plan. “To improve line of sight and make it more accessible,” Stanger says of the work on the 10th. “It allows players to see the entire hole and just opens it up much better.”

© montgomery National Golf Club

New holding ponds on Nos. 12 and 15 were installed to improve drainage, while an additional pond project on No. 10 aims to assist both course and community. “This fall, on No. 10, we’ll open up the pond area in conjunction with the city,” Stanger says. “Everything that runs from the (adjacent) housing development runs to this pond, so once we expand it, it will take relief from us and the property line, too. So, yes, it is a benefit for both us and the city.”

Maintaining the music-themed turf does bring about its unique details, including maintenance of the sound hole on the guitar bunker. “We have a little grass island in there, which we’ll mow every 10 days,” Stanger says.

From Stanger’s vantage, the “Come Together” at Montgomery National is proving a winner, from turf to tune.

“I think it’s great,” he says. “From the guitar bunker to the yellow submarine, it has been a draw for people to come out. It makes golf fun, it’s something different and has made for a very fun atmosphere. And since Greg has taken over, we’re seeing a lot more people drive down from the metro area. The Beatles theme, along with the course improvements, have a lot to do with that.”

With an ultimate goal to have Paul and Ringo stop by for a round, McKush’s unique push for a more inclusive, non-traditional game and grounds is proving that all a dated course needs is, well, love.

“It makes people feel that they’re part of this,” McKush says. “Maybe it’s golf’s rise during COVID, maybe it’s a bit of what I’m doing. But we’re seeing a lot of players, and it’s a great diversity of players.”

Judd Spicer is Palm Desert, California-based writer, a Minnesota native and a frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.