Whenever you play River Oaks, how often (if ever) do you consider the process that went into developing and designing each hole? You may have questioned the positioning of a specific bunker or the location of a water hazard and noticed it was placed there with intention, but you probably rarely stop to give it a second thought. If you are like me, you may find many aspects of a golf course’s layout to be as unsystematic and random as the trees and brush that grow around them. However, every detail of the course’s design, from the positioning of a tee box to the undulations of the greens and everything in between, were the intention of one man’s vision and dream — Don Herfort.
Who was Don Herfort?
According to the Star Tribune, Don Herfort was born in Green Bay, WI on February 6th, 1925. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1951, earning a degree in Business Administration. After graduation, Herfort accepted a position as an accountant at a large corporation in Saint Paul, MN known as 3M. He would later go on to become the most prolific and creative golf course architect in the history of Minnesota golf.
It was while working for 3M that the Tartan Park Golf Course (a 3M employee course) was in the process of being designed. Herfort watched the process closely and began to develop some strong opinions about the vision of its original designer.
“Right from the start, I didn’t think the guy they had hired to build the course knew what he was doing,” Herfort said in an October 2008 interview with Minnesota Golfer magazine. “The holes weren’t laid out very well. The drainage was going to be a problem with the layout. It was like the whole thing was wrong.”
Herfort would go on to voice his concerns about the course to 3M’s top executives. Despite having no experience or education in golf course architecture, Herfort was asked by 3M to design and develop its employee golf course. Confidently, Herfort took on the massive undertaking. Tartan Park was a success! It launched his career as an architect, leading Herfort to resign from 3M to establish his architect firm, Don Herfort Inc.
In 1970, Herfort would be elected into the American Society of Golf Course Architects (ASGCA), becoming the first Minnesota-based professional to pass the rigorous membership process. He would go on to have a successful career spanning for more than four decades!
During his 41-year career (1970-2011), Herfort designed more than 140 courses throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, and North Dakota, with projects in the states of Iowa, Michigan, and South Dakota. You may even recognize his work since most of his courses can be found all over Minnesota. Some of Herfort’s notable works include Dellwood Hills, Indian Hills, Como Park, Oak Glen, Pebble Creek, Superior National, and of course River Oaks.
“His large flashed-sand bunkers and undulating greens are still a trademark of his work,” once said Kevin Norby, prodigy and partner of Herfort.
According to the ASGCA, the main job of the architect is, “developing programs and facilities that attract and retain new players.” Don Herfort was prolific at this! He appealed to the masses. He wanted golf to be a game for everyone. He wanted it to be fun.
Don Herfort would continue to design courses up until his death on June 27th, 2011. He passed away in his Lakeville home from a heart condition at the age of 86.
By transforming thousands of acres in the upper Midwest Herfort became an artist and left a legacy that stretched across an entire state. Every summer, thousands of people play his courses and yet most are unaware of his achievements. He left his mark on the history of golf in our wonderful state and became the man who built the game for much of Minnesota.