ST. LOUIS — Normandie Golf Club bills itself as “the oldest public golf course still in operation in its original location, west of the Mississippi River.”
Don’t tell me — you’ve heard it all before.
To be sure, “oldest” and “west of the Mississippi” are titles tossed around quite a bit in golf. Boxing’s “heavyweight championship” might have fewer qualifications and distinctions. In addition to Normandie, there are playing fields in Colorado, Oregon, Iowa and California that have a stake in the claim. Some have provenance, some do not. All were built between the early-1890s and early-1900s.
The discriminating eye must consider terms and conditions. Classifications such as “club” or “course” are important, elements such as “continuous operation” and “current location” must be taken into account, the existence of nine holes versus 18 holes is pertinent.
> Fun Meter: Normandie Golf Club
Even in Normandie’s immediate St. Louis neighborhood the debate rages. Newspaper accounts indicate Glen Echo Country Club, located just a 7-iron away, was open for play in May, 1901. Meanwhile, an Oct. 5, 1901 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch trumpets the occasion of members trying out the "Normandy Park" course for the first time. Note the "y" instead of the "ie" - same club, different spelling.
Yes, one might say, but ... Glen Echo - site of the 1904 Olympic golf matches - is and always was a private club. Normandie, as it distinguishes in its claim, is a “public course still in operation.”
Yes, one might respond, but ... Normandie was a private joint in 1901, and it remained private for 83 years before opening to the public in 1984.
And so it goes ... potato-potatoe, tomato-tomatoe.
Let’s call the whole thing off.
The spirit of the lineage embraced by these facilities is what matters most, not the letter. In that regard, Normandie’s pedigree is beyond question. Its 18 holes of golf located north of downtown St. Louis are among the most historic and endearing in the country.
For instance, when he wasn’t driving balls out of Sportsman’s Park — which he did three times in Game 4 of the 1926 World Series — Babe Ruth enjoyed taking his rips at Normandie. So did comedian Bob Hope and comic actor W.C. Fields.
St. Louis Cardinals greats Dizzy Dean, Rogers Hornsby and Pepper Martin were regulars and built homes in the surrounding Bel-Nor neighborhood. Friendly wagers were often part of the golf at Normandie and slot machines once lined the walls of the clubhouse. A Collier’s magazine article once referred to Normandie as “the top gambling golf club in the country.”
According to legend, George Zaharias proposed to his wife, Mildred “Babe” Didrikson, during a round at Normandie. The 1908 Western Open was played at Normandie, won by Willie Anderson, who won four U.S. Opens. What’s more, Jim Furyk made his professional debut in the Lou Fusz Open at Normandie.
But Normandie isn’t just about nostalgia. Classic golf heritage is part of its DNA. The original course was designed by Robert and James Foulis, apprentices under Old Tom Morris in St. Andrews, Scotland. The Foulis brothers also designed Glen Echo, by the way.
Jim Foulis was the first golf professional at Chicago Golf Club, where the inaugural U.S. Women’s Senior Open will be held this summer. Foulis also won the 1896 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, where the 2018 U.S. Open will be staged.
Meanwhile, Robert Foulis worked on the design for St. Louis' original Bellerive Country Club, which will play host to the 100th PGA Championship this year.
“To my thinking, Normandie is, just like Glen Echo, a great tribute to the work of the Foulis brothers,” said Jim Healey, a golf historian and author of Golfing before the Arch: A History of St. Louis Golf. Healey spoke extensively about the Foulis brothers in a 2003 question-and-answer interview with GolfClubAtlas.com.
“They took their ideas of shotmaking from St. Andrews and attempted to duplicate those at these courses. Certainly the land is much different than what you see in a classic links course. But the shot values, playing off natural terrain, with no earth moving equipment to make things level or easier, is much of what Old Tom would have told young Robert Foulis.
“Foulis’ routing of both is excellent; the small greens demand near perfection with the approach. A player’s putting skill is severely tested on both courses and most, if not all of the greens. The great mix of holes; long par 3’s, short par 3’s, short par 4’s, hard-as-hell par 4’s, reachable par 5’s and difficult par 5’s is what golf is all about.”
From a playing standpoint, the golf course has a hurt-so-good personality, slightly quirky and thoroughly vintage. The experience begins with a demanding par 4, 446 yards from the back tees, straightforward and unforgiving. It finishes in unusual fashion, with a 250-yard par 3, one of the more terrifying tee shots you might find.
In between, there are elevation changes, two-tiered greens, blind shots and imaginative situations that might call for any club in the bag. In other words, there is a time-honored test of golf, one that relies on guile and gumption more than brute strength.
The property was in danger of being converted into a residential development until nearby University of Missouri-St. Louis purchased the grounds in 2015 and committed to retaining the golf course. Bringing it back to top condition has been a work in progress, and a difficult challenge during St. Louis summers. But when it is good, it is really good.
“I think about the mix of uphill and downhill shots required, simply amazing,” Healey added. “The holes are memorable because of the unique mix, the greens and the type of shots required to score well.
“These, I believe, are the greatest tribute to Foulis and what he created. When Normandie is in good condition — fairways, bunkers, greens, etc. — it can be ranked among the area’s toughest and hardest layouts.”
That is, the immediate St. Louis area... and west of the Mississippi.