Duluth gets its reputation largely because of two things – its hill and its lake. Ironically, those factors led directly to the success of another Duluth icon. After its inception in 1899, the Northland Country Club quickly gained popularity. Although it was only a nine-hole course, the rolling, downhill patch of land tucked between thick woods and Lake Superior allowed for a unique layout.
Two holes – No. 5 and No. 9 – required tee shots to fly over Superior Street. Fairways intersected each other. Several holes were where the current Duluth East High School now sits.
The foundations of Northland had certainly been laid. Membership soared, tournaments were hosted and a new clubhouse was built.
But in 1918, the history of the club was altered forever.
In early October of that year, the famous Cloquet-Moose Lake fire spread across the northeastern portion of the state, helped greatly by 75 mile per hour winds. According to the club's website, Northland was hit particularly hard. The clubhouse, which was fairly new, was completely destroyed, and the members were left to ponder the future of the course.
After meetings at the Kitchi Gammi Club, a new clubhouse style was decided on, and construction began. The new building opened in 1920, shifting the main focus to what really makes Northland revered as one of the northern Minnesota’s gems – the course.
In buying the land directly above the old property, Northland allowed itself to redesign the layout. When looking for an architect, the club requested the services of Donald Ross, who is considered one of the legendary course designers by golf historians.
“At the time, Donald Ross was probably the most well-known guy out there,” said Chris Tritabaugh, Northland course superintendent. “There was a lot of money in Duluth at the time, and they were able to get him to come here – twice actually – to design the course.”
Ross came to Duluth and knew immediately that he had a golden opportunity to produce a masterpiece.
Beginning in 1922, Ross helped construct the current layout of the course. He worked the holes out from the clubhouse and up the hill in a zigzag pattern, utilizing the space available.
The new holes, specifically the new greens, garnered endless accolades. Local and regional newspapers – most notably the Duluth News Tribune – raved about the course, saying how the mix of elements from the northern environment and Lake Superior made it one of the greenest, most pristine golf tracks around.
But initially, the members weren't really happy with the layout.
“The members actually paid for him to come back and take another look at the course,” Tritabaugh said. “The ninth hole ended away from the clubhouse [and the members didn't like it], but Ross had to do it that way. The course is so narrow that the space isn't there to have the ninth come back.”
With its new-found dominance in the regional golf scene, Northland was able to secure some of golf’s biggest events and eventually, played host to a significant historical occurrence.
With the intensity of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States coming to a fever pitch, an African-American woman played in the ’56 Open at Northland, becoming the first black women to ever compete in a United States Golf Association event.
That woman was Ann Gregory, the Jackie Robinson of women’s golf.
Gregory effectively paved the way for other African-American golfers – both men and women – to pursue the profession of swinging the sticks.
Even though Northland had forever etched its name in the history books of golf, its chances didn't end there.
Another fire affected the club in 1973, damaging the clubhouse to the point that it required a complete overhaul. It was repaired, one to be torn down in 2006. A new clubhouse, one that is modeled after the former building, was erected in its place.
The clubhouse wasn't the only piece of the club getting a face lift. A renovation took place beginning in 1999 to add bunkers and length to the course. Northland has since taken greater steps to get the course looking more and more like the one Ross designed.
“We've worked with a Ross historian to try and get it back to the way he envisioned it,” Tritabaugh said. “We think we've done a pretty good job of that.”