Warren J. Rebholz, a Life Dedicated to the Game of Golf
April 8, 2020
By Mike Fermoyle
The Emperor Augustus was fond of saying that he found Rome a city of brick and transformed it into a city of marble. It was true, both literally and metaphorically. Under his rule, Rome became a glistening architectural marvel and, at the same time, expanded its power, influence and wealth to the point where the city was the envy of the known world.
Although he never would have said it, Warren Rebholz could have made a similar claim about the ascent of the Minnesota Golf Association during his two-decade reign as its head man.
He took over the association as it was just beginning to establish a solid financial base, after a time not that long before when it was in danger of disappearing altogether. Like Augustus, he brought a long-running civil war to an end, in this case between the state’s public and private courses. And he then proceeded to turn the MGA into an association that was admired and looked to for leadership by virtually every other association in the country — and by the USGA.
Rebholz, 92, of Bloomington, Minn., passed away peacefully in his home April 7.
Avid golfers, especially those who gave up hockey long ago, might think nothing good ever happens in winter. But that’s not true. One of the best things that ever happened to Minnesota golf actually took place in the middle of the winter nearly five decades ago.
It was in January of 1973 that Rebholz took over as the Executive Director of the MGA, and that, basically, signaled the beginning of the golden age of Minnesota golf. Operating with a paid staff of one for the first two years, and with a staff of only two (plus a lot of volunteers) for most of the rest of his 20-year term in office, Rebholz brought the MGA into the modern world, where it thrived.
The naming of Rebholz started the process by which peace was established between what had been Minnesota golf's two rival factions — the private and public clubs. He stream-lined the way in which the MGA did handicaps, and while he was at it, helped to solidify the financial underpinnings of the association.
Under Rebholz, the MGA was a pioneer in the development of the USGA’s course ratings system, which made handicaps significantly more equitable. The State Match Play tournament (now known as the Players Championship) and the State Mid-Amateur were both added to the MGA calendar during his reign, and both became popular events almost immediately.
Another thing Rebholz did was to make tournament courses tougher (it might be hard to believe, but before 1973, there was never any rough around the greens at the State Amateur). His idea was to give Minnesota amateurs a taste of what it was like to play in a USGA event. However, he never lost sight of what he considered to be the ultimate goal, which was to make the game fun.
It is one measure of how successful he was that the number of players for whom the MGA calculated handicaps increased from 25,000 in the first years of Rebholz’s term in office to 75,000 at the time of his retirement in 1992.
The 1990’s represented the height of the golf boom in the United States, and nowhere did it blossom to a greater extent than in Minnesota, where the per-capita golfing population was the highest in the country year after year.
Rebbie, the name that virtually everyone who knows Rebholz uses when referring to him, had a lot to do with that.
As if to send him out with a bang, the U.S. Golf Association scheduled the U.S. Open at Hazeltine National, where Rebbie was one of the early members, in 1991, and the 1993 Walker Cup Matches at another Minnesota course, Interlachen Country Club, in 1993.
Fittingly, one of the two Minnesotans playing for the U.S. side, John Harris (Tim Herron was the other), earned the clinching point in the U.S. victory that year. A couple of weeks later, Harris won the U.S. Amateur Championship in Houston.
(Ten years after Rebholz retired, one of his fellow Hazeltine members -- and proteges -- Reed Mackenzie, became President of the USGA, which was yet another indirect tribute to Rebbie.)
“People, even the ones who played in MGA tournaments during that time, have no idea how much Rebbie accomplished,” suggests John LaBrie, who was a member of the MGA’s board of directors during the glory years of Rebholz’s reign. “Part of the reason for that was that Rebbie made everything look so easy. But it wasn’t.”
There were a few people who knew how hard Rebholz worked. They were the ones who worked with him.
“You couldn’t get to the office earlier than he did,” says Guy Green, who was Rebholz’s assistant from 1984 to ’91. “It just wasn’t possible. And you couldn’t stay later than he did. He would take an occasional afternoon off to play golf, maybe, but most days he was the first one at the office in the morning and the last one to leave at night.”
Tom Magne preceded Green as Rebbie’s assistant. He remembers helping haul the MGA scoreboard around, both for MGA events and for events that had nothing to do with the MGA.
“Rebbie had a scoreboard built, so that we could take it around and use it for our tournaments,” Magne says. “But if we didn’t need it, he’d let a club use it for one of their events, and we’d have to get it there. I got up at 5 o’clock a lot of Saturday mornings to help Rebbie get that thing to Golden Valley (G&CC), or Mankato, or Hutchinson. Then, when the event was over Sunday night, we’d pick it up.
“He didn’t have to do that, but it made those club events better, and more fun for the guys who played in them. It also created a large amount of good will among those clubs toward the MGA. Because of things like that, clubs were willing to give up their courses for our tournaments. Basically, it made things better for everybody.”
Another thing that contributed to Rebholz’s success was his talent for organization.
“Rebbie was probably the most organized person I’ve ever met,” Magne says, and his opinion of Rebholz as an organizer has been echoed by others, including LaBrie, Green and Dick Howell, a former MGA president.
But according to Green, Rebholz succeeded mainly “by being Rebbie.”
“There was just something about him and his personality,” Green explains. “He attracted really good people to the MGA, the people on the board, and the volunteers. People like Dick Howell, Dick Harris, Ted Stark, John LaBrie and Reed Mackenzie. They were all willing to work hard, but they were fun to be with, and they all absolutely loved golf, just like Rebbie.
“It was the same sort of thing when I’d tag along with Rebbie and we’d go to USGA meetings. I remember one time when I was sitting with Rebbie, and the other people at the table with him were Joe Dey, P.J. Boatwright (both former USGA Executive Directors), Frank Hannigan (who was the Executive Director at the time) and David Fay (a future Executive Director). It was like being a 12-year-old baseball player and sitting at a table with with Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. But that kind of thing happened all the time when you were with Rebbie.”
Golf wasn’t always Rebholz’s No. 1 sport. Born in 1928, he grew up in St. Paul and would play an occasional round at Highland Park GC with his father. But baseball was his favorite sport, and the one he played in the spring when he was at Cretin High School. (He graduated 42 years before the merger with Derham Hall created what we now know as Cretin-Derham Hall.)
In all likelihood, he would have played college baseball at St. Thomas, except that he showed up there at the wrong time. It was 1946, and there was a flood of 22-, 23-, 24- and 25-year old males coming back from World War II, most of them eager to take advantage of the GI Bill, which made higher education free for military veterans. And quite a few of those veterans showed up for the baseball tryouts at St. Thomas.
“I was a pretty good baseball player,” Rebholz remembers, “but I was a boy trying to play against men my freshman year at St. Thomas. Those guys were big and strong, and, boy, were they in shape. I was good. Those guys were really good. So that was the end of my baseball career.”
As it turned out, that was a very good thing for Minnesota golf.
Once he got serious about the more enlightened sport with a smaller ball, Rebholz got to be pretty good at it. He won the club championship at Highland Park twice, and he managed to get through the minefield of elite tournament players at Hazeltine to win that club championship three times.
In 1954, he qualified for the U.S. Public Links Championship, which was held at Cedar Crest in Dallas, and even though he wasn’t able to play a practice round, he took the eventual champion, Gene Andrews, 16 holes before losing 3 and 2.
“Unfortunately,” he points out, “I never even got to play the last two holes on that course.”
He made it back to the U.S. Publinx in 1958, and he also qualified for the inaugural U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at 1981. At 53, Rebholz was twice the age of some of the contestants vying for five spots (the minimum age is 25 for the Mid-Am), yet he finished second to medalist Cal Simmons (73) with a 75 at Interlachen in the qualifier. The guy who ended up just behind him in third was Mike Podolak, a future U.S. Mid-Am winner.
“Rebbie was a sneaky good player,” says Lisa Overom, the MGA’s current assistant executive director. “He always downplayed his accomplishments, so that’s why people tended not to realize how good he was.”
But Rebholz’s involvement in golf quickly went beyond merely knocking the ball around the course. He became the club president at Highland, and then president of the Minnesota Public Golf Course Association, which was how he got involved with the MGA.
At that time, in the 1950‘s, there was a great divide in golf between the private clubs and the public courses, and nowhere was that more apparent than at the MGA. Basically, the MGA wasn’t all that interested in having the public courses in the association, which is a partial explanation for why the number of member clubs dropped to fewer than 25 early in the decade -- and for why the MGA was in danger of going out of existence.
“Back then,” recalled the late Dick Howell, who began his long term of service to the MGA (as a committeeman, board member and president in the late ’50’s), “the MGA wouldn’t even do handicaps for the public courses.”
The person most responsible for bringing the publics and the privates together was Bob Morgan. Like Howell, Morgan was a successful businessman who served the MGA in various capacities for more than a half-century, and he was considered instrumental in helping to put the organization on sound financial footing.
When Al Wareham was running the MGA in his position as executive secretary in the 1950’s, he was paid next to nothing and had to keep his job as an executive for a railroad company. No one was ever quite sure in those days whether the MGA headquarters were his railroad office downtown — or the trunk of his car.
Thanks in no small part to Morgan, Wareham, who became the MGA’s first executive director in 1960, was able to move into a small -- very small -- office on the corner of France and 49 1/2 Street in Edina.
Of all his contributions to the MGA, however, Morgan’s greatest was in putting Rebholz at the head of the operation. Exactly who it was that made the decision to make Rebbie the executive director is a question that has never been definitively answered.
“At the time, a lot of people said that I hired myself,” Rebholz once joked. But the guy who was actually pulling the strings, behind the scene as usual, was almost certainly Morgan.
“Bob was the person on the board with the most influence, by far,” Howell explained. “I’d bet that he was the one, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude for making that choice. Rebbie was the perfect man for the job.”
And it didn’t hurt that Rebholz came along at pretty much the perfect time. Golf was definitely on the rise.
Dan Jenkins has written that Arnold Palmer invented golf on the back nine at Augusta National during the 1960 Masters, and there was considerable truth in that. Before Palmer, the general perception was that golf was a game for Dwight Eisenhower, some rich guys and the chronically unemployed. Then golf started showing up on TV, just in time for the emergence of the charismatic son of a greenskeeper with a go-for-broke style.
Basically, Palmer made golf seem “cool” to a generation that used that word a lot. He started by winning the ’60 Masters in a dramatic, made-for-TV fashion, sinking a 30-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole and a 6-footer for birdie at the 18th to defeat Ken Venturi by a single stroke. His victory two months later in the U.S. Open was no less spectacular. Trailing by seven shots with one round to play, the 30-year-old Palmer drove the green on the 345-yard first hole at Cherry Hills CC in Denver, went on a birdie-making spree, shot a closing 65 and claimed victory over 47-year-old Ben Hogan and 20-year-old Jack Nicklaus in one of the greatest cross-generational contests in the history of any sport.
That was the beginning of the golf boom. Courses that had been pretty much wide open until then started to get more traffic, and by the early 1970’s it wasn’t uncommon for the more popular courses in the Twin Cities to be booked solid from dawn until mid-afternoon.
One advantage that golf had over almost every other sport was that you could play by yourself, or play with one other person who didn’t play at the same level that you did. If you wanted to play baseball, you had to find 17 other guys. Even touch football or a pick-up game of hockey required six or eight players. Basketball and tennis were more like golf in that you could play with as few as two players. But they had to be of more or less equal skill levels.
Not golf. The handicap system was the great equalizer -- except that the system had some major flaws when Rebholz took over the reins at the MGA.
“Handicaps were based solely on a course’s total yardage, as it was printed on the scorecard,” he remembered. “But the yardage could be hundreds of yards off.”
(As an example, the 16th hole at Bolstad/University was listed as 425 yards before it was measured in the early 1970’s. As it turned out, the real distance was 388 yards.)
“The guys from Hazeltine would go to handicap tournaments and win every time,” Rebholz said, laughing at the memory. “They were coming from a course that was legitimately very long and very hard; so, their handicaps were always higher relative to their ability than anyone else’s. A 5 from Hazeltine would be like a 2 from almost any other club. In those days, everyone would bet on the Hazeltine members to shoot the low net score every time. It wasn’t really fair to anyone else.”
So Rebholz hired a University of Minnesota professor, Roger Harrold, to measure every course in the state using laser technology, which he did in 1979 and 1980. Besides getting more accurate yardages, there were some minor adjustments made in a course rating based on the difficulty of the holes.
There was still work that needed to be done to make handicaps really equitable. That part of the job was undertaken in 1983 when Green and Bob Evans went around the state and used the USGA’s new 10-point system (the Slope system) to rate every hole on every course in Minnesota -- and they completed the task in one year.
Rebholz was impressed enough with the job they did that he hired Green as his assistant to replace Magne, who left at the end of the ’83 season.
Minnesota was just the second state to implement the Slope System of course rating. Colorado had been the first. That was sort of the pattern. The MGA wasn’t necessarily the first association to do something new, but it was almost always very near the head of the pack.
“It wasn’t so much that Rebbie was an innovator,” Green says. “It was just that he was a guy who could get a job done right, and the USGA knew that. Which is why any time they wanted to try something out, they’d call Rebbie. The Met (the Metropolitan Golf Association in New York) and the MGA were the two best in those days. They were the gold standard for golf associations.”
Rebholz retired as executive director late in 1992, a few months before his 65th birthday, and handed the job over to his assistant, Ross Galarneault, who left the MGA seven years later to work for the USGA.
As an encore, in 1996 Rebholz started the MGA Senior Tour, for players 55 and over. This wasn’t an idea that originated with him, either. He borrowed it from North Carolina, but in typical Rebbie fashion, he improved on it and turned it into a remarkably popular feature on the Minnesota golf landscape. Starting with 225 players and six events, the MGA ST has grown to the point where there are now five sections (Northern, Southern, Eastern, Western and Super Senior) with more than 800 golfers competing.
“How impressive is that?” Green marvels. “The guy retires, but instead of going off to work on his stamp collection or take naps, he goes on to establish an amazingly successful tour for seniors. It was almost as if Rebbie couldn’t help himself. It was just in his DNA to do whatever he could to make Minnesota golf better.”