FERGUS FALLS – During these weeks when winter refuses to loosen its frozen grip and let spring proceed with its usual array of warmth, sunshine and outdoor activities, one sport at one school is an indoor outlier amid the grumbling that’s rightfully heard all over Minnesota.
In a spot where you might least expect to see golfers swinging clubs, balls flying over green – albeit simulated – fairways and putts dropping into cups, the Fergus Falls girls and boys have been patiently prepping their skills for the day when the outdoors finally beckons. In an upstairs space at the school’s “old” gym, the Otters have an indoor golf facility that is an absolute showplace.
There are two high-tech simulator stations, where golfers tee up the ball and watch it sail into a screen, with the machinery spitting out the shot’s distance, spin and other assorted NASA-style feedback. There is a large putting green with multiple cups, as well as fake-grass mats for chipping. There are comfortable couches and a large-screen TV, with messaging on the walls denoting Otters who have played at state tournaments as well as gracious, community-minded donors who made the place possible at a price approaching $100,000 (and zero cost to the school district).
“We obviously really would like to be outside, because that’s where you get the best practice,” said girls team member Sydney Thacker. “But we love it in here and we’re fortunate that we have it.”
Golf teams across Minnesota began practicing on March 19. Here we are almost a month later and about the only golfing activity outdoors anywhere in the state has meant hitting orange balls into snowbanks or across frozen lakes. But not in Fergus Falls, where the facility opened in 2014.
“The beautiful part is, neither the boys or girls have missed a practice this year,” said girls coach Ben Jurgens. “Everybody gets the opportunity to hit balls, putt and chip. The last two springs, our local course opened in mid-March. There are plenty of days when it’s rainy and cold, and on those days we don’t have to cancel practice.”
This spring, of course, every practice has been indoors, with the girls and boys teams working out in alternating shifts after school. There are 16 boys and 23 girls, and rotating everyone through the simulators, putting and chipping areas takes some patience and organization.
“We’ve been practicing in here for more than three weeks already,” said Otters boys coach Matt McGovern. “We have kids who literally have gone from not being able to hit the golf ball, and now they’re hitting it in the air, they’re getting it on 120-yard par-3s. It’s just an enormous advantage for us because otherwise we’d be sitting inside. And we have kids who are in midseason form.”
The entire space, from the entry doors to the walls and ceilings (even overhead pipes), is festooned in the school colors of maroon and gold. A sign above the main door says, “Good is the enemy of great.” The Otter Golf Wall of Champions, listing every state participant, begins with Roy Spilman in 1938 and continues through the years to 2017, when current players Nate Longtin and Aaron Shelstad went to state.
The Fergus Falls golfers have heard from friends at other schools who have, not surprisingly, expressed some measure of envy at the Otters’ indoor palace.
“They just say they want to get in here and they think about getting one of these,” Shelstad said. “The biggest thing is money, it takes a lot of money to get this. We’re blessed to have the donors, they put a lot of money into this. Thanks to them.”
High on one wall is this statement: “Otter Golf: Family, Faith, Academics, Integrity. Discipline & Determination.” Another message reads: “Humble in victory, gracious in defeat.”
Jurgens said Bob Albers, golf coach at St. John’s University, toured the facility when the university was planning its own indoor golf center and said, “This is what we want.” Jurgens sent video of the facility to University of Minnesota men’s golf coach John Carlson “and he couldn’t believe what we had.”
The space – which in past years has been used by gymnasts and wrestlers at different times -- is reserved solely for students in the school district, no matter the age. Outside of the golf season, students can use the facility when they are accompanied by an adult.
The ultimate payoff of having the facility is this spring, when frustration at the weather is common everywhere.
“It puts us ahead of the competition, especially being in northern Minnesota with the snow,” Longtin said. “Last year we were outside on March 14, so we only spent a week, a week and a half up here. We’re in here for probably two months this year and everybody else is hitting into nets and putting on gym floors. We can see distances, side spins and hit putts with a little break. It puts us way ahead of everybody else.”--To see a photo gallery, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
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