BEST GOLF COURSE (1999)
In a metro area that boasts some of the best and most varied golfing in the country (more than 90 courses within easy driving range), it's damn near impossible to pick a favorite. Still, taking into account the key factors of convenience and comparatively cheap greens fees ($23 for 18 holes Monday through Thursday, $25 Friday through Sunday), Columbia gets our top nod. Golfers tend to talk down city tracks and, to be frank, some--read: the majority of the St. Paul courses--are indeed comically easy. But even aficionados can be off-mark in their snobberies. Sure, Columbia is not as well maintained as the Wilds or the scads of other upscale private courses that have sprouted like loosestrife in the outer 'burbs. And sure, the more-than-occasional breach of golfing etiquette can leave Columbia's greens dotted with divots. No matter. Built in 1920, the second oldest muny track in Minneapolis is still a classic, flattered by lovely, old-growth cottonwoods and elms and an inventive layout. We are especially fond of a pair of challenging par fours (holes two and six), some quirky par threes, and more than one exciting par five. Columbia gets extra credit for recent improvements, including a sensible reconfiguration of the old back nine. If the billy-goat trudge from the 15th to 16th hole doesn't get your heart pumping, the daunting tee-shot on 16 certainly will; the slightest hook to the left and you're lost in the woods. You'd better arrive early for weekend rounds and for the Twilight Specials ($17 after 4:00 p.m., $12.50 after 6:00 p.m.), as Columbia's virtues are hardly a secret among its largely blue-collar regulars. Although the course attracted more than 51,000 golfers last year alone, midweek players can usually walk on without reservations.