Golf in Des Moines got off to a quick start 125 years ago when a dozen men met at a sporting goods store on a Tuesday evening in 1897 and voted to form the Golf and Country Club. 

The next day’s newspaper reported: “A tract of land, 40 acres at the end of the Ingersoll street car line, can be secured … if the club will pay the taxes” of about $150.

Four days later, on Saturday, Oct. 2, 30 prospective golfers showed up at the corner of what are now Ingersoll Avenue and Polk Boulevard. 

An unrecorded number of golf holes had been hastily created from pastureland, and the handful of sportsmen carrying golf clubs were joined by cows and sheep.

Following that inauspicious beginning, cows were banned but sheep were allowed because they ate grass and weeds, making it easier to find balls.

A formal course was laid out the following year.

It was “a kind of hit and miss 18-hole affair which trickled over Ingersoll and down to Grand. The holes were mostly short and the fairways haphazard,” the newspaper reported.

The 40-acre site was deemed too small for 18 holes, and a more playable nine-hole course was created. It ran north from Ingersoll to Harwood Drive and west from 45th Street to 49th Street. A clubhouse was built in 1899 near Ingersoll Avenue at what is today Polk Boulevard. 

Most fairways ran north or south. Hole No. 9 crossed the future Polk Boulevard to end at the clubhouse, and No. 4 ran southeast from Harwood on a diagonal, crossing Polk about where Woodland Avenue is today. 

Local historian John Zeller once explained the speed with which golf caught on in Des Moines as follows: “When wealthy Des Moines residents would vacation, many would go to the East Coast where English traditions were big. They’d come back from these vacations and they’d want a yachting club and they’d want a golf club and tennis.” 

The founders of the Golf and Country Club, which later was renamed Des Moines Golf and Country Club, included many of the city’s monied families, a few of whom rode in horse-drawn carriages while playing golf. 

The sport quickly attracted middle-class interest, and in 1901 city officials established a public golf course at Waveland Park, a 190-acre tract of land purchased in 1894 for $150 an acre.

Waveland’s golf course opened June 29, 1901, with nine holes. A temporary clubhouse and pavilion stood near today’s Waveland Tennis Courts, and a 40-acre wildlife refuge for elk was in the northeast corner of the park. In 1902, nine more holes were built around the original nine.

A Des Moines Tribune article in 1927 reported that when Waveland opened it was “absolutely free to the public.” It was, the article said, the second public course in the United States after New York City’s Van Cortland Park course, which opened in 1895.

The Des Moines public was so enamored with golf that the city added a nine-hole east-side course in 1902 at Grandview Park on land the city acquired about the same time as Waveland Park. 

In 1903, members of the Golf and Country Club made a major decision. Two years earlier the Des Moines streetcar railroad had leased land southeast of the country club and opened Ingersoll Amusement Park. (See my Sept. 30 column at 
www.bit.ly/ingersollpark)

The growing country club needed more space, and the only way to go was west. In 1904 the club obtained a 20-year lease on 100 acres west of its original 40 acres and built an all-new 18-hole course, adding a much larger, three-story clubhouse in 1906 at the southwest corner of 49th Street and Harwood Drive.

The club moved two more times, to Ashworth Road in West Des Moines in 1927, and to its current location in Dallas County when Interstate 235 cut through Des Moines during the 1960s.

Today, Des Moines and its suburbs are home to 23 of Iowa’s 395 golf courses where 5.4 million rounds of golf were played in 2021, according to the Iowa Golf Association.