Minnesota Golf

February 16, 2007

Quick. name the only state to have hosted every one of the 17 championships conducted by the U.S. Golf Association. Surely a warm weather state, like California. Nope, but nice try. Maybe New Jersey, home to the USGA’s headquarters?

It’s Minnesota, a place where the golf season lasts only seven months but the roots of the game run deep and strong.

From an early history of being at the forefront of the development of golf in the U.S., Minnesota in the last decade has become one of the hotbeds of the game. And in recent years, the state known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes has made a concerted and increasingly successful effort to thaw the perception of also being known as the Land of 10,000 Frozen Hazards.

If you need additional evidence that this state is indeed more than just home to snow, a snake-bitten pro football team, and the Mall of America, check out these facts.

More people play golf in Minnesota per capita than any other state in the union. Approximately one resident of every five in the Gopher state hits the links each year.

Those 17 championships conducted by the U.S.G.A.? It all started with the 1916 U.S. Open — as well as the Opens of 1930, 1970 and 1991. There have also been national championships for men, women, mid-amateurs, seniors and juniors, public links, the Walker Cup and the Curtis Cup held at numerous venues in the state.

Then there is the PGA Championship, which was played in Minnesota in 1932, 1954 and 1959. It will be held in August 2002 at Hazeltine National in the Twin Cities suburb of Chaska. In September of the same year, the Interlachen Club in the neighboring suburb of Edina will host the Solheim Cup. Interlachen is where Bobby Jones captured the 1930 U.S. Open for the third leg of his Grand Slam.

The popularity of the game is such that even though weather limits play to a six- or seven-month window each year, there are about 475 courses in the state, with slightly more than 400 available for play by the public.

And here’s the best part for golfers considering a visit to Minnesota — greens fees range from about $25 at the well-manicured municipal courses of Minneapolis and St. Paul to $100 for the upscale public and resort courses surrounding the Twin Cities and various locations around the state. Repeat, no green fees for any public or resort course in Minnesota — with a cart included — is going to be more than $100.

With all of that as background, visitors planning a trip to Minnesota have to consider potential golf venues in three distinct parts of the state

First, there are plenty of opportunities in bustling Minneapolis and St. Paul and nearby suburbs to play both older courses with rich heritages and more modern layouts built in the last decade or two. A large airport serves the area, and it’s only a 15-minute ride to the downtown of either city. Second, numerous new public and resort courses have sprung up in the Lakes and Iron Range areas of northern Minnesota. These locations, a two- to three-hour drive from the Twin Cities, are also served by commuter airports. While once purely fishing and hunting destinations, these days golf is getting plenty of attention in towns like Brainerd, Grand Rapids, and Biwabik, as well as Duluth and the North Shore along Lake Superior.

Third, lots of small towns in the northwest, southeast and southwest portions of the state have attractive courses open to visiting golfers.

Golf course development had been relatively stagnant in Minnesota, and the Twin Cities, from the Depression until the late 1980s. The big names in golf course architecture had made visits to the state decades ago — Donald Ross designed five private clubs, A.W. Tillinghast a couple, and Seth Raynor and Tom Bendelow added a pair each.

But over the last decade or so, several architects with national and even international reputations have put their marks on the Twin Cities landscape. And four of them are among the list of top public courses visitors can enjoy.

Although it takes a slight bending of geographic state borders to get one of those into the mix, including Troy Burne in the gerrymandering is worth the effort.

This course is actually just across the state line near Hudson, Wisconsin, a small town on the shores of the Mississippi River less than a 30-minute drive from downtown St. Paul.

As is the case with many modern courses, Troy Burne is both a real estate development and a place to play golf. But developer Glen Rehbein, who already had built two courses in the Twin Cities, wanted the parts to be separate so that golfers wouldn’t be playing in somebody’s backyard. Thus, while there are many homesites at Troy Burne, the golf course has its own identity — indeed, the two nines carry distinct personalities.

To design the course, Mike Hurdzan and Dana Fry were hired for the nuts-and-bolts part of the job. But Minnesota native Tom Lehman, whose play during the 1990s propelled him to the upper echelons of the PGA Tour, was enlisted to add a special touch around the greens and bunkers.

“We didn’t expect Tom to draw the drainage plans,” said Jeff Knutson, a partner in the development team. “But he has the vision and experience to make the design a lasting thing.”

The result is a layout with a $75 greens fee that has become one of the favorites in the Twin Cities since opening in June of 1999.

The front nine here has the look and feel of a heathland course, with fairways surrounded by high berms that make each hole distinct and separate. The land, although relatively flat, still has rolls and the greens are undulating.

All of that changes on the back nine, which is more of a parkland course with creeks and ponds guarding fairways and greens. This course is only two years old, but it was not opened until a level of maturity had been reached to insure a finished product.

The first five holes of the back nine are the most scenic. The 10th hole is a par-four wrapping around a small pond and a transition area. The 11th is a mid-length par-three with a creek bubbling alongside the green on the right. The 12th, a short par five, has water down the entire left side of the hole, while the par three 13th, played from an elevated tee, has the same pond on the left side. The 14th is an uphill par four with the pond again on the left.

As visitors head back to St. Paul from Troy Burne along Interstate 94, they’ll see an even newer course right alongside the freeway. Longtime residents of the area around the quaint river city of Stillwater still remember when this land was an Arabian horse farm and a quarry for sand and cement. But in July 2000, the property was put to another use — as home for the StoneRidge Golf Club.

Course architect Bobby Weed made sure every hole was scraped down to the sand base for great drainage and a solid footing for the fairways. The front nine features native grasses and bunkers framing the fairways while the back nine has the greater elevation changes around the quarry openings.

Golfers will remember the Scottish feel of the fairly flat opening holes, and then the rises and drops of the middle holes on the back side, and all for a green fee of $69 during the week and $79 on the weekends.

If a visitor wants to be in touch with a lot of history — and pay only $25 for the experience — then a stop at Keller Golf Club in the St. Paul suburb of Maplewood is a must.

Opened in the 1920s, Keller was the site of the 1932 PGA Championship (won by Olin Dutra), and the 1954 PGA Championship (won by Jay Hebert). It also was where the PGA Tour’s St. Paul Open was played from 1930 to 1965, with the likes of Sam Snead, Tommy Bolt, Walter Hagen and Mike Souchak walking the fairways. In addition, Keller was the scene for the LPGA’s Patty Berg Open from 1973 to 1980, with rookie Beth Daniel winning her first pro tournament there in 1979.

Berg was born and raised in Minneapolis before going on to win the 1938 U.S. Women’s Amateur and the first U.S. Women’s Open in 1946, and became one of the founders of the LPGA.

Time and storms have changed the look of the course at Keller. While still tree-lined with elms, oaks and pines, some of Keller’s older trees have suffered disease and wind damage. But the hole configurations remain the same and the course still carries the identical parkland look as when some of the greatest names in golf visited.

Although the path is winding, the Mississippi River serves as a divider between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Once a visitor has gone west and crossed over the Lake Street Bridge, Minneapolis offers many playing options.

Two of the best are in the west suburbs — The Wilds in Prior Lake and the Chaska Town Course. The Wilds, designed by Tom Weiskopf and Jay Moorish, opened in 1995 as one of the first upscale public courses to be opened in the Twin Cities. Chaska Town Course, laid out by Arthur Hills, was opened for play in late 1997.

The Wilds is less than a 30-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis. The land is covered by various hardwoods and pines and is dotted by several ponds and creeks. Weiskopf built a championship course that incorporates the rolling hills, but with enough open spaces and various tees so that players of any level of ability can enjoy a round for standard fee of $99. As a further attraction, The Wilds, especially early (the first 10 days of April) and late (the end of October) in the seven-month Minnesota golf season, frequently offers a “temperature” fee. That means, your green fee, including a cart, is equal to whatever the temperature is at the time.

A stretch of holes from the fifth through the eighth on the front nine, and the closing four holes on the back nine, typify a Weiskopf design. The fifth and sixth holes (with a split fairway) are both lengthy par fours, while the seventh is a par three from an elevated tee over a marsh to an elevated green about 175 yards away. The eighth is a par five with the last half of the hole rolling downhill to a green situated in front of yet another marsh.

The finish at the Wilds starts with the downhill, par four 14th offering a panorama of the surrounding countryside. The 16th is an exciting par four followed by an uphill par five at the 17th. The 18th is a challenging par four with a pond along the right side that guards the green.

If a golfer still wants more action, the Mystic Lake Casino is only a mile or so away. Blackjack, slot machines and marquee entertainment are available.

The Chaska Town Course opened in 1997 in the same suburb as Hazeltine National — the site of the 1970 and 1991 U.S. Opens, and the venue for the 2002 PGA Championship. Indeed, the layout, about a 25-minute drive from downtown Minneapolis, is only a long tee shot from its more famous neighbor. The course Hills designed is good enough that it will be used in combination with Hazeltine National when the U.S. Amateur comes to town in 2004.

The Chaska Town Course has a mix of holes with a links style and a parkland feel because Hills effectively incorporated the rolling land with the ponds and marshes. Residents of Chaska pay less than $30 to play the course, but even visitors can enjoy the well-designed layout for $49 on the weekend. After playing the 18th hole, a par-five wrapping around one of the wetlands, they can climb or ride up a large hill to the clubhouse knowing they have gotten their money’s worth.

Instead of marketing the northern portion of the state solely as a place for fishing in the summer or hunting for deer or ducks and pheasants in the fall, resort owners over the past decade have learned that visitors might be enticed to the lakes and woods to play golf. But only if those visitors knew they would find top-notch courses.

During the past decade, the area around Mille Lacs Lake and the myriad of lakes surrounding Brainerd has developed into a hotbed of family-style resorts offering outstanding courses as well as the other amenities of fishing, water sports, hiking and camping.

The focal point at the beginning was Brainerd, and the nearby summer town of Nisswa, an area about 150 miles north of the Twin Cities. The destination is served by suitable highways and commuter flights.

The mushrooming growth of golf in the Lakes area started with a 27-hole course at Grand View Lodge called The Pines. But as popularity of the new course increased, numerous others have been developed. Now there are eight courses within a 20-mile radius of Brainerd, all of them are worth a visit.

No golf trip to the Brainerd area would be complete without a stop at The Classic. Its name is appropriate — it is one of the finest daily fee courses in Minnesota and also ranks with the top private clubs both in natural beauty and challenge.

At about $100 for peak-season weekend play, The Classic is definitely at the high end of the fee scale for Minnesota, but quite comparable in terms of quality to courses in other destinations around the country.

The Classic is unique in modern-day golf because it is a dream come true for a previously unknown course architect.

Scott Hoffman worked as the superintendent for the family-style courses at Madden’s Resort since he graduated from Michigan State and returned to the area in 1975. But as Hoffman worked the old courses, he saw a place where he could design a course of unusual natural beauty. He finally got his chance about five years ago.

Quick Facts
  Troy Burne
(715) 381-9800 $79 (cart fee $13 per player*)

(651) 436-4653 $69 weekdays; $79 weekends (cart fee $13 per player*)

(651) 484-3011 $23 (cart fee $22 total*)

  Chaska Town Course
(952) 443-3748 Non-residents: $46 weekdays; $49 weekends (cart fee $26 total*)

  The Wilds
(952) 445-3500 $99 (cart included)

  The Classic
(218) 829-2811 $90 weekdays; $105 weekends (cart included)

  Deacon’s Lodge
(218) 562-5444; $90 weekdays; $95 weekends (cart included)

  The Preserve
(218) 568-4944 $75 weekdays; $85 weekends (cart included)

  Giants Ridge
(800) 688-7669 $75

  Dacotah Ridge
(507) 644-5050 $52 (cart fee $13 per player*)

* Walking permitted. Please contact the course to confirm green fees.

“We had asked several well-known architects to come see the piece of land we had in mind for the golf course,” said Brian Thuringer, the owner of Madden’s. “They all seemed a little hesitant to come up to the northwoods. We did bring in Geoffrey Cornish for a visit, and as we started walking around the land, most of the things he would talk about doing and where the holes should go were exactly what Scott had been telling us were in his plans. We finally decided that we had the person who should design the course right here. We knew there was a great course on this land, we just had to brush away the cover to show it.”

The course Hoffman visualized became a reality in 1997. The Classic is a bonding of tall hardwoods and pines with creeks and ponds. These surround a ribbon of green fairways and subtle greens surrounded by sparkling white-sand bunkers. Each hole is separate, and one seems to flow effortlessly out of the other. There is quiet solitude interrupted only by the chirps of birds.

A short drive away from the Classic is The Preserve, another course operated by Grand View Lodge. Designed by former PGA Tour player Mike Morley, The Preserve also captures the feel of the northwoods, although it is not quite as demanding a test.

Again, woods and water are the main features, with the clubhouse looming over the course at the start and finish.

Also close by is Deacon’s Lodge, created two years ago by Arnold Palmer and named in honor of his father. Palmer might have been unfamiliar with northern Minnesota when he first arrived to consider the project, but he quickly became enamored with the area where his course is situated.

Deacon’s Lodge is challenging, but Palmer has given the player room off the various sets of tees to gamble or play safe. The real demands of Deacon’s Lodge come on the approach shots. Palmer has sculpted the greens with bunkers and dropoffs to go along with carries over marshes, ponds and sand-filled waste areas.

Several cottages are available for visiting golfers where the day can be discussed following the round.

Those are just three of the choices in the Brainerd area. Another venue is The Legacy, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. Others courses are at Breezy Point, Ruttger’s at Bay Lake and a brand-new layout at Golden Eagle, another Morley design, in Fifty Lakes.

When Minnesotans talk about going to The Range, they’re not talking about hitting a bucket of balls. They’re referring to the Iron Range, a stretch of land about 50 miles wide and 100 miles long running diagonally across the northeast portion of the state.

Once laden with iron ore, the area’s native sons include singer/songwriter Bob Dylan and former Boston Celtics star Kevin McHale, both of whom were born in Hibbing, a mining town midway on The Range.

Most of the mined ore was sent by rail to the port of Duluth for shipping to Pittsburgh and other steel mills. While the ore supply has been depleted, the development of several new golf courses and the renovation of others has helped the local economy.

The best course is Giants Ridge at Biwabik, near the eastern end of the Range and about 60 miles directly north of Duluth. The course, designed by Jeff Brauer (with assistance from PGA Tour pro and former Ryder Cup Captain Lanny Wadkins), was opened three years ago and carved out of land used as a ski resort.

More than $6 million was invested to fashion a highly playable and eye-catching course through the pines and white birches.

The course features generous fairways over the rolling land with numerous outcroppings of boulders pulled out of the thin soil. The most memorable feature of Giants Ridge is a huge fairway bunker in the shape of a paw print, located smack dab in the landing area for tee shots on the par-five third.

Add in gaping white-sand bunkers, and the result is a course that has become so popular that work is underway for another 18-hole course to be ready in 2003.

Several gambling casinos, operated by various tribes of Native Americans, are scattered around Minnesota. One of them is Jackpot Junction, located in Morton — about 125 miles southwest of the Twin Cities.

Following the pattern of tribes in other states that had built golf courses at their casinos, the tribe approached Rees Jones about designing an 18-hole course on the prairie farmlands near the casino.

He created Dacotah Ridge, which opened for play in the summer of 2000. The course features gently rolling hills and prairie grasses on the first 16 holes, with the closing two holes working through a stand of trees.

Jones also had an 18-acre lake constructed in the middle of the course with several holes playing around or over the water. Overlooking the course is a 14,000-square foot clubhouse.

So while hunting and fishing remain among the most popular outdoor activities here in Minnesota, golf has also had a long and fruitful presence.

Of course, sports fans visiting the Twin Cities can also choose from professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey games as a getaway from golf — if the timing of the season is right.

But with such a variety of courses to choose from, it’s no surprise that golf is such an integral part of life for so many Minnesotans, and for the state’s many visitors as well.