New golf courses are elevating Brainerd's status among the Midwest's best summer destinations

New golf courses are elevating Brainerd's status among the Midwest's best summer destinations

A complete redesign of the golf courses at Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake and the new 13-hole Gravel Pit par-3 course make the trip to Minnesota even more worthwhile.
The view from the seventh tee shows off the mind-blowing canvas of the 13-hole Gravel Pit Golf Course.

BRAINERD, Minn. - Three new courses within a couple miles of each other in the wilds of Minnesota?

What is this: a time machine to the golf construction boom of the 1990s? No, it's actually another example of the ongoing nationwide correction for the architectural sins of that era. Now that the pandemic has provided an influx of cash and enthusiasm back into the industry, upgrades and updates are happening at courses, resorts and country clubs everywhere. Perhaps no golf resort in the country is undergoing a more complete and dramatic metamorphosis than Cragun's Resort On Gull Lake.

Tom Lehman, a Minnesota legend still competing on the PGA TOUR Champions, is spearheading Cragun's $10-million transition from 36 good holes into 45 better ones with a complete redesign of the entire property. The project won't be fully completed until next year, but 27 holes remain open for play with the new Lehman Legacy 18 set to debut Sept. 1 and the new Dutch Legacy 27 following next fall.

Just a stone's throw away from Cragun's, The Gravel Pit Golf Course, a dynamic new 13-hole short course, debuted earlier this year. It also was designed by a local legend, Scott Hoffman, the former longtime superintendent at Madden's on Gull Lake. Hoffman is best known for designing the Classic at Madden's, a course generally considered the region's best. His work at the Gravel Pit has created the best new par-3 course I've seen in years (and that includes The Sandbox at Sand Valley).

I've been coming to Brainerd to play golf and enjoy Gull Lake with family for more than a decade. Like every other holiday retreat, the population and traffic has exploded. Once a regional destination for golfers from the Twin Cities and Chicago, it's now a national destination for Texans and other southerners who come to escape the heat. Locals can also blame GolfPass for the growth. We included Brainerd among the World Top 100 Golf Destinations in 2021. The addition of these new golf experiences can only continue Brainerd's ascension into the upper echelon of America's best summer golf getaways .

Sorting Out Cragun's Dramatic Redesign

Lehman's task was two-fold: To make better use of the land so more holes and 69 new home sites could be added and to remove the penal features from the existing Robert Trent Jones Jr. courses, Dutch Legacy (1998) and Bobby's Legacy (1999). I last played at Cragun's in 2017 - check out that story here - so I recognized the beautiful views of Stephens Lake and a few holes that look similar to the originals from Dutch Legacy on what's currently called "Course Two". That nine-hole loop will ultimately become the "White Course", one of three nine-hole loops on the new Dutch Legacy 27. The Blue Course, created from parts of Bobby's Legacy, hopes to reopen June 15, 2023, with a completely new nine-hole routing. After that, the Red Course will close for its own transformation and come back online in August 2023.

The prize of the entire process will be the new 7,415-yard Lehman Legacy 18 sprawling across 1,000 acres. Newly acquired land allows the routing to wind through the future neighborhoods of Legacy Pointe on the front nine and the larger Legacy Ridge development on the back. Never fear. The homes won't really intrude on the golf. The signature moment around Stephens Lake that made Bobby's Legacy so cool is still there - the dramatic carry over marshland on No. 16. Green fees will top out at $125 this year.

This sign in the clubhouse lobby helps golfers visualize the master plan for Tom Lehman's ongoing golf course redesign at Cragun's On Gull Lake.

Jack Wawro, the director of golf at Cragun's, said the ultimate end game is to eventually build nine more new holes to get to 54 holes and three full championship courses. Golf's modern mantra of playability and fun are the driving forces for all the changes. Plenty of trees, bunkers and extreme slopes on the greens have been removed. Balls can run up onto some greens, while greenside misses can be putted or chipped from more forgiving collection areas.

"A lot of people are playing their best rounds because there are so many forgiving areas compared to what it used to be," Wawro said. "It used to be very tight, lots of marsh, lots of forced carries. That is all gone away. That is what people like to see. There are a few problem bunkers we've taken out that really just penalized the bad golfer and didn't make it harder for the good ones."

Don't get the silly idea that aces and birdies will be easy. Cragun's will be challenging enough to host the PGA Tour Canada's CRMC Championship presented by Gertens, Aug. 21-28.

"They are trying to get rid of all that quirky stuff we had before," Wawro continued. "I want it to be unbelievably playable. That's important to us in resort golf. When we want to host championships and the PGA Tour Canada, we can make it as tough as we want with pins and length."

An entirely unique bunker strategy will differentiate the Dutch Legacy 27 from the Lehman Legacy 18. The edges around the bunkers on the Dutch Legacy 27 are decorated with fescue. The bunkers on the Lehman Legacy 18 feature wavy faces that reveal sweeping revetted sod walls in spots. This new look, called a "Stacked Sod Reveal", is something I haven't seen anywhere else. These revetted faces consist of artificial turf shipped in from overseas.

"He (Lehman) didn't want to do the full stacked sod (walls)", Wawro said. "That would be extreme for us, but that little stacked sod reveal kind of sets the tone for the golf course. That and the fescue (defining the fairway corridors) are part of the feel of the course."

Renovations to the lodging are ongoing, Wawro added, and could wrap up in 2024.

Introducing The Gravel Pit

Now about that stunning Gravel Pit. The setting is like nothing else I've seen, rugged yet refined. Golfers check in at a clubhouse clinging to a ridge with a pergola patio and outdoor fireplaces overlooking the entire landscape.

There's a nice mix of ball-gobbling moments (the 195-yard second) and exacting half-wedge shots (three holes under 91 yards). Golf architecture nerds will go bananas over the blind shot on no. 6, the blown-out bunker on no. 8 and the biarritz green on no. 9.

I do have some concerns over the business model, but I'm rooting for The Gravel Pit because it's a really cool experience. Unfortunately, it's too visually intimidating for beginners, a tad expensive ($55 with a cart) for a 90-minute round and, as a standalone facility, it's tougher to attract a steady stream of players. However, being included in golf packages through Cragun's was a savvy move, providing exposure to resort golfers. It's ideal for groups looking for a par-3 shootout before or after a full round. The Gravel Pit is much more engaging and interesting than Cragun's nine-hole, reversible short course.

An Extreme 13-hole putting course and bocce ball courts are other nice amenities, and there's talk of adding lights. Night golf on a fun par 3? That would be another reason the Gravel Pit rocks.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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New golf courses are elevating Brainerd's status among the Midwest's best summer destinations