Golf trips don’t have to be played along ocean coasts, at Tour tracks down south or at century old links courses over seas. How about woods, lakes, rolling fairways, breathtaking views and countless gorgeous golf holes to boot? I’m talking about the golf in Brainerd, Minnesota, just north of the Twin Cities and about 135 miles from the site of the 2016 Ryder Cup. (Pre-Ryder Cup golf trip, anyone?) Growing up in Minnesota I’ve visited the area since I was a kid, so I’ll admit I’m biased, but pack your clubs and see for yourself.
Here’s my guide to the area’s golf, lodging and dining scene. One thing to note: all of the resorts and courses listed below have several great restaurant options on site, but you have to leave the grounds sometime, right? So check out my recommendations!
218-562-6262 / Website
Rating 73.8 / Slope 146 (Back tees)
The course: Deacon’s Lodge, an Arnold Palmer design named after The King’s dad, Deacon, is GOLF’s highest-ranked course in the Brainerd area (No. 3 in Minnesota, Best Courses You Can Play 2016). It’s tricky the first time with a few blind shots, but you’ll learn a lot the second time around. It has wide, sloping fairways and different landing areas you’ll need to settle on before hitting the majority of your tee shots. You’ll need to think every shot through. The other course belonging to Breezy Point Resort, Whitebirch Golf Course, is just down the road from Deacon’s.
My favorite hole: The 520-yard, par-5 2nd. Hit your drive over a waste area, and you’ll need to decide which side of the two-tiered fairway you want to position the second shot. The green is long, narrow and has lots of break. There’s OB not far behind the green, and miss short and you’ll be stuck in a large fescue cavern.
Eat/Play: Rafferty’s Pizza. Great pizza, beer on tap and a nice deck to eat on make this small pizza joint a must. It’s in the middle of a great shopping area in Nisswa, just miles down the road from Breezy Point and several other resorts and golf courses.
Stay: Breezy Point Resort. It’s been around for nearly a century and has hotel-style rooms, deluxe condos, vacation homes and more and can accommodate groups in need of as little as two bedrooms or as many as 11. There’s also a spa, swimmings pools, several restaurants on site and unlimited activities to do on Pelican Lake.
The Legacy Courses
218-825-2789 / Website
Bobby’s Legacy: Rating 73.9 / Slope 141 (Back tees)
Dutch Legacy: Rating 74.2 / Slope 149 (Back tees)
The course: The Legacy has two 18-hole championship courses, Bobby’s Legacy and the Dutch Legacy, but you might struggle to find two golfers who agree on which one reigns supreme. They both have a good mix of massive fairways, tight landing areas and, of course, breathtaking water views. The closing holes of Bobby’s back nine are some of the best in the area, especially at sunset, as they flow around the water and make the scenery surrounding every shot a memorable one. A bonus on Bobby’s Legacy: a 19th hole called the Gambler’s Hole, a short par-3 your group can play on the way into the clubhouse to settle any carryover bets.
My favorite hole: The shortest hole in the Open Championship rota received a lot of press in 2016, as the tiny par-3 8th at Royal Troon, called the Postage Stamp, is a breath of fresh air after so many long par-3s can dominate golf courses. The par-3 9th at Bobby’s Legacy is as fun as they come. It’s 112 yards from the back tee, but it’s no easy club selection when accounting for the heavily elevated tee box, wind strength, bunker right and water everywhere else. The elevated tee gives one of the best views of the day as the green is perched not far from the outdoor seating area of the gorgeous Legacy clubhouse.
Eat/Play: Ernie’s on Gull. Head north around Gull Lake and turn onto Squaw Point Road to find awesome lakeside food and drink. Ernie’s has inside and outside dining, and it’s got a sandy beach area and another smaller bar, The Summer Shandy Shack, just off the main building.
Stay: Cragun’s Resort and Hotel on Gull Lake. Different hotel rooms and cabins provide space for any group, and there’s lots of extra space outside of the rentals to grill, sprawl out or throw the football around. The beach playground, marina, fitness center and other recreational rental options can fill your time when you aren’t on the course.
1-800-642-5363 / Website
Rating 75.6 / Slope 142 (Back tees)
The course: Designed by Madden’s superintendent Scott Hoffmann, it was created to give players a tour-quality experience (walking is encouraged) and has a pleasing layout that slides through woods, marshes, wetlands and lakes. The tall trees framing the greens almost give the course an Augusta National-like feel, and it’s ranked No. 5 in Minnesota in GOLF’s 2016 list of Courses You Can Play. And if you don’t like the price of the green fee, Madden’s has two other cheapter options. The charming East course has an enjoyable layout — even a par-6 — and a beautiful finishing hole with views of the water, the clubhouse and outside patio. The West course is a short par 68 that’s open on the front nine and tightens on the back. If the skill level and budget in your group is mixed, the East and West courses are great options.
My favorite hole(s): The opening three holes of the Classic are a perfect sample size — in terms of scenery and difficulty — of what you’ll see during your round. A par-5 with water right and trouble around the green opens the round, followed by a par-3 with water hard right. Next, a shot par-4 calls for an iron to a landing area — again, don’t miss right! — and then a short iron into a small green that’s surrounded by long grass that drops off into the lake. A camera-esque opening trio for sure.
Eat/Play: Bar Harbor Supper Club. It’s just a 15-mile drive away on County Road 77, and it has great food, drinks and a fantastic outside dining area. Drink an Arnold Palmer while you watch swanky speed boats and pontoons putter up to the dock.
Stay: Madden’s on Gull Lake. It’s sprawled over several acres and provides all the amenities you need for your stay. Different rooms/villas/condos/houses can fit any group, and it has all the usual fixings and more for a weekend retreat: tennis courts, lawn bowling, volleyball, pools, nature tours, beaches and lake fun. Bonus tip: Chrissy’s Ice Cream Shop across from the massive Madden Inn is a must-go.
218-963-8750 / Website
Rating 73.8 / Slope 143 (Back tees)
The course: The Pines offers three different nine-hole tracks that you can piece together to knock out your round of 18: the Marsh, Woods and Lakes. They all offer something a little different — as their names suggest — but they all work together cohesively to make up a memorable day of 18 holes, or 27 if you tackle all three 9s. Play all 27 and you’ll definitely be tested to hit all of the shots.
My favorite hole: The par-3 7th on the Lakes plays 165 yards from the back tees, and good luck finding many better looking par-3s in the area. You can’t miss left, as the fringe turns into a few feet of rough, which gives way to large rocks and covers the left slope of the green, falling down into a lagoon. There’s a little more room to miss right — and if you miss too far right the railroad ties might give you a generous kick — but the hole encapsulates everything you want in a fun par-3.
Eat/Play: Zorbaz on Gull Lake. Known for its pizza, live music, expansive decks, outdoor space and DJ-hosted dance parties downstairs on the weekends, Zorbaz is the place to go in the Brainerd area to relive your college days. By day, it’s a huge restaurant on Gull Lake where boaters and families can dock and walk up for a bite to eat (get the pizza or the nachos), but it turns into quite the party on the weekend and is a hot spot for bachelor and bachelorette parties — as well as buddies golf trips. Just make sure you have coffee ready at your morning tee time the next day.
Stay: Grand View Lodge. Grand View celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016, but it’s by no means over the hill. The lodging options are some of the newest and most updated in the area, whether you are looking for villas, cottages, suites or more. You’ll have all the usual suspects to choose from, too, like bonfires at night, waterfront rentals, biking, yoga, fishing and more.
218-963-8750 / Website
Rating 72.7 / Slope 136 (Back tees)
The course: It’s both fair and fun, so it’s one of the best bets for those traveling to the area. It’s a gorgeous layout that works its way through the trees but still has wide enough fairways so the weekend golfer can spray it off the tee and still be in decent shape. Several elevated tees allow for expansive views, and it’s one of greenest courses you’ll find — and has some of the fastest greens.
My favorite hole: The par-5 1st hole might not be the best-of-the-bunch pick for most people, but it’s one of the grandest views you’ll get all day. The par-5, which plays 502 yards from the back tee, gives you room to miss left and turns into a dogleg right with an elevated green. What makes it memorable, however, is the view from the elevated tee, where you can see the 1st, 9th, 10th and 18th holes and many miles farther. That spot is also close to the remodeled clubhouse, which offers a great venue to eat or drink after your round as you watch other groups make their way through the course.
Eat/Play: Ye Old Pickle Factory. It’s not lakeside like other area bars, but it’s a good option for pals grabbing a bite to eat after a round. It has the usual bar games plus pull tabs, a Minnesota bar staple that can help you win some money back you lost on the course. Bonus: While waiting for your food and drink, help yourself to free peanuts and scatter the shells on the floor. America!
Stay: Grand View Lodge (see above). The Preserve is a Grand View property, but it’s about a 15-minute drive away from the Pines. Grand View doesn’t have any lodging options at the Preserve.