Course Rater Confidential: What’s a hidden midwestern gem I should play?

TPC Twin Cities plays host to the 3M Open.

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GOLF’s Top 100 course panelists are among the most respected and well-traveled course evaluators in the game. They’re also keen to share their opinions. In this series, we’ll unlock their unvarnished views on all questions course-related. The goal is not only to entertain you but also to give you a better understanding of how to understand and appreciate golf course architecture. You can see GOLF’s latest Top 100 Courses in the World ranking here, and meet all of our Top 100 panelists here.

1. With the 3M Open on tap this week, we turn our architectural eye to Minnesota, a state with a lot of lakes but without a single course on Golf Magazine’s list of Top 100 Courses in the World. Which course, in your opinion, is the best in Minnesota? And do you think it belongs on our Top 100 roster?

Paul Rudovsky, panelist since 2015, has played all 100 of the World Top 100 Courses:  I have played 10 courses in Minnesota, covering what are probably 9 of the top 10 in the state.  If any belong in GOLF’s World 100, it would be White Bear Yacht Club just north of St. Paul, a Donald Ross design going back to 1915 and more recently restored by Tom Doak. I played White Bear five years ago. The land it sits on rolls and heaves beautifully, and Ross made great use of the land’s features. Almost every hole is filled with many options, and these options “play” with a player’s mind beautifully.  In 2015, the club had made great progress clearing tree overgrowth but more needed to be done. A very good friend who played with me in 2015 played it again last month and said the progress over the last five years has been outstanding, so it probably would make my World Top 100 today.

Irv Kessler, Panelist since 2020, has played 54 of the Wolrd Top 100 Courses: I live in Minnesota and have played more than 20 courses in the state. Spring Hill GC in Orono, a suburb of Minneapolis, is the best course in the state. It is a 20-year-old Tom Fazio course. It is possibly the prettiest course in the state, framed by trees and marshes. It has dramatic elevation changes and is in the best condition of any course in the state. It’s the best Fazio course I’ve played. With a slope of 152 from the 7100-yard championship tees, and 149 from the 6750-yard green tees, it is a challenge … but a fair one. I believe it deserves to be in the Top 100 in the world. 

Tom Doak, panelist since 1983, has played 97 of the top 100: White Bear Yacht Club would be my choice, too, but not because I have had much to do with it — I consulted there for a while 15-20 years ago, and now my former associate Jim Urbina works with them. For that matter, there is much conjecture as to who designed the course to begin with — William Watson is also tied to it, and the greens and routing are anything but typical of Donald Ross’s work. But, people are too focused on designer labels, and that may be why this course has been overlooked for so many years. WBYC is built over some of the wildest topography of any course in the Midwest — you can wind up with a handful of blind shots if you don’t drive it where you’re supposed to — and has wild greens to go with it.  It reminds me a bit of Crystal Downs, with the clubhouse on the lake across the road, and a small pro shop serving as the hub for golfers. It’s a true original, whoever built it.

John Dempsey, panelist since forever, has played 75 of the World Top 100:  I like Interlachen very much, but have not been to the White Bear Yacht Club. I am afraid of white bears.

2. What’s the best public course in Minnesota and why?

Paul Rudovsky. Only one of the 10 courses I have played in Minnesota is open to the public, Keller Golf Course in St. Paul. So it gets my vote in this category. It has hosted two PGA Championships (1931 and 1949); the land has good movement and the routing is very good. Based on what I have heard from others, there is one resort course that is probably better: Giant Ridge’s Quarry Course, but I have not played it. More on that from me below.

Irv Kessler: The Classic, in Brainerd, Minn., is the best public course in the state. Beautifully set in woods in the lake country of Minnesota. Giant Ridge Quarry Course is arguably just as good.

Tom Doak:  I have visited The Quarry at Giant’s Ridge, and it’s very good. It’s full of dramatic elevation changes and unusual strategic decisions: short par 4’s like the 6th and 13th make the decision to hit driver a very fraught choice. The other best candidate would be Bobby Weed’s StoneRidge GC, on the eastern edge of the Twin Cities.

3. Give us your nod for Minnesota’s finest sleeper — the best course that many golfers have likely never heard of.

Paul Rudovsky: Minneapolis Golf Club for sure. I cannot recall more than 5-10 courses I have played worldwide with land that rolls and heaves quite like Minneapolis GC’s, and most of these land waves are set obliquely to the hole direction, so a drive that will clear a “wave” down the right side of the fairway (and bound forward some 30-40 yards) might not clear that “wave” down the left side (and bound back some 20-30 yards)! It really forces you to think about playing lines and options off the tee. 

Irv Kessler. Northland CC in Duluth is a great Donald Ross course, built in 1927. It is set in the hills overlooking Lake Superior. Recently they’ve removed many trees, which has improved the spectacular setting. A hidden gem.

Tom Doak:  White Bear Yacht Club and Northland CC are both still sleepers for most people,  but both should be ranked in the top 100 in the U.S. Another possibility is Rochester G&CC, which A. W. Tillinghast designed after his daughter married a doctor at the Mayo Clinic. We just finished a major restoration there.

Is there a course in Minnesota you haven’t played that you’re absolutely, positively itching to see? Do tell.

Paul Rudovsky: If what I have heard is true, Giant Ridge’s Quarry Course is really a joy to play. Only problem for me is that it sits some 60 miles north of the Duluth airport, placing it within about five minutes of the North Pole! Seriously, it ain’t exactly easy to get to and at 75 years of age, I am not sure I want to make that trip this year … but it probably offers great social distancing!

Irv Kessler:: I’ve never played White Bear Yacht Club. I’ve heard great things about it!

Tom Doak:  Years ago, when I had designed only 3 or 4 courses myself, I interviewed to build a new course at Madden’s Resort in the Brainerd Lakes area — which turned out to be the one Irv Kessler mentioned above. Small world! I thought it was a really nice piece of ground, but they passed me over and let their golf course superintendent design it, instead. I would be curious to see what they made of it, versus what I might have done. Luckily, my career survived that disappointment!

John Dempsey: After all this, I’ll try to overcome my fear of white bears, and go there.

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