With major champ’s help, this week’s PGA Tour Canada host shows off major upgrade
It’s 7:30 in the morning, I’ve got a coffee in my cupholder and a freshly downloaded podcast on the speakers and golf in my future as I head north on 494. My destination? A pair of new-and-improved courses overhauled by Tom Lehman, who also happens to be the subject of said podcast. (This is what we call doing your homework.)
Next stop? Cragun’s Resort in Brainerd, Minn.
The Brainerd-area golf scene has long been one of my favorites. I’ve spent a ton of time there since I was a kid, and the entire region remains one of the best and most underrated public golf spots in the U.S. (Yes, the United States of America.)
Lehman, now chiming in through my car speakers, agrees.
“It’s vintage Minnesota,” he told Jeff Kolpack, on his The Golf Show podcast. “Brainerd is such a beautiful area. The lakes up there are fantastic, it’s all sand-based, sand-duney-type soil so it’s great for golf. Everything you think of when you think of Minnesota with the lakes, the wetlands, the birch trees the pine trees, everything about it. … Really a great destination.”
Last year, nearby Grand View Lodge finished a massive bunker overhaul to freshen up its courses, and now Cragun’s has its newest work ready to unveil. It reimagined its two previous Robert Trent Jones Jr.-designed courses into two rejuvenated ones: an 18-hole routing (the Lehman 18) and another 27-hole course (the Dutch 27). Both have a mix of the old holes with those new ones created from scratch.
The resort has even more of a spotlight put on it this week, too, as 18 holes of the Dutch routing will host PGA Tour Canada’s CRMC Championship. (Last year the tournament was played on one nine from each course.)
According to Lehman, a Minnesota native and the winner of the 1996 Open Championship, he spoke with resort owner Dutch Cragun when Lehman’s son was playing in the area in 2020. Cragun told him about his plan to renovate and expand the courses and create space for real estate lots. He asked Lehman if he was interested.
“I was not one to argue,” Lehman said.
Every hole of the two previous 18-hole courses — Bobby’s Legacy and Dutch’s Legacy — was touched in some fashion during the $14 million project, even if it was just freshening up bunkers and adding new white sand. More than a dozen new holes were created by either being built or reversed. One was eliminated. Several greens were moved or rebuilt, and some tee boxes were added. New routings were created to make the best possible courses by weaving together the previous holes and the new ones.
(Below is a drone video of all 18 holes of the Lehman 18, which was captured last fall by TwinCitiesGolf.com.)
Work started in the fall of 2020 — tackling specific areas of the property at a time so the golf course could remain open — and the Lehman 18 had a soft opening in the fall of 2022 plus a grand opening last month. The Blue nine of the Dutch 27 opened in June, joining the White to offer 18 holes, while the final nine holes (the Red nine) will open in the fall of 2024.
One criticism of the previous two 18-hole layouts was their difficulty, especially some forced carries that weren’t easy for the resort or high-handicap golfer. Now much of that is gone and what’s left will be more forgiving, with run-off and chipping areas around greens, slightly tamer green complexes and a more fun, playable layout.
Jack Wawro, the director of golf at Cragun’s, says it’s less stress for any caliber of golfer.
“A lot of people are coming in and saying I played one of my best rounds I have played here, and that’s what we want to hear,” Wawro said. “Yes, we host a tour event, but we want people to enjoy their round, and I think the distance alone will [challenge the better players], and they can get tricky with the pins if they want to.”
The courses will have their own identities, too. The Dutch 27 has bunkers bordered with thick fescue, while the Lehman 18 has bunkers with clean edges and others with stacked-sod faces. Both courses have areas to miss around greens and avoid sand, though, another nod to the increased playability factor.
“We want to differentiate the Lehman 18 from the Dutch 18, and then the soon-to-be-finished Red nine that is coming along right now,” Lehman said last month, when speaking at the grand opening of the Lehman 18. “But it’s a different look. It ends up being way more fairway, way more cut grass, firmer, faster, let the ball run. So I think we have two very distinct-looking golf courses. They play differently, and they look different, which is what we were aiming for.”
The Lehman 18 winds through a 1,000-acre wooded wetland and two new housing developments that consist of 69 building sites, but it also wraps around Stephens Lake, offering some of the most picturesque holes on the property, like the 2nd, 8th, 9th, 15th and 16th.
The Lehman 18 tips out at 7,500 yards, while the Dutch stretches to 7,000. The max price for the Lehman 18 is $159, and the max price for 18 holes on the Dutch 27 is $139. Resort guests receive discounted rates.
“The biggest thing for us is we want to make sure it’s known as bigger than just a renovation, it’s more of an expansion, more of a complete redo, and that’s a good thing,” Wawro said. “It’s a great piece of land.”