Minnesota – Land of golf

Most people can name the three big US golf states; Florida, California, and Arizona. But which state is number four? The answer may surprise you.

Minnesota. That’s right.

Granted, statistics can be twisted to prove almost any point. But Minnesota did finish fourth in a nationwide golf customer satisfaction survey. And there are some other impressive stats to support the claim:

  • Minnesota has 508 golf courses, 90% of which are open to the public
  • 31% of the population call themselves golfers and play an average of 24 rounds per year
  • 19 golf resorts
  • Minnesota has hosted all 13 USGA national championships
  • On tap: 2016 Ryder Cup, 2017 USGA Senior Championship

Statistics aside, we decided to travel to Minnesota to investigate for ourselves. And to try the upcoming Ryder Cup venue. But more on that later.

Lakes, lakes, and more lakes

First up was the Brainerd Lakes district. There are a lot of lakes in Minnesota. If you count all of them, Minnesota has more coastline than Florida, Hawaii, and California put together. Lakes smaller than 10 acres don’t even count, they’re simply “ponds”.The golf courses in the Brainerd District, two hours north of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St Paul, reminded us of courses we’ve played in Finland and Sweden. It is no coincidence that a lot of immigrants to Minnesota came from those countries. The landscape and climate is similar, and the farmers that immigrated knew instantly how to farm the land.

The first destination was Grandview Lodge, with two 18-hole golf courses, The Pines and The Preserve. Our choice of the day was The Pines.

The Pines consists of three 9-hole tracks, Lakes, Woods, and Marsh. The course was designed by Joel Goldstrand and opened in 1990. Even though the names might make you think that the tracks are very different, that is not the case. We played the Lakes and the Woods, but they were really both forest courses, maybe with just a few more lakes and ponds on the Lakes track.

Being similar doesn’t mean that they are boring, far from it. The holes are quite different, and offer up some surprises. Already on the 5th hole you are met by a blind tee shot over a ledge in the fairway. You had better consult the course guide. If you hit your driver, you’re going to be in trouble. At the bottom of the hill is a small lake with the green on the other side – this is a thinking golfer’s hole. And there are more surprises to come.

After you leave the 6th green and head for number seven, it is as if you have entered a different world. You suddenly find yourself in a clearing in the woods, with a small lake. In the middle of the lake there is a small, mysterious island, with some creepy-looking dead trees. It is all like a fairy tale landscape. Maybe a troll lives out there on the island?

And then you see it, the green at the far edge of the lake that is your target: 135 meters away, with plenty of water between you and the flag. A stunningly beautiful hole, almost entirely managed by nature itself. This is the best hole on the course, in my opinion.

It must have been quite a challenge for the architect to design holes worthy of following the 7th, but he managed to keep it interesting. The green at the 9th is one example. More than 60 meters wide, but quite narrow. If you hit the wrong end, you will face a monster putt.

The Woods track ends right below the clubhouse veranda. The 18th green is surrounded by a small lake and a stream with a waterfall, all very scenic. A beautiful finish to a nice course, one that I wouldn’t mind having as my “home course” for my golf vacation.

The clubhouse has a nice restaurant with some good after-golf food, but the real culinary treat is down at the lodge, a couple of minutes away by car or shuttle bus. There you’ll find several fine restaurants to choose from. The food was truly excellent, and the wine selection was exceptional; over 2,000 different wines from all over the world to pick from. Needless to say, our wining and dining lasted into the small hours.

Lodging at Grand View comes in many shapes and sizes. We stayed in a cabin a few minutes from the lodge, very suitable for one or two families traveling together. A two-story, four bedroom cottage complete with kitchen, dining room, living room, pool table, and a real home theater complete with leather movie theater chairs. Your teenagers would be well taken care of while you’re out golfing.

As golfers, we didn’t have the time to explore the other big draw at Grand View Lodge, the water activities. The lodge sits right next to an 800 meter sandy beach on a big, clear blue lake, suitable for anything from windsurfing to fishing. All in all, this makes Grand View a very nice family vacation spot.

Mystic Lake

After our quick visit to the Brainerd Lakes district we headed back to the Minneapolis area for some more golf. First up was Mystic Lake, an Indian Reservation southwest of the city.

To say that a course is a “nice resort course” can sometimes be a code for saying that it is not so nice. But in the case of Mystic Lake it really means ‘nice’ and ‘resort’. Mystic Lake is in fact one of the only courses in the Minneapolis area where you can take the elevator from your room right down to the first tee.

Mystic Lake is an enormous operation, with almost 4,200 employees. Located on a Sioux reservation, its main business is gambling, and the centerpiece hotel houses a huge casino. With such a setup, it would be easy to assume that the golf course would be a small side business, one of the checkmarks on the list of amenities offered. However, that is not the case. The course is a top class course, very well maintained and with an interesting and sometimes challenging layout. With lots of pond and lakes, water comes into play on many of the holes.

The course is surprisingly hilly, given that the surrounding area is mostly prairie. The hills frame most of the fairway, and actually help you by bouncing the ball back towards the middle on many of the holes. Fairways are nice and soft, and the greens are of a good quality, with gentle but not punishing undulations.

As you play along, the holes are surprisingly varied in nature. Several streams meander through the course, requiring you to play strategically.

The signature hole is the par five 18th. Your tee shot needs to carry a fairly big lake. Unless you are a big hitter, your second shot is blind over a hill protected by several large bunkers. Once you reach the hill, your next challenge comes into view, an island green. The approach is a make-or-break shot, so take care. A nice finishing hole where a tournament could be decided.

After your round you have a plethora of restaurant choices. We tried the grill on the bottom floor, and were served some delicious starters, followed by nice juicy hamburgers. Just what you need after a morning of golf.

All in all, Mystic Lake was a surprisingly good experience.

Ryder Cup comes to Minnesota

After playing Hazeltine National my playing partner summarized the course very succinctly: “It looks easy, but it isn’t”.

When it comes to history it’s hard to top Hazeltine National. It has been host to every important US golf tournament: US Open, PGA Championship, US Senior Open, US Women’s Open, and the US Amateur. And now it will host the Ryder Cup.

The course was designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and first opened for play in 1962. Host to several US Open Championships, it was sometimes criticized for being too difficult on windy days, culminating in some changes. The changes were well received, and a slew of major championships followed. The course continues to develop, now under the guidance of Robert Trent Jones’ son, Rees Jones, who has upgraded the course by adding new tees and repositioned some sand traps, all to maintain the challenging nature of the course in light of ever-improving golf equipment.

The course follows Robert Trent Jones’ philosophy; reward brave shots well executed and punish poor ones, while always offering a safe alternative to avoid risk-taking. In other words, tempt the brave to take risks to win tournaments. Luckily, today I had no tournament to win.

Already on the 1st, you realize that this is not an easy course. Even if you make the green in regulation, you’ll be faced by a difficult putt if you’re not on the right level. This continued to be true on many holes, especially the 4th.

After some rest on the 2nd, the par five 3rd had index one. Even the pros need three to reach the green, with a difficult approach to an elevated and very undulated green. One of my personal favorites on the course. At the 5th, bunkers are the main complication. On number six, one of the most beautiful (especially if you live in one of the villas by the green) you get the first taste of water. And so it continues.

On the back nine, you get down to Hazeltine Lake already on the 10th, the most scenic, and you soon reach one of the hardest holes on the course, number twelve. With a new tee 50 yards back and a pond guarding the green, for the pros this is a real challenge.

On the 16th, you drive over Hazeltine Lake. As if that wasn’t difficult enough, if you drive too far you end up in a creek. Johnny Miller called this “probably the hardest par four I ever played”. But if you play from one of the more forward tees, it is doable for all players.

The course finishes as it opened, with a three-tiered green, letting the greenkeeper make the hole as difficult as the tournament demands. A great setup.

The newly built clubhouse has all you can wish for, and some of it you can even buy, at very reasonable prices, in the pro shop. Also don’t miss all the history lining the walls on the way to the restaurant. If you have a chance, try to get up on the rooftop balcony, which offers a great view of the course, with downtown Minneapolis visible in the distance on a clear day.

So can you play Hazeltine? Not really, it is a private club. But on Mondays it is open for charity and corporate events. So if you work for the right company you may have a chance to get a tee time. If you do, you’re in for a treat. But if you don’t, you can still visit Hazeltine for the Ryder Cup.

Hazeltine will host the Ryder Cup in September 2016, and that’s why we were here, to write about it and make you, the reader, excited to come for the cup. The ticket lottery closed already in September, but there are plenty of tour packages available that include tickets to the event. Or you could go all in and rent a house next to the course. The one behind the 16th tee rents for a mere $125,000 for the week. But it’s big enough for you to bring a few friends. And you get to see the drama on maybe the most difficult hole at Hazeltine close-up. Go for it.

Mall of America

Before you leave Minneapolis, there’s one more stop you have to make: The Mall of America, the largest shopping mall in the USA. Located a stones throw from the Minneapolis airport in the town of Bloomington, the mall has put Minnesota on the world map. Shoppers bus in from all over the American Midwest, and even fly in from Europe and the rest of the world just to shop. We saw some Asian shoppers that started by buying rolling suitcases, then just dragged them from store to store, filling them up with their purchases. Efficiency in travel shopping.

When the mall opened in 1992, it pioneered a new concept by mixing shopping with entertainment. The mall itself is so big, with anchor stores at each of the four corners, that an entire amusement park, complete with a roller coaster and several (27 in total) other rides, fit in the open space in the middle. On top of that, there’s an aquarium, a flight simulator, and numerous games and theme stores. No problem entertaining the kids, so that you can then continue shopping.

The concept has proven quite successful, and the mall is constantly expanding, now up to over 500 stores, and several major hotels directly connected. We stayed in one of the newest, Radisson Blu, directly connected to the mall with less than 100 meters from the elevators to the mall itself. The hotel is not only connected, it even offers concierge service for shoppers. When you complete a purchase in the mall, just call the concierge and they will come pick up your haul and put it in your room for you. You can just keep on shopping, shopping, shopping. And when you need a break, there are many restaurants to choose from, including classics such as Hooters and Hard Rock Café.

Not being a big shopper myself, I still can’t avoid being impressed by the whole Mall of America enterprise. And if you are a big shopper, don’t miss it. But don’t go there at the beginning of the trip. Save it until the end, and just take the light rail to the airport when done.

After five days of golf and shopping, we return home with more than we bargained for, both in golf experiences and well bursting shopping bags. We can’t wait to come back and explore more of Minnesota.