hit the Jackpot
by Kevin Turnquist
Choosing the best public golf course in Minnesota used to be a relatively simple affair. Even a decade ago almost all of the really nice in-state courses were private. The Pines was Golf Digest's perennial public course favorite and we dutifully made our annual trip to Brainerd to get a chance to play it, even though we weren't that fond of the layout.
Times have never been better for the public links golfer than they are now. Beautifully manicured bent grass courses are opening up every year. Nowadays it is the private course player who is relegated to playing on bluegrass fairways and native dirt sand traps. Playing the same course over and over and over again, averaging hundreds of dollars per round in many cases. Paying mandatory monthly fees year round to eat in the same restaurant that they've eaten in forever. Taking consolation only in the fact that they don't have to share their facilities with people like us. Yes, it is hard to refrain from gloating when the pendulum finally swings your way.
While the golf course building boom has been wonderful for the daily fee golfer, the golf course reviewers task has only grown more arduous. How does one select his mythical "Best Public Golf Course in Minnesota" when there are so many solid contenders to choose from? When ranking a number of courses, all of which have superb layouts, gorgeous facilities, and immaculate turf a lot of it just comes down to personal tastes. Some golfers like to have their courses set in mountainous hardwood forests. Many prefer to meander through lakes and pines. Curiously, swampland courses hold appeal for some Minnesotans. Others find nothing more dramatic than panoramic prairie vistas. And there will always be some of us who find nothing to rival the beauty of a dollar saved. For members of the last two groups, do we have a course for you!
The two-hour drive from Minneapolis southwest to Morton, was pleasant enough but offered no hint of what was to come. Endless miles of level corn and sugar beet farmland did not seem a likely setting for a new super premium golf course. Everything changed, however, when we made the turn into Dacotah Ridge. This is a beautiful setting for a golf course. Wabasha Creek has carved up the prairie land into rolling terrain with frequent elevation changes and ample water while maintaining sweeping views of the surrounding grasslands. As we surveyed the clubhouse it immediately became obvious that everything here is top-of-the-line. Of course the dollars flowing into the nearby Jackpot Junction Casino might have something to do with that.
The Lower Sioux bands decision to always choose the best fortunately extended to their choice of golf course architects. Rees Jones is the son of Robert Trent Jones and has an unparalleled reputation among modern golf course designers. Known for his "environmentally friendly" courses, Jones' name is linked to construction or renovation of courses like Hazeltine, Pinehurst, Congressional, and Baltusrol. Dacotah Ridge has to be one of his finest recent efforts.
Like many modern courses, Dacotah Ridge can be played at varying degrees of difficulty depending upon which tees are chosen. Three sets of men's tees range from the Regular (6217 yards Rating 69.8 / Slope 125) all the way up to Tournament (7109 yards 73.9/134 ). We played the Regular the first day and Championship (6642 71.9 / 130 ) the next. The extra 400 yards seemed to add up to about 10 extra strokes for some of us.
This course can look like it would be relatively easy to score on but appearances can be deceiving. Only a few holes-like the uphill 456 yard doglegged, par four 14th- are outrageously long. There are no blind or gimmicky holes to be found. Trees are only in play on a couple of holes, primarily coming in on 17 and 18. From the tees all of the trouble is pretty much in sight. But rough that looked innocuous on the tee box often turned out to be shin high prairie grass once we got up to our ball. The constant winds were always a factor. Water can come into play on roughly half of the holes. More difficulty comes from the big, steep walled traps that guard most of the greens. The fact that the bunkers are filled with the premium white "sugar sand" does make escape a bit easier and certainly adds to the beauty of the course.
The greens at Dacotah Ridge are really something special, the kind that most of us rarely encounter in Minnesota. They tend to be rather long and narrow and are almost always multi-tiered. You definitely have to get the ball on the right level to score well here. These were also the fastest greens that we can remember playing, running around 11 on the Stimpmeter. While they were in superb shape and rolled dead true (effectively eliminating all of our customary putting excuses) three and four putt greens were relatively common.
As one would expect of a course of this caliber, the bent grass turf was impeccable throughout. Clubhouse and practice facilities were first rate. Attention to detail and willingness to spend the extra dollar were evident everywhere, right down to the golf carts' mag wheels with Dacotah Ridge emblems. Staff were friendly and relaxed. Lunch on the shaded veranda was excellent, allowing views of golfers slashing away on the practice facility and several holes all at once.
It is hard not to go overboard gushing about this course, especially after seeing how it compared to another new, ostensibly premium golf course closer to the Twin Cities that we played the following week. We immediately ranked Dacotah Ridge among our favorite public courses anywhere, right up there with Giants Ridge and the Avi course in Laughlin, Nevada. For some of us, though, objectivity becomes difficult when the dollar is in play. It is easier to fall in love with a course when you feel like you're getting a good deal. And most of us tend to hold a darker view of our surroundings when we feel like we're receiving the shaft.
As we think about the task of ranking Minnesota's public golf courses it is tempting to create an extra category-- Best Golfing Value- to do justice to Dacotah Ridge. Green fees are exceptionally reasonable, especially if you make comparisons to the better Twin Cities or Brainerd courses. $52 rounds /$68 with cart in midsummer. $40 / $56 in spring and fall. Some great package deals are available as well. Examples include $76 for a midweek round of golf, a night at the plush Casino hotel a few miles away, and a buffet breakfast. Rates go up a bit on weekends and in the summer but you can generally count on getting golf, lodging, and a meal for less than you would pay for golf alone on a lesser course elsewhere.
Details about packages, as well as a virtual tour of the course itself, are available at www.dacotahridge.com.