It had seemed like a great idea at the time. Well yes, our ideas usually do. But this one seemed truly inspired. We had heard a lot of good things about Deacons Lodge. Enough to believe that we might finally have found a legitimate contender for the title of The Finest Public Golf Course in Minnesota. A course that could conceivably knockoff reigning champion Giants Ridge. Playing them on the same midsummer day would entail a bit of driving but would allow for a memorable match.
Understandably, we were pretty excited about the prospect of a heavyweight bout of this magnitude. Mr. Hamel even rushed back from a romantic weekend in Ohio (sic) to take part. A missed flight out of Columbus, late flights from Columbus to Detroit, Detroit to Milwaukee, and an all night rental car drive from Milwaukee to Minneapolis were all endured just so he could leave Minneapolis at 6 AM for yet another drive to the Brainerd Lakes area. Five hours spent at Deacon's Lodge were followed by a three-hour drive to Giants Ridge for the twilight 18. As fine a golf day as we could dream up but the much anticipated match itself was the equivalent of a one punch knockout by the Biwabik Behemoth. The ease with which Deacon's Lodge was dispatched left us searching for answers. Needless to say, the quality of the judging was not one of the first options considered.
We liked Deacon's Lodge right from the start. First impressions were of the rustic new clubhouse and the excellent practice facilities. Upon arrival at the first tee, however, we were immediately faced with a daunting initial shot. The starter informed us that players in the 10 to 14 handicap range (and that includes most of our group after a little reverse sandbagging) usually play from the blue or "Kings" tees. This necessitated a tee shot which would carry at least 155 yards over a yawning chasm with trouble on the left and right. The approach shot into the 415 yard par four was yet another forced carry over a shrubbery engorged valley. Thirty minutes after starting our round we straggled to the second tee, the white tee box looking strangely attractive.
Teeing off on the now 462 yard par five second hole our flush of optimism was tempered by the advice we had received from the starter. He had told us that the blue tee slope of 124 might be "a little low" for players accustomed to Twin Cities courses. Some research about the vagaries of slope, however, had prepared us for the fact that a low slope could mean that the course was relatively difficult for low handicappers as compared to high handicappers. (For an enlightening review of the puzzle of slope turn to www.popeofslope.com). Richard had also said that Deacon's Lodge was "the kind of course that you have to play a couple of times to score well on". As our round progressed we finally came to understand what he had been trying to tell us without actually saying the words. The two words guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of all double-digit handicappers. Target golf.
Target Golf. What a strange concept. Everyone who's had a lesson or has even read a golf magazine can tell you about the importance of aim. How we are supposed to have a set target for every shot, each one visualized beforehand as heading toward the exact spot we choose. We can sit on the practice range repetitively hitting pure shots exactly where we aim them. Put us on an actual golf course, though, and golf becomes an exercise in simply trying to advance the ball in the general direction of the green, counterpunching wildly in response to whatever hooks and jabs the course is throwing. Actually planning a succession of shots, then executing them properly, is beyond the reach of many of us.
Deacon's Lodge has a number of holes where one must get both the distance and direction right or face severe penalty. The par four fourth hole (330 yds from Deacon, 354 from King ) is a good example. The tee shot requires a carry of at least 130 yards but no more than 190-215 , depending upon direction. There is trouble short, long, left, and right. Those fortunate enough to keep the ball in play face a mid to long iron uphill to a well protected green. A cartpath only hole, this one had no yardage markers visible from the path.
No. 5 is a relatively long par four (400yds from Deacons, 415 from King) that immediately takes the driver out of your hands with a sharp right dogleg along one of the three small lakes. Yardage from the tee marker didn't match yardage on the card and there was no way to tell how far you could hit your tee shot before overreaching the fairway.
The 6th hole is a quirky little 91 yard par three (108 from King), severely uphill to a hidden green. Getting the distance right the first time around requires going up to the green to take a look or blind luck. A shortage of effort and fortune left us, predictably, with dainty little chips out of furry rough.
The toughest rated hole in the course is the beastly 7th. Even from the whites, drives must carry at least 195 yards over yet another gaping valley. Blues are set at 412 yards, requiring a carry of two and a quarter. There is an ancillary bailout fairway on the left but you can't get the ball within 250 yards of the green via that route. A tall pine guards the green. This hole was also notable for the large area of putting green turf located just beyond the Valley of Death. No holes were cut into it. It seemed to be a very strange place to grow replacement turf but could conceivably be used to turn the hole into a ghastly par three.
The back nine has no shortage of similarly demanding holes. To compound matters, many holes throughout the course also have obstacles hidden in places that, from the tee, appear to be far away from any possible trouble. Several of our seemingly straight drives found patches of rough cut- or worse- extending into the middle of what should have been fairway. Flat lies were rarities. No other public facility in our experience requires the degree of both course knowledge and course management as this one. This is, indeed, an unusual attribute for a "Destination Golf Course". Consider the fact that the majority of golfers will probably play this course once per year at most, usually as part of a Grandview Lodge golf package. For many, the result will be inflated scores and a good deal of frustration. This is a course that is really designed as a home course for scratch golfers. It is complex enough to stand up to years of scheming and strategizing.
Deacon's Lodge may ask a lot of us but it does provide all of the good things you'd ask for in a premium golf course. We only saw one house in the entire round. Birch and pine trees everywhere. Beautiful, rolling greens. Nice bent grass turf throughout. We especially liked the imported sugar sand that filled the infrequent but enormous bunkers.
As much as we recoil at the thought of criticizing anything remotely connected with Arnold Palmer, there was one odd feature here that requires mention. Smelly greens. Really. We figured that they must pump water from nearby wetlands to water the greens. Either that or there is something hideous rotting in their water lines. Granted it was a warm day but most of the greens had a dank, musty smell to them. This proved to be a powerful attractant for both horseflies and dragonflies.
Strange odors notwithstanding, this turned out to be a superb golf course. One that easily assumes it's place as one of the Big Three in the Brainerd Lakes area along with sister club The Preserve and southern rival The Classic. The fact that none of us scored it as victorious in our much awaited Clash of The Titans may say a little about the course. Probably more about our games, our biases, and our limitations. We'll come back to take a new look at this one after we finally get our games in shape. Honest.
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