The Trilogy is Complete:
There's something weirdly special about the number three. While origins of these beliefs are mysterious, ancient cultures, gamblers, Christians, and landscape architects have all believed that there's something lucky and symbolic about the 3. When there's two of anything it just feels like something's missing (ask any man who's been married for more than a few years). And so it's been with two of our favorite golf courses in Minnesota, Giant's Ridge's "The Legend" and "The Quarry". While we couldn't explain why, it seemed like a piece of the puzzle wasn't in place yet. Happily, these vaguely uneasy feelings have been remedied by the addition of the new Wilderness Golf Course at Fortune Bay.
It's strange that the "Iron Trail" region of Minnesota should be so uniquely matched up with a Texas-based golf course architect but that's certainly the way things have worked out. All three of these superb layouts were designed by Jeffrey Brauer, out of Arlington, and they're the only courses in Minnesota that he's done. Perhaps the terrain of the Biwabik / Lake Vermillion area is just so massive that it requires a Texas-sized sense of scale to do it justice.
Lovers of the two Giant's Ridge courses- and that includes just about every thinking being who has played them- will immediately recognize the resemblance of The Wilderness to it's two older siblings. All three can pride themselves on gorgeous forests, impeccable bentgrass turf, big undulating greens, chest high boulders, and frequent, multi-fingered traps filled with some of the best sand in Minnesota (how curious that we have to import sand from Cleveland though).
Anyone who's had more than one child knows that each one of them comes into the world with it's own individual personality and that appears to be the case with golf courses as well. The Legend is sort of the gentle giant of the family. Huge but good natured, soft, and forgiving. The Quarry is beautiful but demanding. While a bit smaller, it has a competitive side and can punish you for paying it insufficient attention.
The Wilderness course is every bit as lovely as either of the courses located a half hour to the south. If you use the white tees it can be toned down to play at a relatively benign level to suit the needs of the higher-handicap golfer. But make no mistake about it, this youngest child can really be a beast. When set up to play at maximum difficulty it can be one of the most difficult courses in Minnesota. Its rating of 75.3 from the tips puts it right up there with Hazeltine. If Northern Minnesota were to ever land a U.S. Open it would have to be played here.
Difficulty on The Wilderness comes in many forms. At 7207 yards from the Gold tees it can certainly play long. But even the Whites at 6147 can provide their share of challenges.
The Legend is known for it's "ampitheater" style design. Big ridges keep most errant shots in play, throwing them back towards the fairway or at least preventing them from bounding into the untamed forestlands. And you can see where your ball ends up from almost any tee. The Wilderness is not so kind.
Golfers teeing off on the massive, split- fairwayed first hole might assume that it's length (562 White up to 649 yards from the Gold) and dual nature are an aberration. But length and double fairways are recurring themes on this course.
Golf courses have traditionally been limited by their watering systems. In the old days fairways were typically as wide as one centrally placed sprinkler system would allow. Later courses evolved into "double wide" fairways. Mr. Brauer's stated belief is that once you get to three sprinklers wide there's no reason to stop there. In marked contrast to nearly all Northern Minnesota golf courses ( most of which are narrow and provide difficulty via their frequent severe doglegs) his are typified by unusually wide fairways. It takes a decent wedge to hit across a lot of the fairways at The Wilderness.
While a lot of us would love to aim at landing areas over a hundred yards wide on each and every hole we know that things don't work out that way in the real world. They don't at Fortune Bay either. Brauer's fairways are commonly split in two by enormous outcroppings of jagged granite. Sometimes big logs or knee -high grasses provide the difficulty in the middle. As much as we'd love to slash away indiscriminantly with the big stick, the course demands a bit more of us.
These double fairways can offer hidden rewards. For example, the par 5 sixteenth has an upper fairway that provides a sloping runway down to the small green. A well placed second shot makes this a much more reachable hole than it would seem from the fairway. While the left sided approach looks safer it actually makes reaching the green in two very difficult and leaves a tricky uphill pitch for the third shot. There are many other little secret advantages like this built into the course. The Wilderness is the kind of of course that leaves you immediately wanting to get back out there to have at it again.
Some of the subtle difficulty of the course is found in a strange place- the golfer's brain. As soon as we're faced with a decision such as " should I play to the left or the right of that boulder ?" it opens us up to uncertainty. And some of our games aren't equipped to handle indecision. " Maybe I should be playing this the other way" is not the type of final swing-thought that we strive for.
The edges of the fairways pose their own threats here. The perimeters are often hard -seemingly composed of the native iron ore at times- and sloped towards the rough. Drives that seemed to have a prayer of turning out safely sometimes bounded madly into the trees. And once they were in there it was pointless to try to find them. They don't call this The Wilderness for nothing. Before our first nine holes had elapsed two of us were anxiously counting our remaining balls to estimate whether we had enough ammo to finish.
As though length, mid-fairway obstacles, and nasty bounces on the perimeters weren't enough, there was a lot more difficulty lurking about. Fairways often pinched in at around the 150 yard markers, forcing a choice between laying up for a longer approach shot or playing set ups into narrow landing areas. This decision was frequently complicated by the characteristics of the greens.
Of the three related courses,The Wilderness definitely had the most demanding greens. Most were at least three -tiered and getting the ball onto the right level was often essential to having a reasonable putt at par. Fortunately, the greens were in superb shape, especially for a course that had just opened. While we were often faced with difficult sloping putts at least we could count on the ball rolling true on whatever line we put it on.
When we encounter a course that can be this difficult it's natural to look around for some hints of kindness. Happily, the atmosphere here leaves one feeling quite pampered. Everything at the Wilderness was done with style and attention to detail, from the clubhouse right down to the ballwashers. And no accounting of this course would be complete without mention of the state of the art golf carts that are part of the experience.
We knew these little buggies were different as soon as we sat down in one. Even the seats are a of higher grade than anything we'd seen before. But it was the electronics that really grabbed us. A fully functional Global Positioning System is the backbone of the elaborate on-board computer screen. From any point on the course the screen will tell you everything that you want to know and some things that you haven't even thought of.
Exact distance to the pin. Yardage to the front and back of the green. The length of a shot needed to carry that bunker. All of the intricate knowledge that professionals count on from their caddies is now available for everyone who plays this course. But that's only the beginning.
The screen also tells you of the location of every other cart in the area. If you're standing on the tee wondering if the preceding foursome is out of range you need only check the computer. Two carts are over that ridge at a distance of 308 yards. Better wait a minute...
These computers can communicate with the mother ship too. You can order lunch at the clubhouse right from your cart. When playing in their wonderful Grand Opening scramble we were able to view an up to the minute leaderboard throughout the event. A special announcement went out to everyone when someone holed a double eagle on Fifteen. And when we drove towards water hazards in search of stray balls the screen always warned us with flashing text that we were approaching danger.
One of the theories about why so many diverse groups through the ages have held a peculiar place for the number 3 is that it represents the intersection of past, present, and future. Strangely enough, our trip to The Wilderness at Fortune Bay left us with thoughts about that very convergence. Part of this, of course, was a result of the high tech gadgetry that gave us our first peek at what the golf carts of the future will be like. But we also gave thought to the important ways that history and tradition can shape the present. The eleventh hole, in fact, allows view of a lovely " Heritage Center and Cultural Museum".
Most of the promotional literature from this course includes the words " Proudly Owned & Operated by the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa". This Band ( Bois Forte translates as "strong wood" ) has only about 2700 members and seems to have existed in relative isolation until the recent past, allowing them to maintain their unique character. One of the things that these people are known for is their amiable sense of humor and we were lucky enough to catch glimpses of it on several occasions. Watching the amused reactions of a group of youngsters swinging golf clubs for the first time- under the watchful eye of visiting pro Notah Begay III- was a genuine treat. And interactions with some adults of the Band reinforced our impression that this is a group of people who have somehow maintained the ability to truly laugh at themselves. This is a rare talent among humans and one to be admired whenever we find it.
There is no getting around the fact that these three golf courses are going to have a tremendous impact on the future of this region. The addition of The Wilderness, along with its associated casino, marina, and connection to Lake Vermillion, solidifies the area's position as the number one golfing destination in Minnesota. Serious golfers will be making pilgrimages up here for decades to come.
While we'll stack these three tracks up against any all-star team that the Brainerd area can field -purely on the quality of the courses- the cost of playing The Wilderness makes it especially attractive. High season rounds run only $75 with cart. A variety of great play and stay packages are offered. This fall you can play three rounds, stay two nights at their well appointed Hotel, receive $10 in casino cash, $10 in proshop merchandise, and have range balls thrown in- all for $219. If there is a better value for a golf trip in Minesota we haven't found it.
These courses are certain to serve as a catalyst for additional growth and economic development. We can only hope that the coming changes will allow preservation of the rugged, unspoiled beauty of the area and the special nature of its people. Someday they may have to carve Jeffrey Brauer's likeness into one of the big slabs of granite found throughout the region. As unlikely as it would have seemed a decade ago, this one man's vision of what a golf course can look like will result in changes that we can only guess about today.