It's Tee Time at Irish Hills

Irish Hills Golf Course is in the midst of a two-year process of redesigning half of its tee boxes. According to course pro Lee Gordon, tee box construction on holes 2, 4, 12 and 16 has been completed and five other holes will be reconstructed next season. This is good news for anyone who has played this raw but beautiful course just ten miles east of Pine River on Upper Whitefish Lake.

Irish Hills became an 18-hole course just two years ago after opening as a nine-hole course in 1985. The new holes and the redesigned layout make Irish Hills at Piney Ridge Lodge a course that should get better and better as it continues to mature. It is a short course, playing only 5728 yards from the whites (6011 from the blue tees), but offers a good amount of challenging shots and an unlimited supply of feel-good northwoods atmosphere (especially if you arrive via boat).

Despite a solid overall layout and a nice variety of holes, the course’s tee boxes are currently an unavoidable shortcoming. Much of this season at IH has had golfers teeing from temporary boxes which in many cases shorten an already short course. But once completed, the new "luxury boxes" will undoubtedly elevate this course to the next level.

Two holes in particular, number two (a wide-open, 471-yard par five) and number fourteen (an equally roomy 380-yard par four), will benefit the most from the reworked tee off areas. Both holes feature highly elevated tee boxes surrounded by mature pines looking out at picturesque views of the course. When complete, the new tee off areas will turn these two decent holes into something much more pleasurable.

The par five 11th hole also has great potential once the new launching pad is in place. Just 427 yards from the whites, the hole doglegs left after a somewhat intimidating tee shot over water and weeds. The straight shooter will be left just a mid-range iron away from an eagle putt. Currently, however, the tee off area is in sub-standard condition. But with room to move the new tee box back, more yardage could be added on 11 and would thus make it a more challenging and legitimate par five hole.

The other par five which will benefit greatly from a new tee box area is the 498-yard number 16. It is the course’s number two-handicap hole and features a large pond in the middle of the fairway, about 220 yards out. A big drive keeps you dry and in good shape for a birdie opportunity, but for most golfers, an iron off the tee is the much smarter play. Presently, the tee shot is over a slight ridge, making it a blind shot with water dead ahead. With a new, elevated tee box, the sixteenth will become among the most scenic holes on the course.

When these and the rest of the boxes are completed, Irish Hills Golf Course is destined to soon become like that great fishing hole you don’t like to tell people about. While one might initially think the course is a touch pricey at $27 ($20 for those who stay at the resort), plus $12 for half a cart, the increasingly rare opportunity to golf in almost complete solitude on a Sunday afternoon up north makes the $39 (plus beverages) money you can easily justify spending. Seniors’ Day runs throughout the summer and is a terrific bargain for those over 55 years old; just $15 gets you 18 holes with a cart.

--Arnie Hamel


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by Kevin Turnquist

Golf course reviewers in search of pure objectivity find many obstacles in their path. Opinions of the courses are always in danger of contamination by variables such as weather, the pace of the foursome immediately preceding yours, and the frustrations caused by not playing up to one’s lofty expectations.

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a constant consideration. A recent round at Irish Hills Golf Course highlighted another common, yet often overlooked culprit: The Vacation Factor.

Persons whose characterological development is sufficiently advanced to permit genuine enjoyment of vacations are already familiar with the process given current consideration. When traveling away from home the whole world is seen with different eyes. Scenery and architecture look prettier when you’re on the road. Food and drink which seem mundane to locals offer delightful and subtle complexities to the newcomer. Women of foreign locales routinely present as more beautiful and exotic than those found at home. These same processes can make dispassionate assessment of golf courses almost impossible.

Irish Hills is a resort course located on The Whitefish Chain of Lakes. Pine River and Cross Lake ("Beauty Spot Of Minnesota") are the nearest big towns. The course is accessible by boat from Editor Hamel’s Northwoods Complex. A Sunday afternoon in early June found us with the course almost to ourselves. Weather was perfect -- perhaps the first true summer day of the year. No bothersome insects to contend with. The course was green and lush. Rolling hills cut through pine forest with the occasional ponds to complete the picture. $22 green fees for a weekend round. Objectivity can be elusive.

Numbers are always useful when trying to keep one’s feet on the ground as, for most of us, they quickly dispel emotion. On paper, Irish Hills is neither long nor particularly difficult. It plays at 5728 yards from the white tees with a slope of 113. At 471, 498, 427, and 471 the par fives are all reachable and several of the par fours are under 300 yards. Like so many northern courses, though, this is a lot more challenging when you’re out there than when you’re studying the scorecard. Errant shots were usually findable but the course found a way to penalize them with rough, bad lies, or obstructions. Some holes were genuinely difficult. The par three fourth hole is 202 yards to a largely hidden green that is surrounded by tall pines. We played it twice without a par in our group. Players who are straight off the tee and have a solid short game may find this course easy to score on, if such players actually exist.

Some of us were puzzled by the fact that we hadn’t heard of this course before. It turns out that Irish Hills in its current form is only two years old. McGuire’s Piney Ridge Resort built it as a nine hole course in 1985. A second nine was blended in seamlessly a couple years ago. We didn’t see any homesites on the course and the resort itself was only visible from the eighth and ninth holes. McGuire’s itself is a big, full service resort with an impressive lodge, cabins, villas, and a host of other recreational activities. It has a much more secluded feel than the comparable resorts in the Gull Lake area to the south.

Fortunately, most of us do not approach new golf courses with the scientific attitude more commonly found among nuclear physicists and computer geeks. Just enjoying the round is enough and if experiencing the course through the rose colored glasses of the vacationer adds to the fun then so much the better.

It concerns us, though, that this vacation factor may be in danger of becoming obsolete. Increasingly it seems that no matter where you go, America is starting to look like every place else. To compound matters we see people bringing "home" along wherever they go. Cabins with satellite dishes and Internet access. Guys jigging for walleyes with one hand and conducting business via cellphone with the other. The progress seems inexorable but it will come at a high price. Those moments when we can see the world as new and different heighten our sensibilities and put the rest of our existence in a different perspective. For many of us, the trips "Up North" or elsewhere are as valuable for their impact on our day-to-day lives as they are for the vacation itself.

To accurately assess Irish Hills it might be necessary to play it on a miserably cold day with a foursome of visually impaired, elderly golf novices in the prior group, then compare it to the experience that we had in early June. But if the biggest problem with the course was that playing it was so enjoyable that objectivity was hard to come by, that is the sort of problem a golfer can live with.

Irish Hills Golf Course
Route 1 PO Box 316
Pine River, Mn, 56474
Lodging 218-587-2296

  Back Middle Front
Rating 67.8 66.9 67.5
Slope 115 113 112