The Pines at Grandview Lodge
POSTED AUGUST 2009
It's hard to imagine a course that's had more impact on Minnesota's daily-fee golfing scene than the Pines. Lauded as one of our State's finest public courses by just about every golf publication imaginable, this is the one that started it all. The first super-premium golf course in Northern Minnesota, this 27 hole beauty was created by Joel Goldstrand back in 1990. Since then countless Metro golfers have made the pilgrimage up to Nisswa to enjoy it. And there is much to enjoy. First rate practice facilities, impeccable service, a beautiful clubhouse, and a gorgeous Northwoods setting have been a part of the Pine's tradition since the day it opened. But now this one-time heavyweight is often overlooked in favor of its newer cousins in the Brainerd area. Many golfers don't even consider playing it when they visit the area and those who do are still prone to grumbling about it afterwards.
So how can we understand these contradictions? A beautiful, legendary course that changed our golfing landscape forever yet doesn't have a particularly good reputation among the resort golfing public. A perennial Golf Digest pick as one of the finest courses that Minnesota has to offer but one that doesn't show up in many players' top five list for the Brainerd region alone. What gives?
Playing the Pines used to be a very special event for many of us, so when we made our first trip back in over a decade that old feeling of excitement resurfaced quickly. The staff were every bit as friendly as we remembered and it was soon apparent the course is still kept in great shape. But as we approached the first tee a nagging feeling of dread returned as well. Sort of like going to a school reunion when you know that the bully that tormented you for years is likely to be in attendance. But we'd been assured that The Pines is now a kinder, gentler golf course than the one of our (relative) youth so we hoped our fears were unnecessary.
The Pine's new, wider approach to fairways did seem to be in evidence on the first hole of The Lakes nine. At 380 yards from the White tees, only 390 from the Blue it featured a generous landing area and most of our group hit drivers. Little did they know it would be one of their last legitimate opportunities to hit the Big Stick for the entire round. The Pines might be more forgiving than it used to be but make no mistake - this is still a very challenging course. Slopes range from 136 up to 141 depending on the tees and combinations of nines one plays. It didn't take long for us to remember where all that difficulty comes from.
Back before the Pines came upon the scene the typical Northern resort course drew its challenge from a combination of narrow fairways, tight doglegs, and tall trees. As the first of a new generation The Pines retains more of that older approach to course design than the newcomers on the scene do. Nearly every par four and par five is a doglegged hole. Hit a driver 10 yards off line or 20 yards too far and you can be in jail on any of them.
Some of them, like the short 320 yard fifth hole, leave you with no real idea how much club you should really hit - or where exactly to hit it. Hit a pure 4 iron at the 150 marker and you can easily reach out of bounds. Down the middle can leave you behind a towering pine. Water is easily reachable. None of these dangers is obvious from the tee box. Getting the tee shot right the first time you play this course is a very difficult affair, even for those who with reproducible golf swings.
The sixth hole is a typical par five here. The tee shot is blind, you know there's trouble somewhere over that hill on the left, and with trees hugging both sides of the fairway it feels like driving down a bowling alley. At only 460 yards from the whites, 475 from the tips, it isn't a long hole and tournament-caliber golfers undoubtedly have their way with it. But for first time mid-handicappers this and other holes like it can feel pretty brutal.
We felt that the par threes were the best feature of this course. The trouble - whether in the form of water or bunkers - is right there for you to see and getting the club selection right is easier than on the doglegs and blind tee boxes. For a variety of reasons, the scenic number seven is one of our favorites. At 130 yards from the whites, 152 from the Championship tees, it's an easy nine iron or wedge for most golfers. But the bean-shaped green is tucked between water left and a steep hill right so a lot can go wrong. This hole does afford a route to the pin that won't be intuitively obvious to most players. Years ago a player in our group was having a real tough go of his annual trip to The Pines.
As he came up to this tough little tester we were expecting trouble and it came in the form of a viciously shanked seven iron. There are some timbers lining the top of the hill right and the errant shot careened wildly off of them. As it did, one of our foursome yelled "get in the hole!" and, for once, the ball obeyed. It went screaming across the green, heading for a watery grave with nothing but the pin to stop it. Hard to imagine an uglier shot going into a hole. The player who commanded the ace has been on golf courses for too many decades to count and, to this day, the shank off the timbers is still the only hole-in-one he's witnessed.
For many of us there is nothing more frustrating than to hit what one feels is a nice tee shot, only to find that you've found trouble behind a tree or, worse, have driven right through a fairway. These are, unfortunately, common occurrences at The Pines. The fairways might be 10 yards wider or so as promised but, to be honest, we wouldn't have known this if we weren't informed in advance. The ground under the trees that adjoin nearly every fairway is still pretty much virgin forest and hasn't been cleared away so this is one of those courses that has to play the woods as a lateral hazard. It was the seemingly decent shots that ended up being eaten by the forest that allowed this course to rough us up so routinely in the past - and has led to The Pines' difficult reputation among the golfing public.
Golfers at The Pines now have a new ally that helps to level the playing field a bit - their carts. State of the art GPS systems are now installed on every cart and this is a great course to put them on. Some of the dangers can be foreseen in advance and key yardages are usually available. Every cart within shooting range shows up on the screen so hitting into the preceding foursome was markedly reduced. These carts were also equipped with ball and club washers and, to our surprise, each had its own cooler. We felt the addition of the cooler officially made these the best golf carts in Minnesota.
Additional help is available at the Grandview Lodge website. Each of their courses has its own site, including a section of tips about how to play each hole. Everything from tee times to lodging specials to spa appointments can be booked as well.
To be fair, if this was one's home golf course it would be a genuine love affair. If you know where to put your ball - and, more importantly, where not to - this is a course that a person could learn to score on. The greens were some of the best we've seen in years - very fast and always rolling true. The bent grass fairways were perfect and there were a lot of times that we felt if we could just play the hole again we'd make a much better showing. Good players who have the ball on a string and a viable strategy for each hole won't find it that difficult. It's the mid-handicap golfer and above who play this course once a year at most that will find the experience so brutish. The problem is that there are a lot more of us than the aforementioned strategic shot-makers or repeat players with tons of local knowledge. So when one hears someone speaking ill of The Pines it's probably best to consider the source. There are reasons why the big golf publications have been in love with this course for so long.