Championship golf in the North Woods
When Minnesota native Tom Lehman hit the ceremonial first drive on the Cragun Resort’s Lehman Course, a band struck up the Golden Gopher fight song.
The resort on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minnesota, now has two Lehman-renovated 18-hole courses – one of which will host a PGA Tour Canada event over Labor Day weekend.
The $15 million project elevates what started as in 1940 as a collection of rustic cabins on a sandy lakefront beach into what now is arguably the best golf destination in central Minnesota.
Long a destination for residents of the Twin Cities, resort officials hope the course renovations and continuing lodging upgrades will pull in guests from drive markets as far away as Winnipeg and Chicago, Cragun’s Marketing Director Carrie Scarfino said.
“They want a true Minnesota experience with the lake, the beach-front cabins, the pine trees – the elements of everything that comes with Minnesota,” Scarfino said. The course renovations added another element to Cragun’s reputation, she said.
In 2020, Lehman and design partner Chris Brands went to work on two overly difficult golf courses designed in 1998 by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Three years later, they completed the par-72, 7.070-yard Lehman Course, and the par-70, 7,001-yard Dutch Course, named after Merrill “Dutch” Cragun Jr., the 91-year-old owner of the resort. Both are parkland courses.
The Dutch Course is two nines of what will be a 27-hole rotation by 2025. The 2023 PGA Tour Canada’s CRMC Championship, to be held Aug. 31-Sept. 3, will be played on the Dutch Course, although resorts officials said they have not ruled out hosting a future event on a combination of the Dutch and Lahman courses.
Making two difficult courses more enjoyable to play
Eric Peterson, general manager of the resort, said resort officials wanted two things from the Lehman renovations: a design that would create a buzz and courses that were more enjoyable to play for resort guests.
“We had already made some slight adjustments to [the Trent Jones Jr. courses] to make them a little bit more playable, and improve the enjoyment factor of the golf courses, but they were very difficult golf courses,” Peterson said.
“In the late ’90s when Robert Trent Jones Jr. Was designing golf courses, that was the trend – to make golf courses difficult,” Peterson said.
The Lehman course opened for limited play last fall. Logan Jackson, the resort’s head professional, said he’s seen an increase in play by serious players and low handicappers drawn the involvement by Lehman, a Minnesota native. and British Open winner.
Although the two renovated courses largely lie within the footprint of the Jones design, Lehman scrapped many of Jones’s holes and reversed others – renovating 30 new holes in all — plus an entirely new nine. He and Brands opened up the two courses, widened fairways and made them play firmer and faster, Lehman said.
To differentiate the Dutch and Lehman courses, the design team built the Lehman bunker faces with partial simulated sod revetments with clean edges, giving them a links-y feel, while the Dutch Course’s bunkers have strips of un-mowed fescue rough, or “eyelashes,” atop their faces.
“Obviously, it’s not links land, but the look of the bunkers is totally different,” Lehman said. “So, I think we have two very distinct-looking golf courses. They play differently and they look different, which is what we were aiming for.”
Lehman: Accept what the terrain gives you
Lehman met Dutch Cragun, the owner, while following his own son around Cragun’s during the Minnesota Junior Match Play Championship in 2019. A dinner with Dutch eventually led to the design job. Lehman won out over two other firms that resort officials declined to name.
On July 24. Lehman, a graduate of the University of Minnesota who grew up not far from Cragun’s, hit the ceremonial first shot on his namesake course. Lehman said he fell in love with the topography of the Cragun’s courses and recognized that the flow of the land, not his own preconceptions, would dictate his redesign.
“I think we’re really good at trying to fit the golf into the land and not try to, most big mistakes in golf course design, in my opinion, are made in the routing stage where they are fighting grades and they’re trying to create – versus just use what’s there. If you use what’s there right, you save yourselves a lot of problems down the road,” Lehman said.
In addition to the new 18-hole courses and the spare nine, the resort has a par 3 course designed years ago by Robert Trent Jones Jr.
The resort also offers fishing and boating. It features a mile-long sandy beach, pickleball and four restaurants. A dinner-cruise boat, the “North Star,” plies the waters of the 15.5-square-mile Gull Lake. The resort has 206 lodging rooms, with plans for new guest-home construction.
Cragun’s is two hours west of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, 15 miles from the resort, has limited service via Delta Airlines.
Dan Vukelich is the Online Editor of Alabama Golf News. He lives in Albuquerque, N.M.
Featured image of Stewart Cink courtesy of Cragun’s Resort