Hidden Golf Gem of the Month: September

Anyone can find the famous great courses, like Pebble Beach or Pinehurst Number Two or Muirfield.

The question I get asked the most by avid golfers is some variation of “what’s a great course I don’t know about already.”

I love discovering these hidden gems, courses that are not well know, but are excellent. They are usually also cheap and much easier to get on than the famous ones, and almost always better values. I have found these all over the world.

This month, my Hidden Gem pick is the Classic at Madden’s Resort, in the Brainerd Lakes Region of Minnesota. That is abut two hours due north of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Midwesterners love their golf, despite the short season, and Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois all have an incredible amount of golf, with many of the courses underrated, underexposed and underpriced. But even in this group, the Classic stands out.

The Classic #1 (2)

The Classic has it all: natural beauty, brains, great mainteance and good value.

One thing we have seen over and over in golf is that when you hire a little known or first time architect you tend to get the best work, because they pour their heart and soul in – and have no other jobs to distract them. In contrast, a top name architect often spends as little as 3 days on a design – really. At Madden’s they didn’t even bother with an architect: they let their longtime golf course superintendent build it (they have two other older courses). He knew the hilly, wooded site like the back of his hand from years of hunting and hiking it. His first and only design, it is easily the region’s best – though if you look at Golf Magazine you will instead find the nearby Deacon’s Lodge, an Arnold Palmer design, on its Top 100 US Public list at 81. No disrespect to Arnie, but the Classic is soooo much better than Deacon’s Lodge it would make your head spin, yet it gets no credit.

The wonderful opening hole sets the tone:  it is a par-5 with a tee shot in the classic style, the way Donald Ross thought a course should start, to a wide and welcoming fairway, a good way to get in the swing of things. If you are happy, you can go for it in two, or easily lay up and play it safe. From here the fairway drops downhill and the green is protected by a small lake in front. It is a perfect strategic risk/reward hole, followed by a nice par-3, short but over water, and then yet another excellent risk/reward hole, a short par-4 than can be driven, but to do so requires all carry over water. Alternately, it can be reached with the mid-length shots.

This is what the Classic offers all the way around: wonderful rhythm, one well designed and thought provoking hole after another, all woven together nicely and in a bucolic natural setting.

Greens fees run $105-$120 for day visitors, and $75-$85 for resort guests, very reasonable for this quality. There are also lots of golf and lodging packages offered.

Madden’s resort reminded me of the movie Dirty Dancing, with an old-fashioned, family style, summer camp feel. Lodging consists of a vast mix of cabins, villas and hotel rooms scattered around a lake and throughout the large resort. The other two courses are like the shuffleboard or horseshoes: resort amenities included free with lodging, which you do not see too often. As great a deal as this can be, the quality of the eighteens, Pine Beach East and West, reflects it, and they are nothing compared to the Classic. There is also the Social Nine, a par-3 layout that brings the resort’s total to a whopping 63-holes of friendly golf.

In the summer, you don’t really have to choose. You can warm up on the Social Nine or East or West and then play the Classic. Or warm up on both: it stays light until 9:30 in peak season.

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