Gopher Hills Provides An Uphill Battle

By Desiree Bergquist

A quick look at the scorecard yardages for Gopher Hills in Cannon Falls-6,355 yards from the blue tees, 5,995 from the white, and 4,913 from the red-and you’ll see it’s not a long course. Make the short trip South from the Twin Cities to check it out, however, and you’ll find a course rife with challenges. The numerous elevation changes, diverse hole layouts, and fescue-laden rough will test any player’s bag of uphill, downhill, side hill, blind and wood-chopping shots.

Just fourteen years old, the original 9-hole course was designed by Dr. Gordan Emerson with more typical tree-lined, albeit still very hilly, fairways. An 18-hole expansion designed by Garrett Gill was completed in 1999. This relegated the original 9 to the back and placed a new European links-style nine in the lead. A separate Executive 9 was built as well.

Our round started with a couple of real beef hot dogs on the way to the tee from the refreshment stand ideally situated between the 1st tee and 9th green. (You can also get freshly grilled burgers; but if you’re a true burger aficionado, save your appetite for dinner at McArthur’s Grill after the round – more on that later). Appropriately named Ridge, the 1st hole offers a bird’s eye view of the front nine. Like many of the holes at Gopher Hills it features both an elevated tee and an elevated green. As a result, shots to the green that fall short stay short, giving you ample opportunity to hone your high, soft pitching skills.

All the holes at Gopher Hills have telling names. The par three 2nd hole, called Drop, descends sharply over a small hill, causing your ball to disappear if your shot comes up short. The par five 7th Ichabod is long and skinny, and the green on number 17’s Citadel is well protected from advancing golf balls. Balaklava, the name given to Hole 12, which is the toughest hole on the course, totally stumped me. I checked in with Pete Hendrickson, who teaches free golf lessons every Saturday morning at Gopher Hills. Pete named all the golf holes, often drawing on his extensive knowledge of history for ideas. Balaklava takes you from a raised tee off area over 430 yards through a broad valley and up a steep slope to a hilltop green. “The view reminded me of the battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War between the British and the Russians in 1854,” quipped Hendrickson. “Imagine yourself a British cavalryman aboard your mighty steed. Off in the distance atop a broad bluff are the Russians with their cannons pointing down into the valley. Your commanding officer rides up to you and orders you to attack the opposing battlements-a virtual suicide mission.” Hendrickson laughed, “What club would you select?”

My favorite hole in terms of aesthetics and interesting play was Vale, the 505-yard par 5 11th hole. Players have the option of threading the needle into a narrow downhill passage on the left, or landing on a high bluff to the right. New players to the course may inevitably choose the narrow left option, not knowing that a slightly laid-up shot on the bluff offers a high shot over a cliff to a nice fat fairway below. A water hazard in front of the green and a sand bunker to the right challenge the approach.

The course is close knit from green to tee, but unless you’re in Lance Armstrong-shape or a masochist, leave the roller coaster workout to the golf cart. By the third or fourth hole, you’ll really appreciate this advice.

After wending your way through the course, a stop off at McArthur’s Wood Grill located inside a spacious clubhouse designed to accommodate banquets and receptions is in order. A decadent prime rib buffet was among the offerings. But sandwiches were calling our names. My husband had the signature McArthur’s Burger, a 1/2-pound of grilled-to-medium beef topped with blue cheese, applewood smoked bacon, and grilled red onions. He raved about it. And this is a man who doesn’t usually vocalize praise in between bites. I opted for the Reuben and wasn’t disappointed. It had the exactingly correct proportion of grilled marble rye, tender corn beef, tangy sauerkraut and creamy Thousand Island dressing that you wish every clubhouse grill would have, but doesn’t. The wine list is rather spare, but when you’re ordering a Reuben an open-minded beer list that includes Moose Drool Brown Ale more than makes up for it. Word has it there’s a Friday Night Fish Fry. If the sandwiches are any indication of quality, an easy 30 mile Friday evening road trip from the Twin Cities may be in order.

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