Gopher Hills – The Hills Are Alive
By E. Nolan
There are more than a hundred 27-hole golf courses in America. Slightly more than a dozen of them were designed by more than one architect. Only two of those feature an executive nine as one of their nines. Does that make Gopher Hills special? I mean, it’s one of many things to like about a place operated under the motto of “exceeding expectations, inside and out.”
Gopher Hills gets its name more from the hills than from gophers. Yes, it’s in Minnesota, and only 30 minutes south of the University of Minnesota, but I’ve only seen one gopher there and I’ve seen dozens of hills. The original nine at Gopher Hills was built by Dr. Gordon Emerson and opened in 1995. That nine (the Glen nine) is now holes 10-18 in the championship routing. General Manager Daniel Hull describes it as a “classic, early-American layout.” Essentially that means it has many tree-lined fairways, widespread elevation changes and plenty of risk/reward opportunities.
An 18-hole expansion was added in 1999 by local designing legend Garret Gill. He provided Gopher Hills with it’s present opening nine – The Heath – and an executive nine. Native grass highlights and large, undulating greens are the signature features for these 18 holes.
I’ve gotten to know Golf Shop Manager, Ben Bauer, over the years, and know him as a passionate outdoorsman who loves to fish and explore. I’ve asked him what he appreciates the most about Gopher Hills and he humbly credits the golfers who fill it with life and laughter. “People just come out here to have fun, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in these hills.” He delivers the line half tongue-in-cheek, (before listing off all his favorite holes) but he’s right. The hills are most literally alive.
Garret Gill’s Heath nine kicks off the championship routing with a great par 4, with a pond concealed at the bottom of the hill (definitely something to remember). Having taken Golf Architecture classes from Mr. Gill at the University of Wisconsin-Stout I am well versed in his pensions for loading fairways and greens with movement. He uses mounding and slopes so well, mixed in with his elevated greens and precipitous approaches. Simply put, you need to know where you can not afford to put the ball. Everywhere else is safe… playable. My favorite hole on the opening nine is also the most treacherous #7, Ichabod. There are plenty of places you can not “put the ball” on this hole. The left is lined by OB, and the green is guarded by a pond on the right and sand on the left. I love it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
The “back” nine is Dr. Emerson’s Glen nine. It opens with a short par 4, that I’ve birdied twice by hitting into the right bunker (as opposed to the wrong one). My favorite hole on The Glen is the second hole (#11 – The Vale) with its superb split-fairway design with a pond protecting the front and a cool shelf backdrop. Dr. Emerson masterfully made all the trouble on this nine appear benign. Pay attention to where you’re hitting your shots because, while there may not be a ton of trouble, being out of position can be trouble enough. A majority of golfers list the 16th as their favorite hole, an all-or-nothing Par 3 that pretty much demands you hit the green or else… Dr. Emerson’s Glen has a splendid finish and leaves you wanting more golf.
Fortunately, you can get that here. The addition of Garret Gill’s Executive Nine at Gopher Hills sits adjacent The Heath and features many of Gill’s signature design subtleties and some really fun par 3s. All-in-all, The Executive is a great practice course for anyone, perfect for Junior Golfers and for family play, and quite popular for those reasons.
Off the course, McArthur’s Wood Grill offers golfers and residents of Cannon Falls many great Pub fares, and serves as the catering center for a Great Room banquet and event facility with dramatic, vaulted ceilings, a large stone fireplace and some great dramatic views over the golf course.
I like to promote Gopher Hills as the middle sibling on the “River Valley Golf Trail” – with Clifton Highlands near Prescott, and Red Wing Golf Club in Red Wing. The three of them together make for a great golf family – a great mini-golf getaway. Better still, you can get phenomenal deals on their rounds via the Best Approach and GolfNow mobile apps – the easiest way to make a golf steal at any of these three into an even better golf deal.