The Wilderness At Fortune Bay – Call of the Wild

By E. Nolan

A well-known Bible story has Moses stranded in the wilderness for 40 years. His fortune… pretty unfortunate. We’re left to assume his “wilderness” had to have been pretty rough. Pretty barren. Pretty much not pretty. Clearly he wasn’t in Northern Minnesota… or he’d have asked God to stay another 40.

What the Northernmost Central Midwest lacks in quantity of great courses, it more than makes up in their quality. North Dakota has three great courses. Northern Wisconsin has a couple. And Northern Minnesota… well, there’s the golf gold mine that is Brainerd and then there’s “Up North.” “Up North” we’ve got the trifecta every state wishes they had, with so much beauty, so much purity, so much distinction, so much… well… so much. And a majority of that is at the Wilderness at Fortune Bay Resort and Casino. (The rest is at Giants Ridge.) Yes there is a resort here, with spacious clean rooms, a refreshingly large pool, and lakefront property ideal for an any-time-of-day stroll. Yes, there is a multi-level expansive casino here, as much Vegas as we really need, with plenty of generous machines (they want you to keep coming back) and smiling happy people waving hands. (Isn’t there an REM song titled that?)

New Marketing Director, Shannon Gwash, claims it was “love at first sight.” First impression? “Beautiful. Gorgeous. So peaceful.” We agree. “Its such an easy place to market when all people have to do is see the place to love it.” True. That is the easy part. The hard part is getting people to realize just how awesome this entire facility is, especially the golf course, and then prodding them enough to get them to visit. There should be no hesitation. There’s a reason it’s been ranked the #1 course in the state for years by Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, GolfWeek, etc. (constantly sparring with its other Up North “partner” at Giants Ridge – The Quarry) and one of the Top 5 Casino Resorts in the entire country.

It’s that unique! That special! The Wilderness draws thousands annually from Fargo/Moorhead, Duluth, the Twin Cities, Canada, Milwaukee and even Chicago. That’s thousands. And that’s annually. The parking lot is seemingly always three-quarters full. Full enough to let you know everyone here knows how great it is. And yet just empty enough to always have room for another car, another golfer, another corporate outing, another you. There’s always an open table, open room, open tee time. Maybe not two. But you only need one!

And it’s really not that far away. From the Twin Cities it’s a 3-hour (200 miles) straight shot to Tower, which (once you pass Duluth) doesn’t even feel that long thanks to the scenic splendor of the Northwoods. Case in point: We’ve made the trip twice a year, with 4 kids, from an hour south of St. Paul. And we’d do it three times if we had the time. It really ISN’T that far away.

When you’re at memorable places, like Fortune Bay, it always seems to take twice as long to get home, because (on your drive home) so much of you wishes you could have stayed longer… wishes you could just go back.

As a writer who has played almost 300 courses across this country, there are remarkably fewer standouts than expected, but those standouts make me wish even more I could perfectly convey their impression to my read-at-home audience. I personally read thousands of reviews each year, and so many sound the same, because so many of the covered locales are so similar. I love that the Wilderness is, in fact, dissimilar. The service at the resort and the course, the food in the clubhouse, and the quality of the golf are a notch above anything else you will ever experience in these parts. There’s no golf like this in the Southeast. There’s no golf like this in the Southwest. Your arriving impression will be the same as your departing one… Wow!

I mentioned the golf. Let’s expand on that. The course covers 140 acres of Iron Range wilderness, with granite ridges, wetlands, peaks, valleys, ponds and photo-worthy views from pretty much any point of the Jeffrey Brauer canvas that covers it all. You’ve all (hopefully) been to a course with multiple standout holes. Perhaps even some with many.

They’re commonly referred to as “signature holes.” The Wilderness, in my book, has SEVEN such standout holes… just on the front 9. In fact, my least favorite hole on the entire course is the one (#16) they consider their “signature” hole! That should tell you something!

The front nine has split fairways and five elevated tee shots. Two of which are par 3’s… one the natural amphitheater (my favorite hole) 3rd, with the split-level green (pray you land on the right level) and the other the panoramic cliff-dive 7th with the small target green. Good luck. Both unforgettable. It also has a Biarritz green with a giant swale in the middle at #5, my favorite par 5 at #8, and a mid-round approach on the par 4 9th over an angry little pond. Always angry with me anyway.

And there’s no let-up on the back. I count 6 more “signatures” over the last nine holes, including the first five holes of the back. Talk about sensory overload. The back has more split fairways, a peninsular green par 3 12th, and a beautiful short par 4 along Everett’s Bay. (Where there always seems to be at least one loon.) The round concludes at 18 (shocking) alongside a more docile version of the adjacent 9th and its angry pond. (I’ll never forget!) A golfer we spoke to on our last visit expressed his affection for The Wilderness by saying. “There’s beauty on every hole. Great shots on every hole. Lots of fun on every hole. But the similarities end there.” I loved that description.

Just steps from the amazing course is the Wilderness Grill with equally amazing food. General Manager Tom Beaudry always believed it was critical to make their food as special as the golf because as he wanted every facet of the experience to stand on its own for each visitor. The Wilderness Grill accomplishes that goal. Whether its braised pork, filet mignon, ribs, or soup, each menu item is chef inspired from scratch, with a complementary (though not complimentary) bottle of wine designed for each. No detail is overlooked or insignificant. This results in the best of the good life.

Surreal, by definition, means “too good to be true.” That word is mentioned quite a bit up here. But it’s true. This place is surreal. If you’ve been here or if you come, you’ll know/see what I mean. At that point no further explanation will be necessary.

A Fond Farewell:A Warm Welcome
The golf business is defined by the people who operate it; in particular the owners and managers. The great ones know how to make their business stand out, and how to make everyone who works for/with them feel like their position is critical to the success of the entire business. Tom Beaudry, General Manager of the Wilderness at Fortune Bay is, and has been, an exemplary employer and a good close friend to all who know him. He has recently made the decision to retire and will be greatly missed by all of us. We here at Tee Times wish to thank you, Tom, for all you gave and the inspirations you provided to many during your tenure at The Wilderness. May God bless you, your wife, and your daughters in all your future endeavors!

As much as we’ll miss Tom, we are thrilled to announce that his successor is none other than Mr. Gabe Cessna, formerly of Voyager Village fame. It is great to see that someone with as much passion and heart for the game, as Gabe has, is being given the opportunity to lead a course as great and prestigious as the Wilderness. Best wishes to you, Mr. Cessna, and to your entire wonderful staff!

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