Willingers Golf Club – A Great Escape
By E. Nolan
How far from home and work do you really have to go to “get away?” An hour drive? Across the state line? To another country? When you live in a big city or metro area sometimes even visiting the outlying towns beyond the suburbs can feel like a getaway, and nowadays which among us wouldn’t gladly jump on such an opportunity to escape?
Northfield, Minnesota offers golfers one of those “just rural enough” escapes. At only 30 miles south of Bloomington, just off I35, Willingers Golf Club is a course that’s easy to get to and even easier to enjoy, making repeat “escapes” there essentially a given. “But there are rural golf courses everywhere,” you say. True. But most of them aren’t like this one.
When Garrett Gill and his Gill/Miller Golf Architects firm opened the course in 1991 it was immediately considered one of the best – not just in the Twin Cities area, but in the entire state. The raters raved, critics praised and magazines threw plaques, accolades and stars at it. Impressively, everything stuck. GolfDigest awarded Willinger’s 4.5 Stars FIFTEEN years in a row and Golf Magazine claimed it as one of the “Top 5 Best Value Courses… anywhere!” That’s an awful lot of fanfare for a relatively small course in a relatively rural area. Deserved? General Manager Cody Mager won’t explicitly answer that question. “Everyone else seems to think so,” he says. “But love of golf is subjective, so we’d much rather you come make the determination for yourself.”
He knows you’re going to love it. (He works there every day, and can read all the 5-star reviews on GolfAdvisor.com) But he’s right… why tell you that you will love it, especially since you’d expect that from the General Manager? Willingers is one of those courses I wish everyone could play for free, just so everyone WOULD play it. Such a perfect world doesn’t exist, of course, but they do bend over backwards to give local golfers the best deals possible. Follow Willingers on their social media channels and you’ll catch plenty of daily/weekly/seasonal specials. (Their Two-for-Tuesday with cart and lunch is a particularly tasty offering at only $39 per person.)
What will you find when you get there? The 275-acre plot of land contains a wild and colorful mix of hills, trees, grasses and wetlands. It is a peaceful place – a gorgeous walk specifically – that cuts through 40 acres of forest and around 60 acres of water. Too hot to walk? Prefer to drink and ride? No worries. Willingers caters effectively to both preferences with continuous cart paths throughout. “The place is so easy to enjoy,” says Jake Weaver, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “I’d drive an hour every day to play there.” (And many do.)
The course is a solid combination of challenge and fun. Four sets of tees provide different play options for various skill levels and the extra large greens make attacking the pins both possible and pleasurable. The hazards are plentiful but also manageable. Fifty-five bunkers are scattered throughout the course, mixed in among the many different swaths of water and wetlands. That much diversity in natural elements betrays some of the abundant beauty of the property. But words and pictures don’t do “the actual” justice.
Plenty fair for both men and women alike, the tee sheet is loaded daily with Juniors, Seniors, Couples and even Groups. Yes, Golf Groups (current COVID Restrictions notwithstanding) pack the place each summer for the thrills presented in different formats of play. And, beyond golf specific groups, Willinger’s hosts and caters to an assortment of annual events with their banquet facility perched high above the golf course. “Tell us what you’re looking for,” Cody says, “and we’ll make it happen for you.”
Willingers is essentially a wildlife refuge. Only 12 courses in Minnesota have been designated Certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuaries, and Willingers is primed to become the 13th. Click on the “Course Tour” on their website and you’ll get a glimpse of the full course layout – and a pretty good idea of why it’s such an enjoyable place to play in Spring, Summer AND Fall.
Course highlights include a great collection of 3-pars, each affected by water in a different way. Then again, if you broke the holes into categories by par you’d be impressed with the scenic value and diversity of each set. “You get a little bit of everything in a round,” Cody admits. “Wind, water, trees, tall grass, challenge, fun, laughter, maybe even some tears.” (He laughs, but hole 11 has definitely had me near tears. And NOT of joy.)
It’s time to plan your “escape” to Willingers. Take a beautiful day off from work and spend it in Northfield. Treat yourself and thank me later.