Pioneers Of The Golf Destination
By Rhett Arens
Golf vacations have been around for a while. Tracing the origins back to the beginning involves some research, some suntan lotion, a splash of bug juice and the understanding that golf played second fiddle to fishing and family evenings around the campfire in the early years. That’s because golf destination travel was initially thought of as another amenity option offered up by those forward-thinking folks who owned and operated lake country resorts. Their clients were seeking a reprieve from the sweltering Twin Cities streets and headed north throwing the clubs in the trunk as an afterthought. Over time, those golf clubs took their place next to the fishing rods with the help of pioneers like the Ruttger’s, the Cote’s, the Cragun’s, the Madden’s, Captain Billy Fawcett and others.
As the resort options evolved and the concept of adding golf into the vacation mix took off, business-minded resort owners jumped in and really got the ball rolling. The center of gravity for this was in cabin country around the greater Brainerd region. The big names were Grand View, Craguns, Ruttgers, Maddens and Breezy Point. Other golf-based destinations developed along the way through some cooperative marketing within local regions, high profile golf architects and plenty of word-of-mouth. These regional destinations can be grouped by common geography like the Alexandria area, the Iron Range, the North Shore and the Hayward area. These are the pioneers of golf destination and we thought it would be interesting to take a look back at the history of these resorts.
Ruttger’s Bay Lake Lodge is the earliest known resort opened in the 1890’s under Joe Ruttger who found a way to enjoy the beauty of a northern Minnesota lake and make money while he was at it. A very clever guy indeed. The fact that he was situated on an excellent fishing lake didn’t hurt his chances, but he didn’t rest on his laurels and quickly began to explore a means of adding revenue and more recreational options for his customers. Eventually a lodge with boarding rooms was built and soon he was offering a package deal that included a bed, meals and boat at a bargain for $5.00/week. That package deal expanded to include golf in the 1930’s when Ruttger’s cut their first fairways out of the pine and birch lined shores of Bay Lake. Various modifications, upgrades, renovations and redesigns have resulted in the 27-hole layout we see today that includes the 18 hole championship design called Jack’s 18 and a unique, par 33, short-course called Alec’s 9.
Situated along the northern shore of Gull Lake, Grand View Lodge Spa and Golf Resort is just that – a classic resort property with all the high-end amenities. But its start was a bit more modest and like all resort destinations a steady flow of continuous improvements have brought the whole operation into a world-class league that today includes 45 holes of championship golf with the bar set very high. The main lodge opened its doors in 1919 as real estate developer M.V. Baker needed overnight housing for his prospective land buyer clients. Realizing that renting rooms in the lodge or outlying cabins was profitable, he began to expand business into the resort realm. Baker sold the property to ‘Brownie’ Cote in 1937 where the Cote family took the bold move of adding additional housing and more property for future development. That development has continued through today under the Cote family name. Their vision included adding golf as part of the package with three different 9-hole tracks, the Lakes, Woods and Marsh located near the lodge where you can combine nines for daily variety. They also own and operate The Preserve, a second 18-hole championship track located up the road just north of Nisswa. The Preserve is renowned for bringing the pristine natural surroundings into play with plenty of elevation, carries and twisting fairways at excellent playing condition levels. A true northern Minnesota gem among giants.
The Cragun’s began ownership development in the mid-1930’s under the iconic name of Paul Bunyan, Inc. but the resort business didn’t really kick off until the original lodge was built in 1945. Within several years Merrill and his wife Louise had added 12 more cabins to meet the demand of their growing customer base. Initially open only in the summer season, the Cragun’s family added more fishing amenities, refined swimming beaches, then swimming pools, more restaurants, and still more lodging. Today Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake occupies 4,500 feet of Gull Lake shoreline with 36 holes of Robert Trent Jones championship golf (Cragun’s is currently undergoing a huge course renovation in partnership with Tom Lehman. More on that in this issue.), and another 9 holes of par 3 perfection to sharpen that short game or take the little ones out for some swings. The practice facility and instructional area is second to none with lots of bunker, chipping and putting areas as well as PGA Master Professional of Instruction – Chris Foley. He is on site, ready and willing to help elevate your game. Cragun’s represents the type of resort operated by a family for families with everything under one umbrella from fishing, dining, beachcombing, bonfires, swimming (indoor and out), tennis and plenty of space to stretch out and relax. An embodiment of the classic golf resort destination, with or without the golf.
At Madden’s on Gull Lake things began back in 1909 when T.H. Harrison his son, John, and another partner cut a golf course into the woods along Gull Lake and built a hotel to house guests making their way by car into the Brainerd destination area. The Madden family began leasing the course in the early 1930’s from Harrison for a mere $500 for the season. Times were tough coming out of the Great Depression and vacations were a luxury at any price. The Madden brothers eventually bought the property and began their dream of a full-fledged resort which included the Pine Beach Golf Course and a set of small, modest housekeeping units on a site called Mission Point which was eventually renamed Madden Lodge. Continuing with several purchases that resemble a game of Monopoly, the Madden’s acquired other adjacent properties and by 1970 had folded it all into the resort we know today as Madden’s, with golf still at the heart of the operations. That heart is alive and well today which includes The Classic, a top 5 course in the entire Midwest. The distinguished course design is famous for its carry’s, green complexes and impeccable grounds keeping with a #59 ranking on the Golf Digest Top Public Courses list in 2019. Also on-hand to serve the golfing public are two other 18 hole courses, The Pine Beach East and West as well as a 9-hole course cleverly called the Social 9.
Of all the Minnesota golf destinations Breezy Point Resort has perhaps the most celebrated history which included the endorsement of Hollywood A-listers and plenty of Twin Cities movers and shakers. The shores of Pelican Lake have been hopping ever since millionaire publicist ‘Captain’ Billy Fawcett worked his charm and magic on the development of the resort back in the roaring 20’s. Having purchased the land in 1921 he quickly developed the property into a hospitality mecca and then doubled down using his gift for promotion to spread the word. His reach was such that the likes of Clark Gable, Jack Dempsey and others made the trip north for a little rest and relaxation. Naturally a round of golf fit perfectly into those plans. The massive main lodge which was constructed from the towering local timber nearby and built to accommodate 700 guests. No surprise that Captain Billy went big. He built himself a personal residence (an 11 bedroom mansion!) on the property which can still be rented today called the Fawcett House, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As the resort industry was gaining momentum in the 1970’s Whitebirch, Inc. was launched and eventually evolved into single family units as both cabins and timeshare accommodations. Folded into that development was three 18 hole golf courses, marinas, rec centers, an ice arena and multiple bars and restaurants. Today the crown jewel of the golfing operations is Deacon’s Lodge. A magnificent Arnold Palmer design that sits a few miles north of the Breezy property and offers all the natural splendor that Minnesota has to offer – wild marshlands, mature forests, tranquil lakes and plenty of shifting, twisting elevations. Bring your ‘A’ game or plenty of golf balls, this is a golfer’s track, one of the best in the state. The other two courses, Whitebirch Golf Course and the Traditional Course offer plenty of challenge while giving families and casual players classic Minnesota golf.
These five pioneers of the golfing destination industry recognized just how nicely golf fit into everyone’s idea of an ideal week at the cabin. They listened to what worked and didn’t work and constantly refined their amenities and marketing to attract golfing enthusiasts towards more golf-orientated vacations. Minnesota is truly blessed with numerous options that come at all price points and levels of comfort and luxury.
The idea of golfing destination travel is extended to regional areas as well. The most ‘golfer’ focused of these is the Iron Range trifecta of The Wilderness, The Quarry and The Legend. The latter two are operated out of Giants Ridge near Biwabik and The Wilderness is incorporated into the Fortune Bay Resort and Casino near Tower. All three are within 30 miles of each other making travel between them a breeze. More to the point, a trip can be constructed to smartly take in all three during a single swing through the region. Ryan Peterson, General Manager and PGA Head Golf Professional at The Wilderness insists it’s the isolated nature of the location ‘that is the x-factor’ in making a golf trip to this destination such a special experience. It doesn’t hurt that these are three of the most celebrated and revered courses in the state. In fact, The Quarry (#31) and The Wilderness (#72) are both ranked in the Golf Digest Top 100 Public Courses list. Ryan understands that vacationers want to feel ‘away from it all’ and if there is exceptional golf available, the draw is even stronger. The fact, that there is a gaming casino next door doesn’t hurt either, as golfing tends to see a little side-betting at times (wink, wink) and golfers themselves have the option of spending an evening or a bad weather day trying their luck at the tables. Ryan has spent 14 years in the golf industry and wouldn’t trade jobs with anyone he knows. One look around his Wilderness operations and you will understand why. Other destination areas that allow for multiple golf stops include the Alexandria area (where Arrowwood Resort anchors the golfing scene) and Jackpot Junction in Morton, Minnesota, where vacation time centers around cards and clubs that keep golfers on their toes.
I doubt the pioneers of the golf destination industry foresaw the tremendous surge in resort development and the variety of options we have at our Google fingertips. One thing is true, we still love to pack the car and the clubs and head north.