Golden Gopher Hills
By E. Nolan
My first Gopher Hills experience was a mind-and-eye opener – entirely in the most positive way. I’m not proud of this, but I was a bit reluctant to go. It was an hour drive from my home and… well… there was something about the word “gopher” in the name that led me to believe the course would have closer to 1,800 holes than just 18 (or 27). All of this was before they had their “whoa-inducing” website gallery up but, still, a classic “never judge a book by its cover” moment there. Lesson learned.
If you’re at all like I was, ever remotely hesitating to commit to a visit to Gopher Hills due to some infantile gullibility or lame excuse, dispel those foolish notions. My naivety remains a running joke with Ben Bauer, the Head Golf Professional and Manager, but he gets it and he appreciates that others could be just as clueless. Ben didn’t name the course, but always understood it was labeled more in tribute to Minnesota being “The Gopher State” than to the actual rodents. The name was something to be proud of. And they SHOULD be proud of what they have at Gopher Hills – easily one of Minnesota’s best golf values, and most pleasant surprises. (Note: They also have an awesome aerial drone tour on the website now. If my casting doesn’t hook you, that footage will.)
Gopher Hills is located only 30 minutes south of the Twin Cities, between Hastings and Cannon Falls. It’s more of a course than you’d ever expect, specifically because they have three nines in play, including an executive nine that is a blast as a warmup (and for juniors/families). Gopher Hills is also more physically impressive than you’d anticipate. There are some beautiful and dramatic landscapes in this part of the state, but the elevation changes and wild mounding at Gopher Hills was pretty awesome.
The overall round experience is certainly a “tale of two nines.” Dr. Gordon Emerson built the original nine “Irish Glen” which opened in 1995 and now plays as the back of the championship routing. It is perhaps best categorized as a classic American parkland layout, with plenty of tree-lined fairways, scattered bunkers and risk/reward opportunities on many an approach. The current front nine “Scottish Heath” was built by Garrett Gill and opened four years later, in 1999. The Heath features massive mounding, fescue “fences” and robustly shaped greens. It’s frankly hard to believe these two nines are right next to each other. Unbelievable, yet altogether enjoyable.
Garrett Gill’s list of course credits at Gopher Hills also includes the 9-hole, executive – Par 30 – Lynx course and the assorted practice areas. They have a full Golf Academy on-site, allowing them to cater to the development and entertainment of every level of golfer. (Bonus: Lessons are FREE at the Golf Academy every Saturday AM with the purchase of a bucket of range balls.)
It took seven holes for me to see my first gopher. So, there ARE some out here! “Well, yeah,” Ben smirked, apparently enjoying my guilt too much to let it off the hook. By that point though, I could’ve seen a dozen gophers operating plows and steam shovels and wouldn’t have been the least bit put off. Gopher Hills, in person, had already made a permanently positive impression. “I could play out here every night,” I mentioned to Ben. He nodded. “Some people do.”
I was struck over and over by just how scenic and natural the entire setting was. I still haven’t seen many gophers in my cumulative visits, but I’ve seen deer, turkeys, raccoons and owls, and I’ve heard there are even foxes and tortoises wandering about. Gopher Hills is also a Monarch butterfly sanctuary and THOSE you WILL see if you look around. Between all the wildlife and all the wildly entertaining hole designs, I maintain a plastered-smile-expression throughout all my rounds there now. Further enhancing the enjoyment factor, Gopher Hills is a “No OB” course, with every wayward boundary playing as a lateral hazard. That also speeds up pace of play considerably, not that they’ve ever had an issue with that. “People can fly around here,” Ben acknowledges. “But most don’t want to. It’s a great place to just relax, take your time and enjoy life.”
Gopher Hills is part of the four-course River Valley Golf Trail with Clifton Highlands, Lake City and Red Wing Golf Club and recently added a Woodhaven Wedding & Events Center overlooking the entire course. Whatever your size of golf group and however much golf you want to play, you don’t have to venture far outside the cities for a most positively memorable experience.