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Area Golf: Vintage hoping for successful future

Say the name Pine Meadows to Brainerd lakes area golfers and watch their face contort.

Mention the 18-hole golf course to former members and heads drop and shake back-and-forth in disgust as they envision the empty hayfield that used to be the only course in the city limits along the Paul Bunyan Trail.

Whisper Pine Meadows to golfers from surrounding areas and fear that their community golf course could follow the same horrible fate hits home. The stand-alone public golf course is on the extinction list.

Exceptions like Eagles Landing south of Brainerd and Crosswoods in Crosslake exist, but more area courses that aren't affiliated with a resort are struggling. Case in point, the Vintage at Staples - a quiet, 18-hole track designed by Joel Goldstrand that is cut into woods and offers a good but fair test of golf.

According to head PGA professional Bill Israelson, the course was four days away from not opening this season. A group of members decided to lease the course and create a shareholder-run operation when word spread the owners, based in California, weren't going to operate the property as a golf course this season.

"We've gone to a business model that is probably 50 percent paid help and 50 percent volunteer," said Israelson. "We have a three-year trial period. We have a three-year lease with an option of buying the property. Our intention, at least most of the people involved when we got these shareholders, was to come up with a business model that someone could come in and purchase the course and operate under that premiss."

Like Eagles Landing and Crosswoods and the new ownership at Cuyuna Rolling Hills, Israelson said the new ownership would likely have to be a family-oriented group. People who can put in the time themselves to help offset the costs.

"Somebody who knows the golf business, they could come in and do a third of the work, hire out a third of the work and then have family and friends cover the other third," Israelson said. "Then you could cash flow the business and have a good time. You wouldn't be so stressed out trying to cash flow it. It's still a really huge community asset for us here in Staples and that's really the reason we put the group together, to try and keep some kind of recreation in the area. We have a third of our people that have contributed money that don't even play golf. They don't even come out here and play but they wanted to keep it a part of the community. They know how a community needs different areas to congregate and talk and hash stuff over. We do a lot of charity stuff out here, too."

This has not been an ideal season for golf because of the wet weather, but Israelson is confident if this group can get through this season then they have a shot and creating a valuable asset for interested buyers.

He realizes there are perceptions, or as he calls them misconceptions, about golf and the group has taken actions to change those.

Pace of play is one issue. Some people complain it takes too long to golf. While a four-hour round should be standard, it's often not the norm. To combat that, the Vintage offers four tee boxes on every hole and has shaved the rough almost as low as the fairways helping people find errant shots quicker and improving the pace.

Golf is too hard some say. The Vintage at Staples is introducing big cups. It's an idea Israelson saw while watching his son on TV.

"My son (Zach) was on the Golf Channel with Charlie Rymer three months ago down in Atlanta where he goes to college," said Israelson. "He was on the Golf Channel when they were talking about courses that were trying to accommodate people and get around the course a little bit faster or make it a little bit easier for people who were trying it.

"They put two pins on the green and so if you wanted to play the traditional course your cup was still out there and if someone wanted to play a quick round or for someone who was a lousy putter it offered a variety. They had these big cups and it has been very successful for them."

The big cups are about three times as large as the normal golf cups and there is one on each Vintage green. They were cut in this week and will be featured during Saturday's Izzy Cup.

The Vintage has also taken to social media to generate play. On-the-fly deals pop up on the courses' facebook page for those that follow.

"That's one of the things we're trying to market here," Israelson said. "We are very family oriented. You can bring kids that are 6 years old or 12 years old and you're not going to be pressured to keep up. We have nice enough practice facilities where they can learn the game. We have a nice junior program out here so that's still one of our strong suites.

"We're just doing different things," said Israelson." Especially a golf course like us that is kind of on the extinction list, how can we get golfers here?"

With a strong business plan developed by fellow shareholder Brad Anderson in place and three years to prove it works, Israelson is confident the name Vintage won't be synonymous with Pine Meadows.

Jeremy Millsop
My career at the Brainerd Dispatch began May 11, 1999 after graduating from North Dakota State University. My areas of emphasis includes local high school sports, Central Lakes College, the lakes area golf mecca and once a year I dabble in the NHRA when the Lucas Oil Nationals come to Brainerd International Raceway.
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