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Area Golf: A Classic celebration at Madden's

EAST GULL LAKE--The autumn foliage will be close to peak. Frosty morning delays will soon transition to snow-covered fairways. It's fitting Madden's on Gull Lake hosts a 20-year celebration Sunday for The Classic at Madden's in October. Masses of...

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Hole 11 at the Classic at Madden’s golf course. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

 

EAST GULL LAKE-The autumn foliage will be close to peak.

Frosty morning delays will soon transition to snow-covered fairways.

It's fitting Madden's on Gull Lake hosts a 20-year celebration Sunday for The Classic at Madden's in October. Masses of tourists are trickling to lesser numbers. Older residents are preparing their migration south. And while it sits visible along a short stretch of County Highway 77 in East Gull Lake, few realize how regarded The Classic at Madden's is on a national scale.

When the 18-hole golf course opened in 1997, it won numerous new course awards. What many may not realize is The Classic never stopped earning awards. For the last 14 years, it's been on the Golf Digest Top 100 Public Courses list. It's been five-star rated for the past 12 years.

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On Sunday, Madden's will celebrate one of the country's top destination golf courses with a tournament and dinner.

One key difference of The Classic is the original vision.

"We do things quite differently, very much differently. I was trying to break that into parts, but I think part of it is the original vision of the golf course," said Glenn Hagberg, head PGA professional at Madden's.

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The Classic at Madden's

  • What: 18-hole championship golf course at Madden's Resort
  • Architect: Scott Hoffmann
  • Highlight: Listed as 58th best golf course in United States by Golf Digest Magazine
  • Next: 20th anniversary celebration golf tournament and dinner noon Sunday
  • Contact: Cierra Waverek at 218-855-5922

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"We started the golf course in 1992 and it opened in 1997. It was a five-year process of just patiently going about it and being very strategic about it and not being in a rush and rushing through decisions."

Hagberg said The Classic could have opened in 1996, but it was decided to give the course a full season to grow. The other philosophical strategy was putting the focus back on golf.

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Hagberg said everything that could be a distraction happens in front of the clubhouse. That is where golf carts, beverage station and staff are. Once a player gets past the starter, it is them and the golf course.

"I think we're really blessed that (Madden's Chairman of the Board) Brian Thuringer didn't want to do any other housing or any other development around the golf course," said course architect Scott Hoffmann. "It still, after 20 some years, gives me a nice peaceful feeling when you're over there. The surrounding and the aesthetics of the land are just pretty special. I think it's just kind of rare nowadays to have that. It's one of the things that makes The Classic special."

Designed by Hoffmann with input from former tour player John Harris, longtime Minnesota Golf Association Executive Director Warren Rebholz and fellow course designer Geoffrey Cornish, The Classic has undergone few changes in 20 years. Storms have felled numerous trees. In some cases, bunkers were added to replace those, but Hoffmann's original layout has changed little.

Despite no major renovations, The Classic remains a golfing gem. In its 2017 Top 100, Golf Digest raters named The Classic the 58th best public golf course in America. That was up from 63rd a year ago. The rise was shocking given the fact more wide open layouts, like Whistling Straits and courses associated with Bandon Dunes in Oregon, were trending.

Many tree-lined layouts fell in the rankings, but not The Classic.

"We've lost probably, for one reason or another, between the two-lined chestnut borer and various storms, I would say close to four or five thousand trees," Hoffmann said. "It's hardly noticeable really. Most people wouldn't be able to tell you that.

"I think it's become a lot more playable over the years. With less trees it's a little easier to maintain. When we designed and built it originally, we always thought we were going to have a fair amount of attrition so we kept a lot more trees than we normally would and that's exactly what ended up happening."

Hagberg said another key component is the way The Classic is maintained. Hoffmann, ever the humble giant in the business, disagrees. He said he doesn't hold any secret and all the championship courses in the area are maintained to a high standard compared to other places of the U.S. he's visited.

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"Scott's mentality for this golf course is the playing surface," Hagberg said. "The second priority is aesthetics, and that's hard because that goes against everyone's expectations of green. Everybody wants green. It's easy to have a green golf course. All you have to do is overwater it. Overwatering a golf course does not create a playing surface that we view, and the Top 100 view, as ideal. Smooth, firm, fast, tight would be words that describe the ideal playing surface. The goal is the playing surface."

The Top 100 use seven criteria. The first is shot values, or how well the course poses risks and rewards and equally tests length, accuracy and finesse.

The second category is resistance to scoring. That means how difficult, while still being fair, is the course for a scratch player from the back tees.

During the building process, Hoffmann and Harris had a short conversation on the 13th tee box.

"We stood on the tee and I made the comment, because John wanted the tee back there, and I said, 'Geez John, unless you can fade the ball you can't play this hole.' He said, 'If you can't fade the ball, you shouldn't be playing from this tee.'"

Design variety is the third factor and this entails how varied the course's holes are in length, configuration, hazard placement and green shape and contour.

Hoffmann and the three others talked about each hole's philosophy during construction.

"When we brought them on, we already had the route plan cut through the woods," Hoffmann said. "We would walk the route plan and just talk about the philosophy of each hole. They would come up on the spring and we would work on it for the next few months and then we bring them up in the fall and show them what we have done and talk more about the philosophy of the hole and how we could improve it and make it better. That's how it went. They would come up once in the spring and once in the fall and we took our time building it. We took about three years to build it, which was a big luxury."

Memorability is the fourth criteria and covers how well design features like tees, fairways, greens, hazards and terrain provide individuality to each hole, while still maintaining a smooth transition from one hole to the next.

The fifth category is aesthetics and how well the scenery surrounding each hole enhances the playing experience.

Conditioning is the sixth priority and includes how firm, fast and rolling the fairways are and how firm, yet receptive the greens are.

Ambience is the final component, and Hagberg admits this is where The Classic scores the lowest. The ghost of Bobby Jones doesn't haunt the grounds nor is the course paired with a major golf tournament like the list's No. 1 course Pebble Beach, No. 6 Pinehurst Resort and No. 8 Bethpage Black.

What does separate The Classic is consistency.

"That is a driving force behind a lot of the staff every day," Hagberg said. "For us at The Classic, trying to live up to that Top 100 and that Five-Star rating everyday, that's the challenge that our superintendent Scott Moede talks about with his guys. It might be a Tuesday and there might not be as many people on the tee sheet, but you never know who that rater is, so our goal is to always have that mentality because you just never know."

The reason Madden's goes to all the trouble starts with the original vision of why the resort built the course in the first place. As Thuringer explained it to Hagberg: "There are at least 20,000 golf courses in the United States. That means there are 19,900 courses that would like to be on the Top 100 list," Hagberg said. "We're recognized in the top 1 percent of golf courses in the United States, which is pretty remarkable when you think about a golf course that was basically designed and built in house."

Hoffmann has not designed another course since The Classic, although he has redesigned Madden's Pine Beach East Course about a dozen times in his head. He saw how crowded the world of course design was in the late '90s and how the golf boom was on the decline. He thought about design as a career, but enjoyed his position at Madden's-a position he holds to this day.

"I think it's pretty amazing," Hoffmann said. "I had that incredible opportunity given to me and if it never happens again, I'm satisfied. It was just a wonderful thing to be a part of and it's hard to believe it's been 20 years."

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Course superintendent Scott Hoffman on hole 11 at the Classic at Madden’s golf course. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

Covering the Brainerd lakes area sports scene for the past 23 years.
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