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Area Golf: Early spring has course owners excited

Whitefish Golf Club was killing it last spring until another wind storm and heavy July rains eroded the tee sheet. Still it was a successful season for the member-based 18-hole course north of Pequot Lakes. It's been a steady upward trend for the...

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"I do see the younger players playing while their phone is playing music. As long as it's not bothering people surrounding them, I don't care. If it's too loud, I'll tell them to turn it down, but we realize they're coming out to have fun and some people just want to blow off some steam." - Mike Stone, owner and operator of Crosswoods Golf Course. BrainerdDispatch.com Illustration

Whitefish Golf Club was killing it last spring until another wind storm and heavy July rains eroded the tee sheet.

Still it was a successful season for the member-based 18-hole course north of Pequot Lakes. It's been a steady upward trend for the past three seasons, said head PGA professional Steve Bengtson.

"It's been in an upward trend in the last four and five years," he said. "There's been a steady increase in play. It's not huge, but the market has opened up in a sense. In the last three years, the numbers have increased."

Whitefish isn't alone. Many area course owners are optimistic this will be a solid, if not good year, for lakes area golf.

Grand View Lodge saw both of its golf properties see success. That included The Preserve dealing with road construction issues with Highway 371 last fall.

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"I think it's setting up really well," said Jack Wawro, head professional at The Pines. "The trend is definitely in the direction of up. The golf courses that were suffering have gone away. The ones that are successful are here and they're here to stay. The trend for the last three years has been going in the right direction.

"For us to remain successful, we have to continue putting money back into the courses and the resort. The Cote family prides themselves on really putting money back into their properties and making sure they stay current."

Another early spring has course owners and operators hoping for a big summer, but they realize there is work to be done to ensure that happens. One thing is making golf more fun for everyone and making it more accessible.

"As an industry, we do need to cater to people's needs," said Chuck Klecatsky, director of golf at Cragun's Legacy Courses. "There are some proposals that you would start charging by time. You want to play for one hour or two hours or four hours. Some people are pricing it that way and if you get in six holes or nine holes it's fine.

"There are some attempts to make things different than your traditional Saturday morning 18 holes that takes four and a half hours to play.

"We have USB ports on one-third of our carts. It's different for me coming from a more traditional background, but it's fine, if that's what the customer wants. We're in the fun business. We're not trying to be stuffy here at the Legacy."

There is a fine balance between being hip and relevant while still taking care to address the needs of established players. Golf still holds true to its traditions and integrity, but the line is blurring a bit.

Bruce McIntosh fits that older demographic. He's a traditionalist. The former owner of Golden Eagle Golf Club dealt first hand with the changing times and while he admits he struggled with it, he also understood it.

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"It's difficult. I'm the old school," McIntosh said. "For years, I refused to play golf with anyone who brought their phone with them. I said 'If you want to go to work, go to work. If you want to play golf, play golf. Turn your phone off.' Now, everybody has their phone and they're playing music, so there is a group out there, the older guys like myself, and I'll be 68 in a couple of weeks-I'm old fashioned. I don't like music out on the golf course. I don't like guys whose phones go off in the middle of my backswing or guys who talk on their phone, put it down, hit a golf shot and then go back to talking on their phone. To me that's not what golf is all about. To me, golf is four hours, with good friends, of solitude and fellowship, joking around and hitting some shots and being competitive. It's hard to cater as an operator to both groups.

"I just tell people, 'Look, I don't care if you have music out there, as long as you are the only group on the golf course that can hear it.' I'm fine with that. But when you start distracting the other groups, that's when I'm going to draw the line, and you have dial it back. It's interesting. Obviously, there's a blend of all kinds of groups out on the golf course in the Brainerd area every day."

Mike Stone, owner and operator of Crosswoods Golf Course in Crosslake, feels the same way, but as an avid downhill skier, he saw the same thing happen when snowboards became popular.

"I see a change," he said. "Personally, I've never played music while I've golfed, but I do see the younger players playing while their phone is playing music. As long as it's not bothering people surrounding them, I don't care. If it's too loud, I'll tell them to turn it down, but we realize they're coming out to have fun and some people just want to blow off some steam.

"At the end of the day, it's recreation and if you don't change or evolve to accept new ways that recreation is enjoyed, you're going to be missing the boat."

The lakes area is also close to another course expansion. It may not happen in the near future, or at all, but a number of resorts own property to expand their facilities by nine or 18 holes or do a major reconstruction of an existing layout. The timing just isn't right yet.

"The thing is, still so much of the demand is on the weekend," Klecatsky said. "Our Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays account for a large percentage of our rounds. There continues to be an increased demand on the weekends and that's at the course and at the resort. I think the community could accept another golf course, 18 or 9 holes. Talking with Mike (Stone) up at Crosswoods, they needed another nine for their league play. I love seeing that. I think there is still a demand.

"I do feel that when people build something new it does revive the area. Brainerd, we as courses don't compete against each other, but instead other areas like Biwabik and Kohler (Wis.). New construction does bring the area back into the headlines.

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"The other thing is we're (the Legacy courses) coming up on our 20th year. Although we're the new kid on the block, that's been quite a while now."

Glenn Hagberg is the head PGA professional at Madden's Resort and he believes the timing just isn't right yet for new construction. But should that change, Madden's would be ready. The East Gull Lake resort already offers three different layouts for all types of players, which keeps Madden's relevant.

"If the economy and the cash flow of operating a golf course makes sense, it's definitely a discussion that's on the table," Hagberg said.

Grand View Lodge is in the same situation.

"We obviously have the property and a few different plans and a few different layouts we could do for another nine and we haven't chosen one specifically yet," Wawro said. "We haven't gotten to that point yet.

"Last year was a very successful year for us so obviously we want to fill the 27 and 18 we have before we want to build anything. That's going to be the biggest equation. We need to fill what we already have. When we get to that point, we can start considering another nine."

Whether or not the day of additional golf holes in the lakes area ever comes is unknown. What is known is the quality and variety of courses and layouts and difficulty levels still makes the lakes area a top golf destination.

"I think we're in a good spot," Hagberg said. "I think we have a lot of course operators here that are committed to reinvesting in their courses and their properties and that's going to keep this area fresh and relevant.

"My perception is that the media is spinning back to the positive sides of golf-the economic impact of the game on the state, the economic impact of the Ryder Cup in Minnesota last year, the number of jobs that golf provides throughout Minnesota and throughout the United States and just the fitness aspect of the game, the camaraderie and relationships and business aspect and the family aspect of the game.

"We are extremely spoiled. We'll have local people that go outside of Brainerd, outside of Minnesota to play other golf courses that are getting a lot of hype, and I'll ask them how it was and their response will be, 'it's nice, but we're pretty spoiled here.'"

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