Following Some Giant Footsteps - Part 1

By: Jeff Shelley

Editor's Note: Architect's Corner is a Cybergolf feature that gives golf course architects and guests the chance to air "stories" about their golf projects. Hopefully, these first-person accounts will give Cybergolf readers insight into what's involved in designing and developing a course.

The United States is a vast place, and each state of the union has its own unique geography, soil conditions, climate, environmental restrictions, water access and wetlands issues, governmental stance on golf projects, and affinity for the game. With this first installment, Jeffrey D. Brauer of Arlington, Texas, launches what will be an ongoing journal that looks at the bigger-than-life workings which transformed hundreds of acres of former mining land in Minnesota into a highly regarded and successful golf course. Brauer will put his own personal microscope on the intricacies involved in that project, from drainage and irrigation to soil and sand selection.

Following this initial overview of the first 18-hole Giants Ridge Golf Course in Biwabik, Minnesota, Brauer will walk us through the entire operation for the second course, from the selection of the land to its opening for play to the public. We hope you will enjoy hearing from one of the nation's wittiest golf course architects and learning about his breadth of knowledge and the execution he employed in creating what Minnesotans hope will match Brauer's initial Giants Ridge Golf Course. Giants Ridge hosted 30,000 rounds last year and turned away another 12,000 to 15,000 golfers, leading officials at the state-owned facility to add another 18 holes, which will be called The Quarry at Giants Ridge.

By Jeff Brauer

When the IRRRB, a state agency in charge of economic development for the Iron Range Region in Minnesota, announced plans for a golf course in 1993, there were far more skeptics than supporters. The plan for a golf course at the state-owned Giants Ridge Ski Resort was questioned, in part, because the state took over the resort from a struggling private operator. Also, the state-supported Iron World Museum had struggled in its attempts to boost tourism in the area as an economic redevelopment tool. Why, they reasoned, would a golf course be any more successful? Most people said the golf course couldn't, shouldn't or wouldn't be built.

I was an early skeptic on my first trip to Giants Ridge, connecting on a ":puddle-jumper" from the Minneapolis Airport to the previously unknown (to me, anyway) town of Hibbing, Minnesota. I had heard of its sister city, Chisholm, but only by virtue of its mention in the movie, "Field of Dreams." From there, it was a one-hour drive through agricultural areas, abandoned open-pit mines, and small towns whose fortunes were clearly tied to the slowly declining mine industry in northern Minnesota. I was happy my contract absolved me from any responsibility for drawing play! And those thoughts occurred before I reached the site!

The property made a great first impression, but slowly it dawned on me that it would be very difficult to construct a golf course there. I was the first of many who came away from the site the first time exclaiming I had "never seen so much rock!" In fact, during construction, the course area looked more like a moonscape than anything else, prompting one local wag to say, "We never landed a man on the moon; we simply brought the Lunar Rover Vehicle here for filming at night!"

Frankly, I had never built a golf course on such a difficult site, although other architects have. I spent much of the early months researching how courses in New England are built in rocky conditions - from both an architect's and a contractor's perspective. Even with this, there was trepidation throughout the project that unknown difficulties would ensue. Lastly, I began to agree with those who said the course wouldn't be built since it faced numerous environmental hurdles during the planning process.

As it turned out, the Minnesota EPA had targeted the Giants Ridge project as a test case to reverse some recent rulings restoring more power to local communities. If you're an environmental activist or environmental state regulator, local control is a scary thing. Generally, these environmentalists believe there was not sufficient environmental knowledge for locals to determine their own fate, despite the political popularity and constitutional tradition of maintaining diverse rather than central control. However, environmentalists believe in the "interconnectedness" of all things and prefer a strong federal, state or, if possible, "global government" to ensure their goals. (John Lennon should be singing "Imagine" in your mind at this point.)

So, the State of Minnesota essentially sued itself to stop the golf course (insert your own lawyer jokes here) until a settlement was reached at the highest levels. In the meantime, the project was delayed more than a year and a half, costs escalated to nearly $1 million for environmental mitigation, and the project became something of a cause celebre in golf design circles as perhaps one of the "Top-10 most-challenging" projects to date.

Skeptics aside, the project was done. By all accounts, it was done well and has done well. The natural beauty of the site - where one sometimes sees moose, fox, squirrel and the occasional brown bear - combined with a traditional, player-friendly design inspired by consultant Lanny Wadkins, has been popular with golfers. The Minnesota North Woods provides a fine backdrop for any course, and many claim it as the prettiest they've ever seen.

From a business perspective, efficient management and friendly service from the resort's golf operator, Evergreen Alliance of Irving, Texas, keeps costs in line, allowing this top-flight golf experience to be had at a reasonable price. It has proven to be an unbeatable combination! When golfers come off the course saying it's twice better than other resort courses in Minnesota, at a fraction of the price, you know you've hit on a formula for golfing success.

The acclaim has spread beyond the Minnesota border, as Giants Ridge has been featured on numerous calendars and in varying publications and was a Golf Digest Best New Upscale Course in 1997. It is ranked third in the state, according to Golf Digest - the highest rating of any public course. The environmental concerns? They've largely gone away. Monitoring of water resources, one of the issues environmentalists raised, has shown that there are no, zip, nada, zippo - any number of a hundred different ways to say "no" - golf course-related pollutants in any of the nearby lakes. So the course has not adversely affected wildlife, fishermen or other outdoor recreationalists. A few environmentalists have even told me the course is beautiful and that somehow they had the idea we would clear out rather than preserve the natural beauty of this site to the greatest degree possible.

Where do the golfers come from? From all over, actually. A stunning 90 percent of last year's 30,000 rounds came from more than 100 miles away. After four o'clock, the locals tend to enjoy the course at reduced twilight rates. I once played with a young man and his date. He was just off of work (wearing a Pepsi shirt, so I assumed he was a truck driver). He looked roughly like Bob Seger - definitely not your traditional golfer. So the golf course is catering to the traditional resort golfer as well as opening up the game to a whole new audience.

From the IRRB's perspective, Giants Ridge Golf Course has been successful enough to pay off its bond and has spurred tourism and economic development, some of it right on site. A hotel developer opened a new hotel behind the first tee in January 2000. Restaurants and other hotels have benefited as well. The course turned away almost as many rounds as it played in its first two years, and the presence of the hotel is already creating further demand. Additionally, the course rarely hosts tournaments or large outings because of the potential for lost revenue.

Late in 1998, seeing that the second year of operation was as substantial as the first, and not just a result of curiosity, the IRRRB began exploring the idea of a second golf course. We were called back in to perform a site-selection service. Once the site was chosen, we entered into the design process for a second and unique golf course at Giants Ridge. In next month's installment, we'll look at the site-selection process for Giants Ridge, and for golf courses in general, and take you through the process that led us to the choice for the second course at Giants Ridge's soon-to-be-known-as The Quarry at Giants Ridge.

Jeffrey D. Brauer and his firm, Golf Scapes, have designed 40 golf courses and remodeled 80. Canterberry Golf Course in Parker, Colo., and Giants Ridge are rated among the best affordable public courses in the U.S., while his Avocet Course at Wild Wing Plantation in Myrtle Beach, S.C., was a Golf Digest best new course winner, Champions Country Club is rated 5th in Nebraska and TangleRidge Golf Club is 12th in Texas. President of the American Society of Golf Course Architects during its 50th anniversary year in 1995-96, Brauer also designed Colbert Hills Golf Club at Kansas State, which opened in June 2000 as the cornerstone golf course for The First Tee program as well as the first collaboration between the PGA of America and Golf Course Superintendents Association of America.