The Construction of the Golf Course at Giants Ridge - Part 7

By: Jeff Shelley

In this 7th installment of golf course architect Jeffrey D. Brauer's ongoing journal about construction of a second course at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, Minn., he discusses the specific routing of holes at the developing layout.

By Jeffrey D. Brauer

Saying we are looking for natural holes on a site totally destroyed by mining may be an oxymoron. But the principles described last month hold true: Natural holes can be found on unnatural sites. The spoil piles and sharp-banked sand pits allow vision and receptivity, making for dramatic hazards and holes.

We started with the clubhouse site, simply because the view is too spectacular to pass up. It looks over a lake that is actually a remnant of a taconite mine. Old photos show the mine pit, now filled with crystal clear spring water, was more than 700 feet deep! Often the clubhouse site is the thing you choose when routing a course. In this case, the sight demanded the site.

Minnesota's Iron Range Resource and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) had options from the mining company for 640 acres, split by Highway 138. While the clubhouse will sit just east of the road, we wanted most of the course west of the road, in a former sand and gravel quarry. That quarry had been our topsoil "borrow pit" for the first course, and having sand for topsoil on site should provide big cost savings compared to the first course, a factor that cannot be ignored.

We wanted widely separated fairways to preserve the "North Woods" feeling of isolation so popular on the first course. Originally, we felt that 11 to 13 holes could be comfortably located west of 138, and tested several routings. On the east side, we routed many holes among the taconite spoils to decide how to best use Embarrass Mine Lake. We originally opened with two dramatic holes over the lake.

We routed holes up a 250-foot-high spoil pile, using an old haul ramp just wide enough for a narrow fairway, for dramatic views of Wynne Lake. We located two more holes with distant views as a result of their "cliff-hanging" location. The next hole - at various times it was number 6, 7 and 18 - featured a downhill tee-shot drop of 150 feet, also with killer views and the feeling you could hit it forever. And it would have been a reachable par-5!

It was all for naught. The soils engineers determined that "it would be prudent to keep the holes as far away from the banks as possible" (thus ruining the view), and warned against settling, which would wreak havoc with irrigation and drainage pipes. We were never 100 percent sure about the safety of the cart path coming back down the hill. Lastly, an environmental study determined that some toxic materials may have been left over from mining operations on this side, and under federal law, the golf course would be liable for full cleanup, an unknown cost possibly running into the millions, a chance we didn't want to take.

We studied the property west of 138 again to see how many holes we could squeeze in. Some benefits of a compact course are usually reduced cost and better walkability. Walkability was a design "given" for this course, since it's a weakness of the first course. We finally fit 16 good holes and the practice range west of the road, leaving Nos. 17 and 18 to finish along the lake for spectacular views. To reach Nos. 1 and 10 and the practice range, a short tunnel is required, but all other tees are immediately adjacent to the previous greens.

It's curious how much better a routing gets after extended study. The revised site parameters made me look at the land a different way, and I came up with some great new holes, while retaining the best holes of the first routings.

The 1st hole starts in the most barren area of the property, and parallels the highway. The second, the first par-5, runs through the old topsoil borrow pit for the first course, which will be converted into a 30-foot-deep waste bunker challenging those going for the green in two shots.

The 3rd tees off from a high ridge created when digging a drainage ditch, so it plays downhill. The green sits in a small hollow, so I will try something rare for me: a semi-blind approach with a reverse-slope green. The concept fits the topography perfectly, but I wasn't sold on it until I visited Wakonda Country Club in Des Moines, Iowa, which features a similar hole. It gave me an opportunity to see the concept just when I was considering such a hole - sort of a golf architect's continuing education program.

The 4th is the first and longest par-3 in wooded, flat territory, although the tee is elevated on a spoil pile, and there are some old pit remnants which will be converted to a waste bunker that will not likely come into play. The 5th is a short par-5 with two distinct levels - again courtesy of mining operations.

The next three holes look like Pine Valley. The 6th is a short par-4 that I call "The Ridge Runner." From an elevated tee to an elevated fairway, the golfer faces a forced carry over old sand pits 20 to 40 feet deep. The 7th comes off a spoil pile and plays over an old sand quarry, and should resemble any of Pine Valley's par-3 holes. The 8th features a sand pit right of the fairway, which must be carried by a well-played tee shot.

The 9th returns to barren property. An old haul road crosses in front of the tee, and will be removed to make the tee shot visible. I am considering leaving a blind shot with a white "target" rock to indicate the line of play, as the topography is reminiscent of Ireland's massive dunes, and might stand out as a unique hole.

The back nine starts with an alternate-route par-4, with a dramatic tee-shot option to clear a small pond that was once a reservoir for cleaning railroad cars. The 11th is a short par-3, sort of stuck in the routing to make it fit. The green is elevated, so it will be a precision par-3. Inspiration comes from old golf architecture, where a "platform" par-3 was almost standard.

The 12th is a solid par-4, with a narrow fairway running between spoil piles and requiring extreme accuracy on the tee shot. The 13th is a short par-4, requiring a precision tee shot hard against a waste bunker on the right to open up the pin. While walking this hole to flag it for clearing, we found some of the most dramatic topography on the site. I had always been lost on this property until we found the correctly marked center poles. (I was almost lost another way, as a timber wolf inhabits the area.)

We planned to manufacture the par-5 14th hole to be similar to the famous Dell Hole (the 6th) at Lahinch. But as we cleared the trees we found the 13th had those Dell Hole contours naturally, which had simply not shown on the "topo" map. So we may switch green concepts of the 13th and 14th holes. The 13th will have a punch-bowl green and the 14th an elevated, tabletop green that falls away in all directions.

The 15th also won't be settled for a while. Since it is a sharp dogleg left, we may create a "speed slot," allowing a chance to gain additional distance on this 445-yard par-4, which would be a fun, gambling shot - perfect for a resort course. This will also evolve in the field, as a steep bank may make the speed slot too difficult to build. However, slopes did look milder with the trees cleared.

The 16th has changed from a par-4 to a par-5, which is probably for the better. The tee shot offers a choice of carrying a 20-foot-deep bank, which will open up the fairway for a chance to go for the green in two - again, great fun because I'm sure the players aren't going to come all this way to lay up!

No. 17 plays over a quarry that will be converted to our irrigation pond, although the old sand pit may have been more dramatic. The 18th plays out to a dogleg, and finishes along a cliff 90 feet above the lake. It also features some 10- to 30-foot-deep sand hazards that will be incorporated into the design.

We try to create a sort of ebb and flow to a course, spacing the par-3s and par-5s. Ideal places for par-3s, for instance, are at Nos. 4, 8, 12 and 16. But the only rule is that the first par-3 should be as far back in the round as you can get it, so that it does not slow down play.

Another note: Unlike many properties, we have been remarkably free to work the land at this second course at Giants Ridge. Because of environmental restrictions at the first course, we did 30 routings. It taught me not to "letter" routings because it limits you to 26.

But on this second course, every wetland, such as the pond on No. 10, is man-created. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Army Corps of Engineers did not have a problem because it is a degraded property.

That's the routing for the Quarry at Giants Ridge. But a routing is to a golf course as a floor plan is to the building. The real character of the course comes in the detailing and feature design. We'll cover those ideas in future installments.