Every time I talk about Minnesota golf with people from more southerly climes, I hear the same comment:
“How long is the golf season up there? Three months?”
The fact is that most years, the golf season runs from late April to late October, and sometimes well into November. That’s a respectable season in anyone’s book. And it runs even longer in the southern part of the state (and of course a bit shorter in the northern part).
Of course the 2018 season has been an exception to the 6-7 month Minnesota golf season. The 2017-18 winter was long and brutal, and the snow and ice hadn’t completely abated until well into May. In Lake Mille Lacs, the state’s second-largest lake and most famous walleye fishing spot, there were still large sheets of ice on the water on opening day of the fishing season.
Nevertheless, once the chill does recede, the foliage greens up quickly, including the golf courses. Northwoods Hills Golf Course in Garrison has been offering Mille Lacs-area residents and vacationers an alternative to fishing and boating for over four decades. Although conditions have waxed and waned over the years, the past half-dozen have seen a concerted effort by the superintendent and staff to improve the conditioning and overall golf experience. These days, the old-school design is playing as well or better than it has since it opened.
Depending on which of the four sets of tees you choose, Northwoods Hills plays from 5,116 to 6,359 yards. The course’s main defenses are the abundant hardwoods that line every hole and the tiny greens. There are just a few sand bunkers, and little in terms of water hazards. Most of the par 4s and 5s favor a fade off the tee, although a trio of brawny, 400+-yard par 4s on the backside call for powerful draws.
Visitors get a great introduction to the charms of Northwoods Hills at the impish 135-yard 2nd hole, which plays even shorter thanks to a 30-40 foot elevation drop from tee to green. Marshland left and woods right force you to focus, though, even on such a short hole.
Same goes for the 294-yard 3rd, where even a mid-iron off the tee might take you through the opposite side of the fairway, looking up at an elevated, green canted back to front. The bartender the day of my visit pointed out that he’d never seen even the “big hitter” regulars land a drive on this green, thanks to the awkward angle and the small putting surface.
The 458-yard, par-5 5th is the third of the most memorable holes on the frontside. From the tee, your tee shot needs to hold tight to the left in order to find a very narrow landing area that is bordered by high rough-covered banks on both sides. With a perfectly positioned drive, he downhill second can reach the green. But the putting surface tilts again from front to back, and there’s are dense brush behind it. So the play is to take less club and let your approach roll downhill onto the green. Very clever design. Very clever.
On the back nine, there is just one par 3 and one par 5, along with a lovely mix of longer and shorter par 4s. The fairways on the back are considerably wider than on the front, with some OB and, of course, plentiful woods. Notable holes include the 337-yard 16th, where a tee shot of just under 200 yards will land you at the top of the hill and the end of the first half of the fairway, which is interrupted by a blind, deep ditch. From here you’ll also have a pretty approach to a green framed by rustic cabins.
The 418-yard closer is lined with trees essentially form tee to green. Even the back tees feel like you’re playing from underneath the canopy. A cut shot from the tee is practically required here, you’ll need to carry a small pond about 180 out, and if you hit a draw of any kind, you’ll run into the left rough or even into the woods on that side of the fairway.
Northwoods Hills is a homey, friendly golf course, with a comfortable tap room for a few beers after your round. Green fees run between $29-$52 (with cart), depending on the time of the season and the day/time of the week. Stay and play packages are available in cooperation with nearby Appledoorn’s Sunset Bay Resort. The northern latitude provides sunlight well into the late evening, so if you like to get up early to net a few walleye in Lake Mille Lacs, you can end your day trying to net a few birdies at Northwoods Hills.