LAKE CITY, Minn. – Minnesota is one of those states with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to golf courses. There are so many fine layouts, both public and private, that it is hard even for the legitimate jewels among them to outshine the competition.

This is even true of The Jewel Golf Club itself, the Hale Irwin design in Lake City, Minn., 45 minutes northeast of Rochester. Before I visited The Jewel, I ran into some Rochester-area golfers who had recently played this visually captivating track, and they loved it. “But,” they said, “I don’t know if they get enough people out there to play it. We practically had the course to ourselves.”

Luther Berkeland, Lake City High School golf coach, who also works in The Jewel’s pro-shop, concurred with the great accessibility of golf in the area.

“There are five golf courses in the school district,” said Berkeland, “and it’s not a big district. But the Country Club of Rochester, Summerby, and here are the best in the area.”

The catch is, however, that the CC of Rochester (a classic A.W. Tillinghast design) and Summerby (a Tom Lehman design) are both private. The Jewel is a public, daily-fee course.

For now, any way.

The plan is to take The Jewel private in two to five years. A sign by the front door of the clubhouse notes that various levels of preview memberships can be acquired for $2,000 to $5,000.

Whether you’re considering becoming a member or not, though, golf aficionados visiting or living in the Rochester area would be well-advised to make the trip out to The Jewel, and pay the $70 green fee (with cart, high season) before it goes private. There is simply no other public course in southern Minnesota with quite the same combination of difficulty and scenic beauty.

How it plays

The Jewel boasts lush bent grass from tee to green. Coach Berkeland’s main advice for visitors is to hit the range. “Get used to the bent grass on the range,” he advises. “Also, the kids who play tournaments out here see a lot more break in the greens that is really there.”

My own “expert” first-timer advice is, unless you are both a long hitter and carry less than a 5-handicap, to play the white or blue/white tees. There is a very good reason why there are SEVEN sets of tee boxes here. The scorecard doesn’t look all that daunting yardage-wise: For the “men’s” tees, the tips measure 7,050 yards, the blues 6,669 yards, the blue/whites 6,401, and the whites 6,014. So, low two-digit handicappers who hit the ball pretty far might be tempted to give the blues a shot.

Don’t. At least not on your first visit.

There are several holes on which the lines off the tee are not particularly clear. And even more dangerous, there are several holes on which the distance between the whites and blue/whites is in the neighborhood of 100 yards.

Take the 461-yard, par-4 12th hole as a prime example. From the blues and blacks, golfers will find a 230+-yard carry to a narrow opening between hills. And when the wind is against you, even big-hitters will barely make it to the ladies’ tees.

One of the most striking features of The Jewel is the semi-links-like look of the front nine, followed by the rugged, bluff-framed holes of the back nine. First-time visitors may feel pretty confident with their games on the front nine. The 584-yard 1st hole is a forgiving par-5, and the stretch of holes from the 159-yard 5th through the 493-yard, par-5 8th might even be described as a bit of a cakewalk.

This is not to say the front nine is not memorable. The tee shot on the 474-yard, par-4 4th is simply one of the most lovely you will find anywhere. It is not a dramatic hole, but the drive over a field of wildflowers to a gently right-to-left bending fairway that is framed by tall timber is just so, well, lovely, that one could stand here all day hitting balls and never get bored.

The bucolic, relaxing round you have going after the 9th hole is primed for a stern slap in the face after making the turn, however. The 421-yard 10th plays from elevated tees along dense woods on the right down to a cape-style fairway with water left and more water beyond the bend. Precision and length are required. And things get progressively tougher.

The 209-yard 11th is a devilish par-3 that is all carry over a pond. The 368-yard 13th doesn’t appear all that tough, but it is a rollercoaster ride over 10-foot swells in the fairway up to a steeply elevated green. How this rates as the #18 handicap hole, I have no idea.

Frankly, there are just too many gorgeous holes on the back nine to describe. One stunning tee shot after another greets golfers who, if they can either manage or forget about the difficulty of some of the shots required, will be hard-pressed to single out a favorite. Mine was the tee shot on the 437-yard 14th, with its longish carry to a half-blind fairway. The big limestone bluff in the distance is a good aiming point, actually.

The verdict

Considering the quality of the golf courses in this area, including the solid Rochester munys, $70 for a round at The Jewel might look on paper to be somewhat “spendy,” as they say in Minnesota. But take it from someone who’s played a lot of golf in a lot of states: If this course were in certain other locales, green fees would be well over $100.

The Jewel offers shot-making, scenic beauty, pace of play, and conditioning that are all top-rate. There are only a couple quibbles one might raise with the overall design.

First, if golfers do not choose the appropriate tees, they will get very frustrated very quickly. Second, many—but not all—of the huge greens are surrounded by closely shaved collars and run-off areas, so approach shots need to land delicately to hold. Several greens, however, do not have collars; they simply go from putting surface to the first cut of rough. This apparent inconsistency leads to some putts right up against 1.5-inch rough, which doesn’t seem quite fair.

Overall, The Jewel is aptly named: It is the glittering jewel of southern Minnesota’s public courses – public for a while longer, at least.