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  • Lehman Course Hole 4
  • Map of The Lehman 18, The Dutch White and Blue, and the Dutch Red
  • The revetted faces of the bunkers on The Lehman 18 are reare in the upper Midwest.

Cragun's Legacy Courses add The Lehman 18

By Kiel Christianson

In 1955, Dutch Cragun graduated from the University of Minnesota. He called his father and asked if he could make a living running the family's small fishing resort on the shores of Gull Lake in the heart of the Brainerd lakes region. His dad said, "Hell no." Nevertheless, Dutch headed north and began a legendary process of renovation, acquisition, and expansion.

By 1997, he'd acquired enough land to solicit bids on a championship golf course from two of the biggest names in golf course design at the time: Robert Trent Jones, Jr., and Rees Jones. The two famously combative brothers were set for a showdown on Gull Lake when Rees pulled out and RTJ, Jr., traveled all the way from Siberia to survey the property.

In 1998, Cragun's Legacy Course opened. In 2000, Jones had expanded the Legacy Courses to 36 holes. In 2020, Dutch wanted to expand further - the resort comprises over 1,000 acres today, after all. He asked three course architects to submit plans. Former (British) Open Champion and Minnesota native Tom Lehman came to town to watch his son compete in the Minnesota State Amateur. The then-86-year-old Dutch approached the fellow University of Minnesota grad and asked if his firm might be interested in submitting a plan. Within two months, Lehman's firm had a plan, and after two days of talking, Lehman was "all in" - not just for the new course, but also for a radical redesign of the original holes.

Now, in 2023, The Lehman 18 and The Dutch 18 are fully in play, with the radical facelift of the final 9 now underway. Thus, Cragun's Resort on Gull Lake is poised to wrestle the golf crown from the adjacent Madden's on Gull Lake - whose owner graduated college with Dutch and which vacillates between a Hatfield-and-McCoy and cozy "frienemies" sort of relationship with Cragun's.

"The Everything Bagel"

The Lehman 18 is an amalgam of brand-new holes and redesigned holes from the original 36 holes, and it encircles the land those holes occupied. During construction, Cragun's GM, Eric Peterson, dubbed it "The Everything Bagel," and the moniker stuck like a good bagel sticks to your ribs. In the opening-day media interview, Lehman said the development and building of his eponymous course was "a really fun process of discovery," and "a completely collaborative effort."

One of the hallmarks of the design are the pseudo-stacked-sod bunkers, the sharp, steep lips and revetted faces of which strike fear into the hearts of weekend warrior players. Lehman said he wanted to evoke the sandbelt courses of Australia on the glacial deposits of northern Minnesota, so the bunkers filled with white (Ohio) sand and the firm, fast fairways and greens are central to the homage.

Although the routing of the course makes for some long distances between greens and tees (and reduces walkability), the flow of the routing is smooth and logical. There are three par-5s on the par-37 front nine, and just one on the par-35 back nine. Like the Dutch 18, the main defense is those par 5s, which heave and twist as they skirt the edges of wetlands and woods.

From the championship tees, the Lehman stretches to 7,491 yards, but can be played as short as 4,707 yards, with six sets of tee boxes. Green fees as of opening are $159. At just under $9 a hole, it's well worth the price.

For a resort course, the Lehman 18 presents a number of daunting tee shots to blind landing areas that are, at times, penally crowned. Late in the front nine, players are faced with a number of these, and without careful study of the GPS display on the cart, they will likely take lines that result in apparently good drives running off into the underbrush. Or, as in my case, they'll miss their lines and just hit directly into the woods.

Fortunately, moments of beauty and pleasure outnumber lost balls. Take the par-3 6th Hole, for example. Tom Lehman says this is his favorite hole, as tree-removal behind the green revealed a picturesque pond complete with a large beaver lodge.

Lehman tagged the 2nd Hole as another favorite. It combines the old 2nd and 3rd holes to make a demanding par 5 with a devilish 2nd shot into a bottleneck landing area with marsh both left and right.

Prior to the 2nd, the first-time golfer's hopes will be raised by the gentle, mid-length par-4 opening hole, only to find those hopes buffeted - if not dashed - by the 2nd and the long par-3 3rd, where a raised green perches over wetlands to the right. From the tips, the 3rd can stretch out over 220 yards. From any tee, just hitting the green feels like a birdie.

Speaking of greens, the Lehman 18's putting surfaces are fast - running around 9.5 on the Stimp Meter - but very true. Speed, though, is key, as many greens resemble potato chips in their contours. The only exception is the massive and relatively level 17th green, which used to be "The Gambler's Green," where residual bets could be settled on the original 18-hole course.

Dutch 18

Unlike the orbital Lehman, the 7,001-yard, par-70 Dutch 18 is an excellent walking course ($139 green fees currently, with cart). Its proximity to the grand clubhouse and Legends Grille also make it the obvious host for the Canadian PGA Tour CRMC Championship. But like the Lehman, the current 18-hole design - really the combination of the Blue and the White nines - is actually an amalgam of new, old, and radically re-imagined old holes. The remaining Red nine is currently closed for a deep facelift (reopening 2024). It is a testament to the Cragun's team, especially Superintendent Matt McKinnon and his crew, that they have been able to build a new course and renovate another 27 holes while always keeping at least 18 holes open for play.

It's rare for a golf resort - and at Cragun's, the golf is front and center, even though the fishing and watersports are outstanding - to have 45 holes that will be, after the final renovation by Lehman's firm, essentially by one designer but with such different feels. Whereas the Lehman 18 has those revetted bunkers, the Dutch 18 has sprawling, natural-looking bunkers with thick fescue "eyelashes." As the starter warns at the first tee, players should keep their eye on all balls heading toward bunkers, as they can disappear in the blink of a human eyelash; you'd rather your ball gets into the pristine white Ohio sand. And if you do find your ball in those eyelashes, your best bet is to just wedge it out. Trust me.

Logan Jackson, Cragun's Head Professional, calls the Dutch "more gettable" than the Lehman, but warns to "play to where you can see." Like the Lehman, there are several blind shots here, including tee shots over marshland, that demand players pick a number and hit to it...and trust. Also like the Lehman, the par 5s are the major defense, with some awkward tee shots and lay-up areas.

The renovation, though, was geared towards, "making the course more playable," according to Lehman. "We focused on creating width," he stressed, "There were a lot of places where a mishit would make the next shot unplayable." Increasing playability required removing a large number of trees, as well as removing bunkers from areas 180 yards out and to the right of the tees. "Who were those bunkers meant to punish?" asked Lehman. "Average players. Golf is hard enough without punishing the people you want to enjoy the course the most."

The number one handicap hole is the long par-4 1st Hole, with fairway bunkers left and trees to the right making for a demanding drive. But the hardest hole according to Jackson is the even longer par-4 14th, which plays like a par 5 as it doglegs left around wetlands that collect as many golf balls as they do raindrops.

The Dutch 18 crescendos at the lovely 18th, a reachable par-5 - really the only receptive par-5 on either course - with a green partially fronted by a serene pond and framed by the ruggedly handsome Legacy clubhouse.

Cragun's Resort

In the Legacy Grille, the BLT or the wings are excellent choices for a post-round snack. If you hanker for something more upscale, head over to the main resort buildings to Irma's Kitchen, where Northwoods ingredients meet fine European preparation. Seriously, the best piece of walleye this Minnesota native has ever eaten.

Behind the main lodge is a large marina, with pontoons and other flavors of floating fun available for rentals. The fishing on Gull Lake is, according to local sources, the best in the area, with its almost labyrinthine collection of bays and inlets. Book the dinner cruise for both the delectable prime rib and a luxurious tour of the lake.

Golfers and families alike are recommended to consider renting one of the several entirely renovated houses for rent. These have multiple bedrooms and baths, generous kitchens and common areas, and former garages renovated into poker and poll rooms. I can imagine a boys' trip with golf, fishing, pool, and poker on the docket during a winner-take-all battle royale long weekend.

In short, Cragun's Resort offers a veritable cornucopia of Northwoods activities year-round (ice-fishing and cross-country skiing, anyone?). For those really looking to exploit the area's under-rated and oft-overlooked northern Minnesota golf courses, The Gravel Pit short course is across the street, and Madden's at Gull Lake's The Classic are highly recommended, along with several other area gems.

Residents of and visitors to the Brainerd lakes region can be awfully glad Dutch Cragun didn't listen to his father when he came north to take over the family resort. Tom Lehman calls Dutch "a Minnesota treasure," and what he's built at his namesake resort is priceless. Fortunately for us, and for the world of golf, he's strived to share his bounty with the rest of us in legendary fashion.

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Revised: 08/09/2023 - Article Viewed 2,244 Times - View Course Profile

About: Kiel Christianson

Kiel Christianson I’ve been a travel and golf writer for online and print publications for 25 years, including over 10 years with The Golf Channel. My blog on The Golf Channel websites began in 2003, making it one of the first in the golf world. Other publications include poetry, food and travel features, and research articles in the broad area of cognitive science.

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