How a Minnesota Golf Resort is Molding Itself Into a Regional Destination


By Dan Vukelich, Member, Golf Writers Association of America, Online Editor of Alabama Golf News

Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minnesota, offers a lesson on how a resort seeking to position itself as a regional golf destination can make itself attractive to a broader market.

Since it opened in 1940, the resort has been known for fishing and boating on Lake Gull and for its rustic cabins along a mile-long sandy beach. In 1998, the resort added two Robert Trent Jones Jr. 18-hole courses and a par 3 course.

About 70 percent of the resort’s visitation traditionally has come from the Minneapolis metro area, about two hours away – mostly families drawn by activities associated with the 15.5-square-mile Gull Lake. The other 30 percent has been drawn by the resort’s two golf courses, with most play coming from the Twin Cities, people with vacation homes nearby and, to a much lesser extent, from out-of-state drive markets.

Cities that resort officials identified as potential growth markets include Duluth, Fargo, North Dakota, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota – all less than three hours away; and two cities in Canada, Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Thunder Bay, Ontario – both about six hours away.

Tom Lehman

Other, more distant drive markets that officials plan to go after include Des Moines, the three largest cities in Wisconsin, Kansas City, Missouri, and Chicago.

Upgrading the resort’s 206 rooms has been ongoing. While some cabins retain their rustic 1940s and ‘50s ambience that some repeat visitors say they enjoy, the interiors of most have been updated. Several homes capable of hosting large families have been built along the courses and more are planned.

Increasing stay-and-play business on the resort’s golf courses among out-of-state visitors was an obvious step. But it required a fix to a well-known problem: the difficulty of the two Robert Trent Jones Jr. courses. They were tight and tree-lined, with the woods coming into play on many holes, with numerous forced carries over wetlands – both from the tee and from some fairways.

“We had already made some slight adjustments to [the Jones courses] to make them a little bit more playable and improve the enjoyment factor of the golf courses, but they were very difficult golf courses,” Cragun’s General Manager Eric Peterson said.

“In the late nineties when Robert Trent Jones Jr. Was designing golf courses, that was the trend – to make golf courses difficult,” Peterson said.

In 2020, Cragun’s 91-year-old owner, Merrill “Dutch” Cragun Jr., brought in Minnesota native and 1996 British Open winner Tom Lehman to renovate them. Lehman and his design partner, Chris Brands, scrapped entirely or reversed some 30 of Jones’s 36 holes and built 13 or 14 new holes. Trees were removed, fairways were widened and most forced carries were eliminated.

 As part of the $15 million renovation, a new nine now under construction will allow the Dutch Course to be played as a 27-hole rotation starting in 2025. A Jones-designed par 3 course designed years ago was left undisturbed.

Cragun's Resort Hole 4

The work eliminated the 1990s target-golf aesthetic and transformed the resort’s two 18-hole layouts into eminently playable courses – the par-72 7.001-yard Dutch Course and what resort officials decided to call the Lehman Course, a par-70, 7,070-yard layout. Both are parkland courses, more wide open, and they play faster and firmer than the Jones layouts.
All new bunkers with good liners were built. On the Lehman course, the design team built the bunker faces with replica partial-sod revetments with clean edges, giving them a links-y feel, while the Dutch Course’s bunkers have strips of un-mowed fescue rough, or “eyelashes,” atop their faces.

“Obviously it's not links land, but the look of the bunkers is totally different. So, I think we have two very distinct-looking golf courses,” Lehman told a gathering of golf writers during the courses’ official opening in late July. “They play differently and they look different, which is what we were aiming for.”

On the marketing side, to leverage the resort’s proximity to Canada, resort officials in 2019 approached the PGA Tour about hosting a PGA Tour Canada event. With the backing of local civic leaders, they sought to increase awareness of both the resort and the Brainerd Lakes area among Canadians living outside their existing Canadian drive markets.

The importance of the drive markets to the resort’s business model is rooted in the lack of convenient air service. In light traffic, Cragun’s is two hours west of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Depending on the day of the week, the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, 15 miles from the resort, has one or two flights a day via Delta Airlines.

Cragun's Resort Hole 12

“With us being so close to the Canadian border, it really kind of fit the profile to explore this idea of being a part of the PGA Tour Canada and as the first United States golf course facility to be a part of that tour,” said Cragun’s Marketing Director Carrie Scarfino.

Resort officials are discussing a marketing program centered on “Stay where the pros stay,” Scarfino said. A branding expert has also been retained.

Although canceled in 2020 and 2021 because of the Covid pandemic, the Canadian tour event went off as planned in 2022. The 2023 edition of the CMRC Championship, sponsored by a local hospital, will be held Aug. 31-Sept. 3 on the resort’s Dutch Course. The PGA Tour has told the resort it will host an event in 2024 following the merger of the Canadian and Latin American tours into what will be called the PGA Tour Americas.

Peterson said that with the upgraded lodging and the course renovations, he hopes to increase the average golf group’s stay from three and a half days to four and a half. “We do about 24,000 rounds per nine holes, [annually], so we'll be looking right around 46,000 to 50,000 rounds of golf with 36 holes, and then once when we add another nine, that number should go up to somewhere in the area of 55,000 to 60,000 total rounds of golf,” he said.

The resort is open year-round but the golf season is roughly from April 20 to October 20. “It’s a total of seven months, but really there's about a six-month season where we see pretty high demand,” with value-conscious visitors favoring early May or late October, Peterson said.

Logan Jackson, Cragun’s head professional, said buzz about the new Lehman Course has led to a noticeable uptick in play by low-handicap players since the courses’ soft opening last fall – which he said bodes well for the resort’s goal of longer stays by serious golfers.

On July 24. Lehman, a graduate of the University of Minnesota who grew up not far from Cragun’s, hit the ceremonial first tee shot for the official opening of his namesake course. He then led the assembled crowd as a local band struck up the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ fight song.

Lehman said he fell in love with the topography of the Cragun’s courses and recognized that the flow of the land, not his own preconceptions, would dictate his redesign.

“I think we're really good at trying to fit the golf into the land and not try to … most big mistakes in golf course design, in my opinion, are made in the routing stage, where they are fighting grades and they're trying to create – versus just use what's there. If you use what's there right, you save yourselves a lot of problems down the road,” Lehman said.


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Dan Vukelich, a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, is the online editor of Alabama Golf News. He lives in Albuquerque, N.M.

** The views and opinions featured in Golf Business WEEKLY are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the NGCOA.**