FIFTY LAKES, Minn. -- It's apropos that a former NHL defenseman would own and operate a golf course in his native Minnesota, where "The State of Hockey" concurrently boasts the most golfers per capita in the nation.
Amid the lake-laden, tree-lined "God's Country" that is northern Minnesota and the resort-rich Brainerd Lakes region, Golden Eagle Golf Club soars under the radar.
Opened in 2001 and co-designed by owner Bruce McIntosh (once a Minnesota North Star) and PGA Tour winner Mike Morley, the secluded, standalone, affordable course is an underrated play that's well worth exploration.
"We're not a resort, so we don't have 400 new people coming over here every few days," McIntosh says of the Golden Eagle grounds that roll out as a true player's course.
Set upon 210 acres of former preserve property, Golden Eagle pairs ever-playable fairways with sizable green structures. Back-to-back, par-5 opening holes (a feature repeated on nos. 14 and 15) lend the card to a well spaced and paced start to the round.
"The design lends itself to fast play. The fairways are very forgiving and there are a lot of fairways that slope in from one side, the other or both," McIntosh says. "For the most part, our design theory was: Wail away on the tee. And then as you get toward the green the game gets a little more precise.
"Our greens all sit up just a bit for drainage purposes; so hitting to the greens you have to plan for a little bit farther because you can't bounce it up there."
Golden Eagle's raised greens are matched well with ascending grounds reaching 130 feet of elevation on the front side.
"The third hole is one of my favorites," says McIntosh of the 408-yard, par-4 dogleg left. "You hit a nice tee shot out and avoid the left-hand bunker. You get to where you can see the green, and that's where the 'wow factor' starts for me; the second shot is downhill to a green that sits with a big drop-off to the right."
The third serves as gateway for an excellent run of holes that extends to the flip side of the card.
Following the solitude of the par-3 fourth and the draw-calling, risk-reward birdie opportunity on the 518-yard, par-5 fifth, the Eagle readily rises on no. 6 and no. 7.
"The sixth is a challenging, shorter par 4 that's drivable for the better players. The green is very difficult and is the only defense that hole has," McIntosh says. "And people remember No. 7 the most because you're at the highest point on the course and the fairway slopes in from both sides."
The 422-yard, par-4 10th plays as a design homage for the course owner.
"I'm a great fan of Donald Ross courses and I worked at two of them," McIntosh says. "I tried to incorporate a lot of that into this course, and on No. 10 you've got a dogleg left with a bunker on the left. If you can carry the bunker it cuts the yardage down dramatically, which is a typical dogleg hole for Ross. And he always designed greens with one simple greenside bunker, so I put the bunker to the left and you can see most of the green on the right, but there's a little part of the green behind the bunker that you can't see."
Other Brainerd-area golf courses
The Classic at Madden's in Brainerd typically rates as the region's most lauded play. Cut through welcoming wilderness and boasting a cache of memorable holes, the seclusion and challenge make the aptly titled track worth the cost of admission.
The Arnold Palmer-designed Deacon's Lodge at Breezy Point Resort is played across 500 acres of winding forest, lake and wetlands; the demands are overt from the outset of the burly par-4 opener and proceed over a day of shot-making demands.
Both the Dutch Legacy Course and Bobby's Legacy Course at Cragun's Resort are game plays upon Audubon Certified Sanctuary grounds. Robert Trent Jones Jr. designed the Dutch around existing wetlands with unperturbed beauty, meshing forced carry with ever-receptive greens; upon the Jones-designed Bobby's, anticipate elevated tees (with generous landing areas) and a wealth of risk-reward holes.
While accommodations abound for area lodging, Manhattan Beach Lodge in Crosslake has proven an open-armed respite for more than 80 years and shouldn't be overlooked when planning a golf getaway. Cozy and affordable, Manhattan's prime perch on Trout Lake is within minutes of Golden Eagle and easy driving distance to many of the area's top plays.
Equally amenable for couples getaways, family trips or golf tours, the lodge's on-site restaurant is one of the region's most popular stops for lake view dining and drink and also offers complimentary docking privileges for guests.