Every big Midwest city has its lake-and-cottage country.
Chicago residents cross into Wisconsin to explore Lake Geneva. Detroiters flock to northern Michigan. Toronto has Muskoka less than two hours up the highway. For the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, that land of milk and honey is Brainerd, about three hours to the north.
Three of Minnesota's best golf resorts nestle up to the shores of Gull Lake near Brainerd, a major reason why Golf Digest considers it among the top 50 golf destinations in the world. With 450 holes to offer, golfers can pick from nationally ranked bucket-list courses to low-cost local tracks. Here are its five premier golf courses to play:
The Classic at Madden's on Gull Lake, Brainerd
Scott Hoffman's lone foray into architecture resulted in a course that has received top 100 praise from various national publications.
The Classic flows flawlessly through towering oaks to provide a natural, tranquil and traditional golf experience. Hoffman, still the course superintendent, routed the parkland layout with walking in mind, a rarity in the age of modern design.
Several covered wooden bridges that span the marshes give the course some real character.
The Pines, Nisswa
The Pines, designed by Joel Goldstrand for the Grand View Lodge, took the local standard of resort golf up a notch when it opened in 1990.
Playing any combination of the three nines -- the Lakes, Woods and Marsh -- equates to a 6,800-yard-plus course that will challenge and delight. Some holes are tight and tree-lined; others are wide open with a huge, undulating green being the biggest cause for concern.
Signature moments happen on each nine. The three-tiered green on the Lakes' 212-yard ninth hole will haunt players who land on the wrong shelf. More nightmares might come true at the 210-yard carry over wetlands on the fourth tee of the Marsh nine.
Deacon's Lodge, Breezy Point
That Breezy Point Resort was able to purchase the nearby Deacon's Lodge from the Grand View Lodge, a rival resort property, was big news in 2012. Named for designer Arnold Palmer's father, Deacon's Lodge opened to much fanfare in May 1999 when Palmer and then-Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura played a nine-hole exhibition.
Its 6,964 yards rambles through 500 acres while skirting three water hazards -- Shaffer, Lynch and Douglas Lakes. Palmer used the naturally sandy soil for sprawling waste bunkers. Losing a ball or four in a lake or wetland remains highly likely, even for better players.
Simply put, Deacon's Lodge might be the most memorable round in the region.
The Preserve, Pequot Lakes
The shortest (6,601 yards) and easiest (135 slope) of the Grand View Lodge golf courses attracts a wider audience of players. Playability and scenery dance through the hardwoods hand in hand.
The design team of Mike Morley and Dan Helbling won't recruit players with their name recognition, although their handiwork has become a local favorite since opening in 1996. With 11 elevated tees, The Preserve, ranked as the 10th best public course in Minnesota by Golfweek for 2013, is a roller-coaster ride of a round.
All 45 holes, including two Robert Trent Jones Jr. designs and a unique reversible par-3 nine-holer, spill out from a main clubhouse. The resort Web site touts the Dutch Legacy Course as the "crown jewel" of Brainerd (Golf Digest readers awarded five stars in 2009), but I haven't played it yet.
I can't image it being much better than Bobby's Legacy, where holes 13-17 dance along Legacy Lake in spectacular fashion. Play both and decide for yourself which is best. I plan to someday.