“The greens are running 10s today,” says the head professional’s voice over the radio. The superintendent disagrees. “I’ve got them at a 7 ... maybe 7.5.” General Manager Tom Beaudry, driver in hand, shakes his head at the disparity as his second threaded drive somersaults down the distant lime velvet fairway. Approaching the cart, smiling, he offers his take: “I’d say a 9.” Out here on The Wilderness at Fortune Bay, greens speeds can be golfer-subjective.
A Stimpmeter is about as useful as a nightlight in this land of aurora borealis, and a ruler can no better measure great golf conditions than it could the immeasurable beauty of these Northern Minnesota surroundings. Golfing this close to Canada — 70 miles as the geese fly — from April to October on one of America’s 100 best public-play courses (and one of the five best on my personal list), for less than $100? That’s pretty good by any yardstick.
I arrived with confidence at the par-3 third, the signature amphitheater where the night before my rifled hybrid had nearly taken down a wandering buck, out of season. In my opinion, the greens seemed to be running perfectly. But the pin taunted, dauntingly, from the leading edge of the two-tiered green’s upper level. Today’s similarly roped hybrid left the golf ball eight feet past the flag, where nerves took a nine-foot putt past the cup and down the 10-foot slope, followed by three yo-yos that each crested a foot or so short.
My shaky stroke turned this green’s speed into a 4, and my score was nearly double that.
But frustration, although frequent in golf, is short-lived on a course where the most unnatural of shots are followed by so much natural splendor. Where distractions aren’t houses, cell phones and cars but woodpeckers, loon calls and blessed silence. Where a bear ambling across the fairway is no cause for alarm, unless he moves your ball. Where the undulating greens roll true as pool tables yet typically, thanks to meticulous daily maintenance, sport fewer pockets. Where the only gimmicks are colored golf balls, driver shafts and clubheads.
This is a place where the chef’s signature Wild Duck Rice soup, made daily from scratch, can kick the “s” out of your “taste bud,” yet remain merely the appetizer to an even tastier and equally original meal.
Yes, this is The Wilderness, where the very definition of the word — “naturally and biologically intact and legally protected” — always applies and welcomes players to the Jeffrey Brauer-designed golfscape.
“The first thing you notice is the massive scale,” the architect told Fairways + Greens in May. “Many of the resort courses up in the Northwoods didn’t clear a lot of trees. The first hole happens to be a par 5 (649 yards from the tips) with a double fairway, and when you step on the tee it looks wide open, it looks huge. And then everything sort of continues from there. It’s very majestic. It has lots of natural rock outcroppings that we featured, so you get a great Northwoods feel.
“At the same time, the features of the golf course look old-fashioned, I guess. The fourth hole has a double fairway, one sitting on top of the rock ledge and one below. Whenever I play there, people say, ‘Wow, that looks like New England from maybe a hundred years ago — some of those old courses.’
“We made a conscious effort to just sort of fit the land. I think the success is it’s a good course, very well maintained, and on the other hand it doesn’t look overdone, not really glitzed out to the max because that wouldn’t have felt like a Northwoods course. So we took great care to not overdo it because you don’t go to the Northwoods for real refinement. You go for a little bit of a rustic feel.”
Playing through the rugged mosaic of granite ridges, flora, forest and wetlands, you can’t help but be aware that the more the scenery changes, the more the quality stays the same. There’s a Colorado-like purity to the air, with major elevation changes from one hole to the next — yet no mountains. And Brauer’s many split fairways provide for alternate routes and creativity.
The Wilderness is ever evolving with bright green foliage of early spring transforming though summertime into the starkly contrasting canopy of fall’s many brilliant tones. The rocks become bolder. The fawns become older. The bucks, they stop here, not just to multiply in the adjacent Fortune Bay Casino but because they are safe ... except, of course, on the No. 3 green.
Next door, the Fortune Bay Resort Casino offers plenty of green action for your time away from the greens, featuring bingo, slots, blackjack (“friendliest dealers in the north — and maybe the south, too,” they say), plus a lively game-filled arcade for the youngsters.
Many of the spacious and comfortable rooms overlook the golf course, at best a pitch shot from the 11th and 12th holes. The large pool is a perfect nap area until Dennis the Menace and his twin sisters arrive for family-fun time. And if golf is too relaxing to qualify as exercise, a workout room beckons.
No matter what, they are always ready for you at Fortune Bay, whomever the you may be: golfer, gambler, vacationer, naturalist ...
Back over at The Wilderness, it’s hard to believe the grass could be greener elsewhere in the country, literally or figuratively. It’s especially true for Beaudry, the general manager, who loves every day alongside adjacent Lake Vermilion despite off-the-course challenges that could go year for year with Moses in this Wilderness.
“Anyone whose job description includes working at a course like this with the people I get to work with would say the same thing,” he muses, his thoughts never far from his wife who continues to bravely rehab from recent spinal cancer surgery.
“I’m a fortunate man.”
The Wilderness at Fortune Bay is a colorful 11/2 -hour zip, even at night, from Duluth International Airport, and a reasonable 3.5-hour drive (17 by horseback) from either Minneapolis or St. Paul. On our visit, the parking lot impressively sported license plates from 14 different states and two Canadian territories, illustrating that this Minnesota attraction is quickly becoming an international golf-and-gaming destination.