Tom Lehman's touch elevates Cragun’s Resort's status

Former British Open champion renovated Minnesota destination's two courses — one of which will host a PGA Tour Canada event — in hopes of expanding resort's brand beyond state lines

Dutch Course hole 3.jpg
Hole No. 3, center, on the Dutch Course, which will host the PGA Tour Canada's CRMC Championship, Aug. 31-Sept. 3.

BRAINERD, Minnesota — Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake celebrated the grand opening last week of Tom Lehman’s renovation of its two championship golf courses — one of which will host a PGA Tour Canada event over Labor Day weekend.

The $15 million project elevates what started as, in 1940, a collection of rustic cabins on a lakefront beach and turned into what arguably is the best golf destination in central Minnesota. Long a haven for residents of the Twin Cities, resort officials are banking on the course renovations and continuing lodging upgrades to pull in guests from drive markets beyond Minnesota.

The first step toward that goal came in 2019 when Cragun’s approached PGA Tour officials about hosting a PGA Tour Canada event. As the first U.S. course to host an event for that tour, resort officials saw their chance for exposure in Canadian drive markets, said Carrie Scarfino , Cragun’s marketing director.

Beginning in 2020, Lehman and design partner Chris Brands transformed what many regarded as two overly difficult golf courses designed in 1998 by Robert Trent Jones Jr. into two eminently playable courses — the par-72, 7,070-yard Lehman Course, and the par-70, 7,001-yard Dutch Course, named after Merrill “Dutch” Cragun Jr., the 91-year-old owner of the resort. Both are parkland courses.

The Dutch Course is two nines of what will eventually be a 27-hole rotation. The final nine holes will be ready for play in 2025. The 18 holes now in play as the Dutch Course feature six par 3s, eight par 4s and four par 5s.

Eric Peterson, general manager of the resort, said one goal of the renovation was to make the two courses more playable for high handicappers but still present a test for the Canadian Tour players who will play the Dutch Course at the CRMC Championship, Aug. 31-Sept. 3.

“We had already made some slight adjustments to [the Trent Jones Jr. 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,” Peterson says.

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

The Lehman course opened for limited play in fall 2022. Since then, Logan Jackson, the resort’s head professional, said he’s seen an increase in play by serious players and low handicappers drawn by buzz about the involvement by Lehman, a Minnesota native and former British Open champion.

Although the two renovated courses largely lie within the footprint of the Jones design, Lehman scrapped many of Jones’ holes, reversed others — building 30 new holes in all — plus an entirely new nine. His team opened up the two courses, widened fairways and made them play firmer and faster, Lehman said.

To differentiate the Dutch and Lehman courses, the design team built the Lehman bunker faces with partial sod revetments with clean edges, giving them a linksy 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,” Lehman says. “So, I think we have two very distinct-looking golf courses. They play differently and they look different, which is what we were aiming for.”

Lehman Course hole 4.jpg
Hole No. 4 on the Lehman Course.

Lehman met Dutch Cragun, the owner, while following his own son around Cragun’s during the Minnesota Junior Match Play in 2019. A dinner with Cragun eventually led to the design job. Lehman won out over two other firms that resort officials declined to name.

On July 24. Lehman, a graduate of the University of Minnesota who grew up not far from Cragun’s, hit the ceremonial first shot for the official opening of his namesake course. 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 he 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 says.

In addition to the new 18-hole courses and the spare nine, the resort has a Par 3 course designed years ago by Robert Trent Jones Jr. The resort also offers fishing and boating, a mile-long sandy beach, pickleball and four restaurants. A dinner-cruise boat, the “North Star,” plies the waters of the 15.5-square-mile Lake Gull.

Drive markets that resort officials plan to go after include Des Moines, Iowa; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Thunder Bay, Ontario — all a little under six hours away by car. More distance markets will include Milwaukee, Chicago and Kansas City — all eight to nine hours away.

The resort comprises 450 acres on the south shore of Gull Lake. It has 206 lodging rooms and there are plans for new guest-home construction. Cragun’s is two hours west of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, 15 miles from the resort, has limited service via Delta Airlines.