The Quarry at Giants Ridge in Biwabik, MN
Tee Time: July 18, 2016, 10:00, 72 F, sunny
Designer: Jeffrey Brauer, 2003
Playing Partners: Greg Ryan
Tees: Blue, Par 72 (72.9 rating/132 slope/6,696 yards)
Course Handicap: 7 (6.3 index)
Stats: 88 (44-44); 37 putts; 8/14 fairways; 8/18 greens; 4 penalty strokes
Last week I was lucky enough to go to the Home Run Derby in San Diego. The one where Giancarlo Stanton hit 61 home runs, topping out at 497 feet. Every time he hit a ball, I could only say “wow”. Each home run just left you speechless, it wasn’t so much a “wow” as a gasp at the crack of the bat. Well, that’s pretty much how my round went at the Quarry at Giants Ridge. Every tee, I was seeing something amazing and awesome. I found myself repeatedly spending an extra moment taking in the surroundings, taking the long route to my next shot, telling Greg how unbelievable this course is. Of course, before we got to start we were given not a primer on the golf course, but a history lesson of the mining and refining past of upper Minnesota. I’m usually fascinated by all this history, especially about the sheer amount of iron and ore they pulled out of these mines (hundreds of millions of tons) in total, a majority of it going toward the country’s World War II effort. But I was also eager to get out and check this course out, so the mining talk kind of washed over me like when Bart tried to listen to the history lesson at the box factory.
After the history lesson from the starter, we headed to the first tee, a 409-yard par 4 with a fairway that narrows like a pinup girl’s hourglass waist right in the landing area. A large bunker pinches off the left side of the fairway, leaving a longer shot over the front greenside bunkers to reach. The 405-yard 3rd is a straightaway par 4 with not much to worry about. The fairway is pretty lumpy and a flat lie is impossible. The 4th is a very long par 3 of 228 yards (269 from the back tee) to a deep green. There is a large fairway in front of the green, so missing short is better than long and in the bunkers. The 5th is a stunning par 5 of just 485 yards where the tee shot will determine everything. A deep fairway bunker made up of coarse sand and gravel waits on the left, while too far right and you’ll have to play it in three shots. The place to place it for a chance at birdie is a narrow landing strip down the left edge of the fairway to about 10 yards right of that. It’s a tiny margin for error.
The 6th is a target-style par 4 of 346 yards. A gradual uphill hole, the ideal layup tee shot will leave 100 yards into an attackable green with no trouble surrounding it. The 7th is a 175-yard par 3 with a triangular green whose back pin location is a recipe for three-putts. The top third of the green is on its own tier, adding 10 yards to the hole and lots of headaches. The 8th is by far the toughest hole on the front side, and also the #1-handicap hole. At 455 yards with a green tucked up a hill over the thick rough and bunkers, a long tee shot is the only way to get a par. Of course, the harder you swing, the closer those trees skirting the fairway seem to creep in. The 9th is almost like a makeup hole for the bogey you likely made on #8. Downhill and 353 yards, it looks very narrow off the tee but the fairway is much wider than you can see. The green is once again a tricky triangle.
The 10th is a fun, short dogleg par 4 of 347 yards around a marsh and big tree. Cutting the corner is possible, but laying up to the safe zone still leaves less than 120 yards in. I suppose a perfect drive could get pretty close to the front of the green. Try it and let me know. The 11th is a special par 3 of just 142 yards to a green that’s 41 yards deep from stem to stern and just as wide. With such a large green, it’s one of the longest putts you’ll have in Minnesota if you get wayward. The view back from behind the green to the tees is nice, with the waste area and the tee boxes rising out of it like stairs. One of my favorite pictures of the course. The 12th is 436 yards but plays steadily downhill to lessen the distance. There’s waste areas on the back half of the hole, but they really shouldn’t be in play.
The 13th is one of my favorite holes in the whole country. It’s gotta be on my top 18. There’s three options off the tee, all based off that devilish bunker 200 yards out and smackdab in the middle of the fairway. Go left of it to have a better elevation to reach the green, layup short to take it out of play altogether, or go long or right and bite off the most yardage but also play further uphill on approach to a massive green. At 296 yards, you could also try to drive one close to the green, but a steep wall of thick rough (the foot-long, ball-swallowing type) guards all but a small inlet of the front of the green. I tried that option and lost my ball on the way to a double bogey. I could play this course ten times and not play this hole the same way twice.
The 14th is one of the narrower holes on the course, a 499-yard par 5 that plays pretty straight to its green. The dogleg-left 15th is a tough hole because driver most likely goes through the fairway, meaning you’ll have to play a little shorter, leaving a 200-plus-yard approach shot up the incline to this 431-yard par 4. It’s also one of the few holes you can’t see the green from the tee. The final par 5 is the 502-yard, uphill 16th. There’s all sorts of things going on here, with the tee shot having to carry trouble, the next shot carrying a fairway bunker and then the green up and to the right on approach. It’s a three-shot beauty.
And just as beautiful is the par-3 17th, the only hole that really features water in this “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, though it’s more of a pond. At 181 yards it’s not an easy shot to a narrower green and the water is most definitely in play. It’s one of the prettier water par 3’s around, with the towering evergreens enclosing the hole into an isolated feeling and the rocky shore framing the crystal-clear pond making it feel like a mini-Lake Superior. The 18th is a worthy finale to this great course, a ninety-degree dogleg-left of 448 yards with a view of the deep mine lake close by. A really bad approach might end up 550 feet deep, or the nastiness waiting at the kink in the dogleg can also mess with your final hole.
By now, having played 26 states, almost 100 different courses and close to 150 rounds in the last five-plus years, I’ve become able to see how many courses can feel similar. Especially at resort courses, you’ll see stock water par 3’s, split-fairway par 5’s and repeated dogleg par 4’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many of these places do it right, but after this many rounds, I can see the patterns and certain holes and even entire courses lose their identity. This is what makes a course like the Quarry so special. Throughout the round, there is never a deja vu feeling that I’ve seen something like this before. The course is designed to present a unique challenge on every hole. Each walk up to the tee box, you have to carefully plan your way around the hole given all the information you can cram in your head. There’s no stepping up and saying, “well, this should be a smooth fairway wood to the fairway then a short wedge into the green,” standard feeling. It’s all very challenging, different and rewarding. The Quarry at Giants Ridge is definitely one of the courses I would love to make a return trip to. It’s definitely worth the 90-minute trek over gravel roads from Duluth to play. And I bet the second and third plays are even more fun as the course reveals more of its secrets to you.
#2, Par 5, 558 yards, 3-handicap, My Score: 5
My favorite hole came quick. The monstrous, 558-yard 2nd is one of the coolest experiences on a golf course. The hole is just massive. On the first section of fairway it feels like being on the biggest stretch of grass in the world. Like 5 soccer fields made up on fairway. Then the second shot plays up the ridge to the left and a narrow section of fairway before an approach to a large green with tricky reads. The scenery is fantastic every step of the way. The walk I took over the last 100 yards to the green got me pumped for the rest of the round and the course did not disappoint.
Layout: A; a great layout that uses every club and so many unique traits that make each hole memorable long after the round.
Amenities: A, a top-notch driving range and of course the midday lunch was tasty, complete with “pop”. Translation: “soda”
Staff: A; from the box mining lesson, to the helpful pro shop staff to the friendliest waitress in America at the restaurant, who was also a great photographer, these Midwestern folk lived up to their reputation
Difficulty: A; it’s sneaky tough, mostly because of rough that would make the USGA blush
Scenery: A; great views of upper Minnesota landscape, evergreens, deep blue lakes (no dye in these!) and excellent condition to the course
Value: A; a top-100 course for under $100 is as good a value as there will ever be. At a peak of $89 for a weekend, summer round, this is a steal. Don’t tell them, but they could easily charge twice as much and be justified. There are dozens of courses more expensive than this that aren’t even close in quality.
Overall GPA: 4.0 (A)