Founded in 1898, the golf club at Northland – as its name suggests – lies way up north, near the Canadian border, and the wooded, gently rolling course sits on top of cliffs that offer fantastic views of Lake Superior from many of its fairways.
The first 9-hole course at Northland Country Club was expanded to a full 18-hole layout in 1912 then, when land on the cliffs above the course was acquired in 1921, Donald Ross was hired to route a new course which came into play in 1927.
Ross is associated with over 600 courses in America with less than a handful located in the North Star State so Northland keeps very select company with the famous Minnesotan courses at Interlachen, Minikahda and White Bear Yacht Club which were also touched by the same architect.
I made a MN and adjacent states trip specifically to play some Jeffrey Brauer courses, I added this one to break up my trip back to MSP to fly home. I knew Ron Prichard, Ross restoration expert and also my friend had done a Master plan for this course but it was never completed, that's obvious if one reviews the masterplan drawing in the men's locker room. Putting Green surfaces were expanded and so were fairways. It is a fairly extreme walk (I'm now arthritic enough to walk only some courses) and I rode this one. I probably would not have made it to the fifth tee had I not rode as it is a straight uphill routing after 1 until that point.
These putting surfaces suffer from slope-only syndrome and are not among the best set from Ross (Usually a highlight). The thrill in this course is the vistas. The rough was just long enough to make finding balls hard for those ahead of me that afternoon so ti took 4:45, far too long. Being firm and playing fairly bouncy, balls would scoot off into choice places for some, but despite that and not my straightest day, I finished only down one ball. Golf is supposed to be fun and this one is, but it is far form Ross's top form.
Brad Klein's book has Ross CONFIRMED on site, so these greens in the days of stimpmeter 6-7 must have been thought fair and fun, although at modern speeds the skillset is don't go too wide to the side and keep the ball below the hole. Putting downhill can take you back to the fairway. The design is fairly straightforward but the 10th hole (Backed up 4 groups at the halfway house) is by far the most (and almost ridiculously so) challenging hole on the course - straight! up the hill. I'm not sure what else could have been done.
There are hidden gems, and then there’s a special Ross golf course in Duluth, MN that’s so understated, it’s a refreshing education on how an incredible piece of rolling land can create such a memorable experience. There are no frills or big budgets at Northland CC and having recently spoken with one of the founders of the Ross Society, he smiled from ear to ear when I told him of my recent visit. The membership knows how lucky they are, and the preservation of the course is just the way they want it.
The course has serious changes in elevation and can play hard & fast in the summer months. One only has to stand on the 3rd tee and look up the fairway to the distant flag to understand the hilly challenge that awaits you. On many occasions, I had to land the ball 40 yards short of the green to allow for the big bounces towards the putting surfaces. Uphill holes often have semi-blind approach shots, downhill holes will test your imagination like nowhere else. There is an aura of simplicity and pure golf about this course that has some of the most merciless ‘back to front’ pitched greens you’ll ever play.
While there are magnificent visuals across prairie land and the adjacent Lake Superior, the trip to Northland is a joyful appreciation of Ross at his best. The views are truly spectacular, and by themselves are worth the drive! Bring your A Game around the greens, and don’t go long over the tilted greens. This is certainly one of the coolest places you can play the game.
The members at Northland gave Donald Ross a challenging piece of property to work with, but the Dornochman rose to the occasion. Ross negotiated the hundred foot change in elevation by designing the course in three sections: a gentle hillside that houses holes 1-3 and 15-18; a transitional section of holes 4-5 and 13; and a flatter upland section for the other nine holes. The result is a routing that looks like a “W” when shown on a map. Another result is striking views of Lake Superior from half the holes, the finest being the infinity green at # 13.
Like many of Ross’s other Minnesota works, only four greens have the kind of imaginative contours that would define his later efforts. And strategy from the tee is not much in evidence. But there are strategic options on every approach but three. That and the lovely vistas make a round at Northland a fun experience.
Wow! I didn't really know what to expect after hearing the Northland is "extreme" but wow did I enjoy the course. The course is on a hill that leads all the way down to Lake Superior. This causes some 200+ feet of elevation change across the course but at no point does this feel forced and Ross actually uses it to his advantage.
Two and three are the first two standouts as they traverse as steep climb but keep the golfer engaged and challenged. Five is a short little par 3 that plays across the wind from Lake Superior. The green is surrounded by bunkers and offers countless challenging pin position. 10 is an extremely challenging up hill par 4 with a large incline on the second shot and a tough green. 12 is a fun little par 3 with a tilted green and 13 has an amazing skyline green with a green that works slightly away from the approaching golfer. The whole closing stretch from there is full of great holes including a great challenging closer over a ravine.
Northland is one of my favorite courses. From the extreme terrain to the optical illusion greens (always know which direction the clock (low point) is) the course is fun while maintaining a challenge. I wish I could play a course like Northland on the regular!