The Gravel Pit, a thirteen-hole par-three golf course designed by Scott Hoffmann, in the Brainerd Lakes area of central Minnesota, opened in 2022. The layout has generated profit in its first year in operation, and the owner is already planning another short course.
Hoffmann was for 43 years the golf course superintendent at Madden’s on Gull Lake, a Minnesota resort that has four courses. His first foray into design came during that time, in the 1990s, when resort owner Brian Thuringer asked him to design an eighteen-hole layout on a site that had previously been used for cross-country skiing and hiking.
Hoffman brought in consultants – including golf architect Geoffrey Cornish, US Amateur champion John Harris and executive director of the Minnesota Golf Association Warren Rebholz – to help him on what would be the Classic course. The course was built as a ‘side project’ over a three-year period, with a local contractor handling construction, and irrigation work done in-house. Since opening in 1997, the Classic has regularly been listed in Golf Digest’s top 100 public courses.
When Hoffmann retired from his superintendent role in 2019, he established a design and agronomic consulting business.
Local businessman Nathan Tuomi was contemplating what to do with an old gravel pit he owned and land that he logged before a storm in 2015 destroyed almost all the trees – his son, Sam, floated the idea of doing something related to golf with the property. Having then seen a news story about Hoffmann’s career change, Tuomi asked Hoffmann to see what he could come up with for his 50-acre property. His answer: a thirteen-hole par-three layout and a “wild” thirteen-hole putting course.
“When I looked at the property, it seemed to have great potential as a unique par-three course,” says Hoffmann. “We are in the middle of lake country, major resorts and premier golf courses. It seemed like there would be room for a unique match play-style short course along the lines of what had been done at Sand Valley, Bandon Dunes, Pinehurst and many others.”
Mike Rardin, son of the contractor that built the Classic course at Madden’s for Hoffmann, was hired for construction of the layout, beginning in 2021 and finishing in summer 2022, in time for preview play in the autumn.
“Nathan insisted on something dramatic,” says Hoffmann. “He wanted to see some things you wouldn’t normally get away with on a traditional golf course. We also incorporated a few template holes, such as a reverse Redan, Short, an Infinity green, double plateaus, Himalaya and Island. We wanted a fun, match play course.
“God is the inspiration in golf design and never more so than at the Old course at St Andrews, which serves as a guide to all who attempt the art. I believe par threes, while not always strategic, gain their popularity through their variety and potential. There is some strategy involved as certain holes require hitting away from the target to get to the pin. The course is mostly about fun and the ability to play a round in under two hours for a reasonable green fee.”
The Gravel Pit’s holes range from 60 to 180 yards and, according to Hoffmann, each saw at least one hole-in-one last year.
He highlights are the seventh and eighth. “The seventh plays downhill to a peninsula green,” says Hoffmann. “The putting surface is quite large at about 11,000 square feet. The left side of the green is very approachable but divided by a small bump that requires good placement on the proper side for a birdie opportunity. The right side is quite narrow, requiring a very accurate approach, and has subtle contours.
“The eighth is an uphill 100-yard version of the Short hole, with a large upper level but a smaller thumbprint in the centre of the lower level that plays larger than it looks. The green slopes from three sides to the pin areas. The right pin behind the bunkers is probably the most difficult to get to. A left side miss will receive the benefit of the side slopes. Right or long is trouble. The green is about 9,000 square feet but with four distinct, pinnable areas.”
Hoffmann’s background as a superintendent meant that he wanted to design and build a course that would be sustainable. “To accomplish this goal, and because we are on sand and have a lot of sun, we went with fine fescue everywhere other than the greens, which were seeded with a blend of super bents from the Seed Research of Oregon,” he says. “The course requires very few inputs to maintain, and we use just two mowers – one for greens and the other for everything else. Native areas are trimmed back one or two times per season.
“Also, knowing the expense of formal sand bunkers, I wanted to take advantage of the natural hazards the good lord gave us. So, I included only three bunkers on the entire golf course, and they only get raked weekly. Brandon Meyers, the superintendent, essentially maintains the golf course by himself, although he may be getting a staff member to help him this year, provided by Chuck Klecatsky.”
Klecatsky is the former director of golf at Cragun’s Resort (whose new Tom Lehman-designed course borders The Gravel Pit), and is leasing the property from Tuomi. “Chuck brings a wealth of experience and is respected by everyone in the golf business in Minnesota,” says Hoffmann.
The clubhouse was built, from shipping containers, high on a hill, providing a view of all thirteen holes.
Hoffmann, it seems, can’t get enough. Plans are now under way to construct an additional eleven-hole course immediately south of the clubhouse.