Cragun’s Resort fills winter golf void with … well, golf

As a ball disappears into a yawning hole, the hoots and hollers hang palpably in the air. High-fives are exchanged like an emotional rhythmic outlet. 

That’s the scene Tim Johnson, Cragun’s Resort‘s head golf professional, says commonly bears out during the winter months inside the Legacy Grille as part of the Legacy Golf Course Clubhouse on Gull Lake in Brainerd, Minnesota. It’s gone on for more than five years now. 

No, it’s not a full-blown, indoor course that gets the participants whooped up. But close. Rather, it’s nothing more than three bays of PGA Tour Golf Simulators and screens. Since being added to the resort’s winter amenity repertoire, the simulators have been a hit.  

Simulators can not replace the Minnesota destination's top-notch courses, but they helped make the resort a competitive offseason retreat.
Cragun’s Resort’s Legacy Grille serves as part of the Legacy Golf Course Clubhouse during the winter months. :: Photo: Cragun’s Resort on Gull Lake

The tranquil lakefront Cragun’s Resort, which opened in 1940 primarily as a fishing and boating enclave, had been looking for something that could complement its two championship layouts and par-3 course. The resort’s golf season normally runs from April 1 until October’s end. That didn’t necessarily mean golf had to end during the winter months. 

“It started as, ‘How do we keep the people at the resort engaged in the amenities we offer so it doesn’t feel like a ghost town in the winter,'” Johnson says. “And how do we keep the amenity on their minds, almost like creating repeat business.”

About eight years ago, the rustic resort — located about two hours west of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — introduced the simulators as another enhancement, joining snowmobiling, ice fishing, horse-drawn trolleys and dog sled rides during the frigid months. The strategy went like this: Why not provide golfers the option to keep their swings sharp or maybe even clean up flaws? The simulators get unboxed traditionally around October 30 when course play ratchets down. 

The simulators offer 50 courses, with techs calibrating the machines each year. Golfers can choose from Mount Rushmore-like designs such as Pebble Beach, TPC Sawgrass and Spyglass Hills. There is flexibility, too. The simulators offer a driving range for practice play and three miniature golf course layouts.

Cragun’s Legacy Club Members and the public alike can imbibe in friendly games, lessons or league play. Members can play for $40 an hour; the public at $60. Getting through nine holes takes about 90 minutes for a twosome. Food and beverage service accentuates the experience. 

As the de facto League Simulator Golf commissioner, Johnson might be the unsung hero. He is immersed in making the experience as realistic and holistic as possible. Similar to video games, the platform evokes stimulation that crank-starts the endorphins. 

Johnson oversees one league in which teams of two can compete in a nine-hole net best-ball format that includes weekly prizes. A single session for eight league rounds runs about $275 per team player. The second of two eight-week league seasons started in late January. 

“We’ve had 28 teams each season this year,” Johnson says. “Oh my gosh. It’s been absolutely great, but it’s a lot. All three bays are busy or full with the leagues.”

He is cognizant of the competition level. It wouldn’t be much fun, or fair, if ringers dominated lower-tier players, so he leans on the U.S. Golf Association’s Golf Handicap Information Network (GHIN) to keep play balanced. 

Besides the leagues, he’s gotten creative in keeping the bays active. There are a variety of games that can be punched in, like skins or matches, closest to the pin and more. There was also a point where junior lesson programs were filling the bays. 

“What we’re trying to do, too, is broaden their minds,” says Johnson. “It’s more than just about the golf. Sometimes we’ll have a new women’s group come in, order glasses of wine and say, ‘Just set it up on a par three. We just want to hit balls, but we also just want to talk.’ So what that does is open up a new avenue of golf, just by creating an atmosphere and something different. It can be relaxed or it can be competitive.”

The fulcrum for all of it, of course, can be attributed to the resort’s outdoor courses. Circa 1996, Robert Trent Jones Jr. built the two 18-hole target golf treks, along with the par-3 layout. Eric Peterson, Cragun’s general manager, told Golf Oklahoma in September 2023 that Jones’ designs were a bit difficult for guests, which paved the way to a $15 million renovation.  

Headed up by 1996 British Open winner Tom Lehman, the layouts have been rebranded as the 27-hole Dutch Legacy, named after Merrill Cragun Jr., who took over as the resort’s general manager in 1957 (and whose parents turned the tax-forfeited land into the year-round lake destination.); The Lehman Legacy featuring 18 holes; and The Reversible Par 3, inspired by St. Andrews Golf Course in Scotland. 

“Tom Lehman’s vision for our golf courses is exactly what we had hoped for when we started the renovation process,” says Jack Wawro, Cragun’s Resort’s director of golf. 

In any event, Johnson knows the simulators are a way to keep the snowbirds hooked. In an era where golf and entertainment now intersect, leading to multimillion dollar creations like Topgolf and others, it made financial sense to tap into such a vein. 

“We have some witty marketing and billboards for the simulators that say things like, ‘You will never lose a golf ball in these woods,'” Johnson says. “Some of the feedback we get are things like, ‘I played in high school or college and then I just stopped due to other priorities in life.’ But the simulators have been a way for them to come back to golf. 

“It’s all about fun, and we want it to be fun. It’s another way to grow the game.”