Brooks Golf is a Gem Found in the Heart of the Iowa Great Lakes
Nestled in the heart of the Iowa Great Lakes, for almost 90 years, Brooks Golf has drawn all levels of golfers to their 27-hole course complete with three distinct nine-hole layouts. From smooth greens to bent grass tees and fairways, the course’s masterful design has created superb playing conditions for all ages throughout the years.
“Brooks Golf is an elaborate, unique course that is hard to find in other places around the country,” said Duane Rost, a regular Brooks Golf member. “I have played courses around the country like Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, OR and other magnificent courses but none of them are like coming home to Brooks and aren’t any more interesting or dramatic than Brooks.”
A golf course long known for its environmental focus and Audubon International membership, Brooks Golf risked becoming extinct in 2019. The golf course was placed on the market in 2018 and was anonymously purchased for $3 million and then given to the Conservation Foundation of Dickinson County, a non-profit fundraising segment for the conversation board. In March 2019, the Dickinson County Conservation Board took ownership of the 230-acre property and Brooks Management, LLC was given permission to run the course through 2019.
General Manager Brett Hetland went through a range of emotions during this time period, especially struggling with the uncertainty and unknown. “I went through a roller coaster of emotions for my whole team, when we didn’t know what was going to happen. However, I was hopeful. Then in April, we found out we’d be open for the season but didn’t know about the future until the fall,” he shared.
There was a community forum in June at the Dickinson County Nature Center. The public came out in droves and filled the chairs and the room. “It was impressive. I’m not a person who likes to get out in front, but I was ready to speak if given the opportunity. I could have safely left there without having to say anything due to the overwhelming support.” Following the meeting, the decision was in favor of the property remaining a golf course. However, the question remaining was whether to keep it at 27 holes or return the course to 18.
Following an extensive RFP process in the fall of 2019, the Dickinson County Conversation Board awarded Brooks Management, LLC a 10-year lease to operate Brooks Golf as a 27-hole golf course. With a long-term agreement in place, Brooks Management began a number of capital improvements this winter to enhance the golfing experience.
For Hetland, he will continue to provide leadership at Brooks, including keeping the course environmentally conscious. “We are all about reduce, reuse, and recycle,” he said. “As a golf course, we have always focused on being stewards of the environment.”
Brooks has been a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Golf Course since 2003 and is recertified every three years, most recently in 2020. An important component of certification is “Outreach and Education,” largely led by Brooks' relationship with the Nature Center that started 15 years ago when they initially collaborated on a successful “Birding on the Greens” bird tour. Since then, every first Monday between May through September, the group meets at 7 a.m. to meander through Brooks habitat looking and listening to birds. “Birders are passionate about their hobby and many of them are non-golfers. Over the past 15 years, the group has discovered over 140 bird species on the golf course,” Hetland added. “It’s really a neat way for us to showcase the golf course in another way, from the wetlands to the buffer strips.”
Uniqueness of Brooks Golf Course
In 1932, Brooks was created by Val Brooks as an 18-hole golf course. In 1995, the golf course split off from Arrowwood (Village East back then), and in 1999, Brooks expanded from 18 to 27-holes. Over the years, there have been several ownership changes but the heart of what Val Brooks created almost 90 years ago is still intact.
“We are a huge draw to our tourist industry and nestled in the heart of Okoboji,” Hetland said. “Because we are 27 holes, it allows us to be flexible, promote pace of play and have available tee times even during peak demand. We are literally the only course in the area that can host an event and still be open to public play.
Brooks Golf has three very distinct 9’s, allowing golfers to enjoy parkland, links, or wetlands. The blue 9 is picturesque, parkland style, with tree lined fairways and flower beds. The links 9 sweeps to wide open prairie grasses and bunkers. The yellow course offers many risk/reward shots with water in play on 8 of the 9 holes. The links and mound courses are ideal to play in the fall with fewer trees and leaves so you can find your ball.
“What makes it fun for golfers is the significant difference between the three courses,” he added.
Hole #7 on the Links course starts with an elevated tee shot from what is considered the third highest point in the county. The County Park has a lookout tower nearby, looking down onto the fairway and expanse. The irregularly shaped hill is a glacial landform called a kame, composed of sand, gravel and till that accumulated in a depression from a retreating glacier and is then deposited on the land surface with further melting of the glacier.
Because of Brooks location in Okoboji, they are surrounded by entities like Dickinson County Nature Center and Okoboji Summer Theater. Lodging nearby is Arrowwood Resort and AmericInn. Brooks North residential area is on the north end of the property.
“We have a great relationship with our neighbors and we work hard to promote each other,” Hetland said. “We offer 'Stay and Play' packages with our neighboring hotels and collaborate on some marketing materials. Being a tourist destination, we believe a lot of our success comes from working with others in our community.”
Under Hetland’s Leadership
Hetland has been providing leadership at Brooks Golf for over 20 years, discovering a love of golf while in high school. The unknown enjoyment was found after the manager of Devil’s Lake Country Club came into Pizza Hut and asked Hetland to work for him.
“I was having fun working with my buddies at Pizza Hut, but after my first week at the golf course, I put in my two weeks at Pizza Hut,” Hetland said. “I started working 40 hours a week at the golf course as a 16-year-old and loved it.”
Hetland worked at the golf course for five years, including during his college summers. His winters were filled with playing college hockey, before transferring to North Dakota State University to get a bachelor of science in golf course management. He gained valuable knowledge at the Fargo Country Club, before moving to a management role at Bristol Ridge Golf Course in Somerset, Wisconsin.
An opening became available at Brooks and a former co-worker contacted Hetland. “This may sound funny to some being from North Dakota, but the first question I asked was what’s in Iowa. I hadn’t heard of Okoboji,” he said. “I came and took a look at the course and was lucky enough to land the job.”
At the time, the pro shop was in the Village East basement (now Arrowwood Resort) and AmericInn was in the framing process, as was Brooks' new clubhouse. In the spring, the course began construction on their 9-hole expansion.
“It was an exciting time, learning a new golf course and then I met my beautiful wife,” Hetland shared. “Now, 21 years later, this North Dakota boy is still married to an amazing woman and has a senior and freshman in high school.” Hetland's journey also includes starting a youth hockey program and building an indoor ice arena in Spirit Lake, where he is the high school hockey coach of Boji Mammoths and on the leadership team of the Hockey Association.
In 2011, Hetland was awarded the Superintendent Award from the Iowa Golf Association. Rost said Hetland has earned it over and over again, but the award is never repeated. Most recently, Hetland was recognized by the IGA for efforts associated with Brooks continuation as a golf course. In 2009, Brooks Golf was awarded the Iowa Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award for their pollution prevention program, and in 2010, the Iowa Golf Course Superintendents Association’s inaugural Environmental Stewardship Award.
“I had a chance to do a lot more writing at that time promoting what we were doing,” Hetland said. “We maintain our sustainable management practices and continually look for ways to expand into other areas of the Brooks operation.”
Brooks Golf is one of many gems found in the Iowa Great Lakes area, and like many, the course is focused on developing new programs and growing into the future. The “Under 35” season pass has a reduced rate for young professionals in the community.
“We want to introduce younger professionals in our community to the benefits of golfing, socialization and networking opportunities on the golf course,” Hetland said.
Another new aspect of Brooks Golf is running the clubhouse food and beverage operation. For the past 15 years, this has been leased to outside vendors. The operation will be managed by Food and Beverage Director Beth Kershner, who recently owned a restaurant in Houston, TX. She has family in the area and is excited to serve the community.
“She is full of many exciting ideas and can’t wait to share with our golfers and community,” Hetland said. “The golf shop has been moved back to the clubhouse and will be led by new Director of Golf Todd Norman. He brings a wealth of knowledge from his experiences in Florida, North Carolina and Missouri. I’m really excited about our new management team.”
This summer, enjoy the beauty of Brooks Golf – a gem you don’t want to miss while in the Iowa Great Lakes area.
Brooks Golf is located at 1201 Brooks Park Drive, Okoboji, and more information can be found on their Facebook page or at www.brooksgolfclub.com.