AGAR, S.D. - The day I played Sutton Bay Golf Club weightless, fleecy-white clouds dappled a steel blue sky. For as far as I could see, Lake Oahe glistened, glowed, and fanned itself around the far-away mustard coloured hills on the other side.
Save for the flagsticks, the checkerboard fairways that swerved through the boulder-scattered hills, there was no sign of man. I was the only one out there. I had the links to myself. It was surreal, one of the dreamiest golf experiences I've ever had. And from every tee, every fairway, I saw this glorious lake, played one stirring hole after another, puzzles pinched between the fescue-capped hills, and I wondered: how on earth can a place like this exist?
At dinner that evening with Mark Amundson, the driving force behind this unforgettable fantasy of world-class golf, hunting, and fishing, I foundsome answers to that question. Sutton Bay is glacier-scoured ranchland 45 miles north of Pierre, S.D, is owned by a prominent South Dakota ranching family.
In 1995, Amundson was told about a special piece of land on the shores of Lake Oahe, a dammed portion of the Missouri River. On a whim he ventured there, met Matt Sutton, and took a look around. A scratch golfer and an entrepreneur, Amundson left the place bursting with vision. He knew a golf course here, if it could ever be built, would be out of this world, a dream made real. He was right.
The Sutton Bay Golf Club, opened in June 2003, is a private club that currently has 60 members. To join? A schwack of cash (there are seven membership types available). Membership will be capped at 200.
Needless to say, in a location as remote as this, there were many challenges in building the golf course. Power was an issue. Water was an issue. Thousands of rocks deposited by glaciers were an issue. Getting an architect to believe in the project, put his heart and soul into it, was an issue. Getting someone to actually build the thing was an issue.
But slowly things began to happen. The ball - and the boulders - began rolling. Bill Kubly (Landscapes Unlimited), one of the pre-eminent course builders in the world, signed on to construct the course. Australian architect Graham Marsh, an acquaintance of Amundson's, eventually found his way to Sutton Bay. He, too, left charged, jolted with a dream of what could be. Over the next 18 months Marsh poured over the site, searching for the best possible route.
"From the first time I visited Sutton Bay I knew there was a special golf course hidden amongst the dramatic landforms of the Missouri Breaks," says Marsh. "It was my ambition to fit the course to the land thus making it appear from day one that it had existed for hundreds of years."
But long before Marsh finalized the route, an epic crusade featuring nine out and nine back in (the 9th green is a four-mile journey from the clubhouse), numerous battles were fought. The existing power supply was feeble, incapable of heating and cooling 30,000 square feet of buildings. A geothermal well system, incorporating over 400 wells dug 100 feet deep, was the solution. A 10,000 gallon storage tank and two booster pumps were installed for water requirements.
Other challenges were telecommunication lines, the sewer system, irrigation lines (every inch installed with a backhoe due to the rocks), and lodging for workers during Sutton Bay's development.
So, when the course was finally ready, there were plenty of battle-toughened souls eager to watch a ball or two fly. Those that labored, those that invested, those that fought the fight, were thrilled. And, as justice has a way of being served, the final product is one thrill after another.
But at Sutton Bay the adventure, the thrill, doesn't begin on the first tee. It already starts with the journey - and it will be a journey - in getting there. For this, like the famed Sand Hills Golf Club, is part of the aura, the spice that seasons the experience.
Whether it's a flight into Pierre and a 45-minute ride the rest of the way or a multi-tank cruise on country roads - miles and miles of quilted fields brushed with yellow, green, and gold - your longing for good food and good golf will be peaking as you reach the gates. And, at Sutton Bay, when you finally do step on the first tee (after an unbelievable mile and a half cart ride through the scrubby, rock-riddled valley that rests between the clubhouse and the course's starting point), bashing a ball at the dazzling first is an exquisite moment.
But you don't want to give it your road-weary swing on the opening hole. It's a 661-yarder that dives through some of the mightiest landforms on the site. So, to ease the challenge, a unique warm-up was created. Hidden in the rocks and scrub, scattered about in this yawning basin between clubhouse and course, is a short practice course (but it's tough as nails).
Most groups play the first five on the journey to the tee, then the championship course, then, to settle the bets, play the remaining four on the short course on the way in. It's how, with the route and the path system, it sets up best.
After playing the terrific par 3 second on the "real" course, a hole with a green sitting snug in the hills and protected by gnarly fingers of sand, golfers enter a new world along the lake. Heading due north, the third through ninth are a stretch of golf so good, so tough, so brash and brawny, you'll think that you've been airlifted to some forgotten Celtic shoreline. Holes, channeled through creases, rise and fall in a sea of gold crested waves.
Bunkers, their edges chiseled and chewed, attack the lines of play. The greens, framed in hillsides peppered with cacti and rock, are huge, rolling surfaces. The fairways melt into folds and faults, landforms sculpted by ice and running water a million years ago.
The 605-yard eighth, the third par 5 on the front, is considered the toughest hole on the course. "The layup is always dicey, but if you challenge the towering bunkers fronting the green you can find yourself in a world of hurt." Tucked behind the wall of tousled grass, scattered rock, and unkempt sand, an enormous green, completely hidden.
Despite the challenge imposed by the ragged bunkers, Marsh made sure he allowed for the punishing winds, creating alternate routes for less skilled players and, on days when the wind really whips, he mercifully made fairways nearly a football field wide in spots. This is especially true on Sutton's homeward nine, which weaves its way through the hills on a slightly higher line.
The 16th, a long downhill par-4, makes a broad sweep toward the lake and features yet another mussy cauldron of sand in the line of play. A roomyleft side and a teasing line to the right are the options off the tee. The hopeful green hangs high above the lake. It is a par-4 that will be seared in your mind for a long time.
So, the question then, is Sutton Bay the next great contemporary course? Will it rival Pacific Dunes, Sand Hills, The European Club? It does, in a most compelling way, strike similar chords, feelings. Like all of those - and like the relics such as Machrihanish, Dornoch, and Ballybunion - there is the romance, the rousing beauty and isolation of the site. Unquestionably Sutton Bay will get high rank and, when it's eligible in a couple of years, likely make the world's top 100. After all - powered bywind, water, and time - Sutton Bay is a place where golfing dreams turn real.
October 18, 2004
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