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North Dakota: Golf the Lewis and Clark Trail

By Andrew Penner, Contributor

BISMARCK, N.D. - In the movie Fargo, that demented but wildly entertaining flick by the Coen brothers, North Dakotans were depicted as thick-accented hicks living ultra-simple lives. And, undoubtedly, there's a bunch of folks living there who don't get out much.

One thing is certain, though, many a North Dakotan knows what a great golf course looks like. After all, North Dakota is home to The Lewis and Clark Golf Trail, which features three of the finest courses in the Midwest.

For those of you who have never been to North Dakota there are many pleasant surprises waiting to be discovered. For example, the western third of the state is a chaotic collection of hoodoos, swirling sandstone, and rolling ranch land, all immersed in Western tradition. And snaking through the scenic maze are mighty rivers: the Red, the Missouri, the Knife, and the Little Missouri.

It's along these waters where many of North Dakota's best golf courses have been routed. For example, located in the northwest corner of the state, near Williston, The Links of North Dakota could easily be the best golf course you've never heard of. Tumbling through dunes and native grasses high above Lake Sakakawea, which is actually a dammed section of the Missouri, The Links of North Dakota is a fantastically remote, British Isles-like experience. Holes charge through windy, grass-lined chutes, fescue-framed bunkers bite into landing zones, and huge rolling greens sit in natural depressions or are perched on exposed shelves.

Architect Stephen Kay, one of the world's premier "classic" golf course architects, moved very little earth at The Links but found the perfect channels to lay out golf holes. The short 11th, one of four outstanding par-3 holes on the course, is reminiscent of some of the great one-shotters in golf. It's a truly exceptional short, uphill par-3 that features a mean little bunker and a tiny green that tilts away from the tee.

"The people who make the trip out here are rewarded with an outstanding test of golf," says head professional Matt Bryant. "There's plenty of strategy in the layout, some great views, and the wind makes every round a challenge. We've got a great ‘Scottish' course here. Really, one of the best inland links courses in North America."

On the other end of the spectrum (in terms of architectural style), the Hawktree Golf Club, located three miles away in Bismarck and another "feature" layout on the Lewis and Clark Golf Trail, shows architect Jim Engh's zest for dramatic, earth-transforming designs. Where The Links has a traditional, old-world feel, Hawktree is big, bold, and contemporary. Adding to the course's drama is the use of black coal slag instead of sand in the bunkers.

Jim Engh's work at Hawktree has not gone unnoticed either. Golf World ranks this course as one of the top modern courses in the United States (17th) and Golf Digest ranks it no. 1 in the state. The topsy-turvy route, which takes golfers high on the plains and down into the gusty floor of the Burnt Creek Valley (a tributary of the Missouri), takes full advantage of the compelling site. Hole no. 7, a great gambling par-5 that starts high on a bluff, teases golfers to blast a tee shot over the hill to a blind landing area. If successful, the green can be hit in two with a medium or even a short iron.

Unfortunately, the movie Fargo did not take viewers into the striking Badlands regions of western North Dakota. And that, like the ending of the movie, was shameful (anyone squeamish might want to turn away for the final "getting rid of the body" scene). At any rate, the Badlands town of Medora, located two hours west of Bismarck, is the perfect place for non-golfers - and, now, thanks to a new golf course, golfers - to explore.

This quiet two-pub town is most famous for its outdoor evening musical and pitchfork fondue. High on a hill above Medora's rustic storefronts, its seating carved into the arid slopes, the Medora Musical is a professional blend of Western song and dance - all dedicated to the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, who called this area home and credited his experiences here to leading him to presidency. Prior to the show, they serve up succulent prime rib steaks cooked over the open barbecue.

While Medora used to be golf free, its landscape has changed considerably with the addition of Bully Pulpit Golf Course, a gorgeous 18-holer designed by Michael Hurzdan. Opened in spring of 2003, Bully Pulpit is a sultry blend of smooth riverside holes and a wild finishing run in the Badlands.

The architecture here is gracefully simple, however. Rather than scrape, scour, and completely redecorate the flat, tree-flecked terrain, Hurzdan opted to leave the majority of the site as is. Consequently, this is one of the softest, most natural "big name" courses of the modern age.

Green complexes are generally simple and uncluttered. Hurzdan, however, deals the golfer a stiff hand with plenty of length and challenging, option-laced holes that can reward an aggressive shot but severely punish a poor one.

Ultimately, though, this is a course that will be remembered for its roller coaster run in the Badlands. Starting at the 14th, a narrow par 4 pinched between ancient sandstone walls, Bully Pulpit switches gears and thrusts golfers into a new world of anything-can-happen golf. The 15th, a knee-shaker of a par 3, features a tee perched on the highest, most exposed ledge in sight and requires golfers hit a small hanging green protected by a daunting sand pit and eroded sandstone.

From there, the course plummets down the hill in the form of an ultra-wide, 450-yard, par-4 hole where you won't be able to resist hitting a driver in hopes of launching a ball to Kingdom Come.

While these three standout courses - The Links, Hawktree, and Bully Pulpit - are the main entrees on The Lewis and Clark Golf Trail, there are other interesting layouts and plenty of historic sites along the way.

Speckled along the route from the famous 1804 expedition are approximately 30 attractions and more then 200 golf holes. Additional courses - such as Prairie West, Linton, Apple Creek, and Riverwood - rest in the hollows and dart along the rivers, through the shadows of giant cottonwoods, some of which were young saplings when Lewis and Clark explored this beautiful land. Some of which have now, sadly, succumbed to the wood chipper.

The verdict:

The three feature courses on the Lewis and Clark Golf Trail are exceptional and well worth the effort to get to them.

However, the depth of this trail, however, is not as impressive as some other state golf trails. Many of the second-tier courses on the trail are small nine-holers or just "decent" community courses.

Nonetheless, a golf trip to North Dakota can be rewarding. The Links of North Dakota, especially, is easy to get on because of its remote location. An additional bonus is the price of golf on the trail. All the courses can be played for less than $50.

Recently, Golf Magazine listed both Hawktree and The Links among the top 50 courses in the United States for under $50.

Andrew PennerAndrew Penner, Contributor

Andrew Penner is a freelance writer and photographer based in Calgary, Alberta. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America and Europe. You can see more of his work at www.andrewpenner.com.

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