Appeared in 2010 LINKS Premier Clubs
The men who built the great links at secluded outposts like Machrihanish, Dornoch and Ballybunion didn’t trouble themselves with due diligence or demographics. The land itself, however remote, trumped practical concerns.
This was the same siren call heeded by the 21st century developers of Sutton Bay Club, which opened outside Agar, South Dakota, in 2003. In seven years Sutton Bay has been ranked among the top 100 and set a new standard for private clubs in the Upper Midwest Dream Links category.
The land itself offered more than most sporting visionaries would have dared imagine. After all, how many links of this quality are set beside world-class walleye and salmon fisheries? How many are served by such exquisite lodging and cuisine? How many are surrounded by more than 3,500 acres of North America’s finest pheasant hunting?
“We’ve always felt that Sutton Bay offers a destination experience, not just the chance to play golf,” says Mark Amundson, the club’s managing partner. “And part of that experience is getting here. If people are making their first visits to Sutton Bay, their expectations are naturally affected by the trip—if we’re honest, we’d even expect those expectations to be tempered by the trip. We are way off the beaten path, and the final leg of the drive passes through fairly non-descript flatland.
“But when they get their first long view from the clubhouse patio across the valley to Lake Oahe, it’s really something to watch as someone else’s breath is taken away.”
Golf architects are notorious for overselling their sites. Sometimes they speak the truth. “The thing we kept telling ourselves,” says Sutton Bay designer Graham Marsh, “was that if we build this for the right reasons and expect nothing from it, that’s OK. This course had to be built.”
It was the land that made Sutton Bay worth building. Why else come to the high plains of South Dakota, where the golf season is short and hay bales outnumber golfers 100,000 to 1?
Sutton Bay sits at the end of an historical progression: In the 1930s Perry Maxwell did more than lay out the original nine at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kansas. He also identified America’s Upper Midwest as a counterintuitive but legitimate linksland.
Decades later, when Sand Hills Golf Club opened near Mullen, Nebraska, the lines connected. For here was another cache of glorious dunes, inland and spectacularly remote.
The idea that Prairie Dunes floated and Sand Hills proved was punctuated by Sutton Bay, a club whose membership has grown to 178. Sutton Bay’s national scope and remote location mean that some members may show up but two or three times a year. Still, the original call for 200 members remains the plan.
“You can’t think condos and timeshares,” says Bill Kubly, the course builder and a club partner. “You can’t ‘capitalize’ on sites like these because it won’t work. It’s tough to pencil out this sort of project. Money can’t be the motivator. You have to do it for the right reasons. We don’t care how long it takes to sell out the memberships at Sutton Bay. We’ll wait for the right people who appreciate what it is we’ve done up here.”
The allure of linksland has always drawn golfers to Great Britain and Ireland, but the last 15 years have shown they will also trek to the Oregon coast, western Nebraska, even Tasmania and the South Island of New Zealand. Sutton Bay isn’t nearly as remote as the Antipodes, but it nevertheless takes this construct a step further: If you build it well enough and complement the golf with activities and first-class amenities, they will join.
“If the course and all the other amenities are good enough, the remoteness is actually a point in your favor,” Amundson says. “People feel like they’ve really gotten away from it all.”
Amundson first saw the property in 1995, when it was a portion of the thousands of acres being ranched by Matt Sutton, whose family has owned the land since 1896. Amundson, a South Dakotan who also directs Marsh’s U.S. design office, was immediately smitten by the site, although it would be three years before his boss laid eyes on the place. When he did, he was similarly smitten.
Amundson lured Kubly to the Sutton Ranch in 1999. Not only is Kubly a member at Sand Hills, his firm, Landscapes Unlimited, laid the irrigation and helped build the course. Once Kubly saw the Sutton Bay site, he signed on as contractor and investor.
“I had always wanted to do a project like Sutton Bay but properties like these don’t grow on trees,” says Kubly. “I jumped on the bandwagon because I wanted do something world-class, something one of a kind.”
In some respects Sutton Bay has relied even more heavily on the links tradition. It sports an out-and-back routing (the 9th green and 10th tee are nestled against a boundary fence) and sits hard by Lake Oahe, a portion of the Missouri River dammed in the 1950s. The lake forms a backdrop that exceeds that of most links courses.
Technically a course doesn’t need water to be a links. But let’s be honest: It helps, and not just for the views. Sutton Bay members can fish that water after the round.
Try doing that at Ballybunion.
One of Sutton Bay’s strengths is that its best months are September and October, when the golf season is winding down elsewhere. “There is huge cross-over for our members, who understand that autumn in South Dakota is the optimum season for hunting, fishing and playing golf—all at the same time,” explains Amundson. “We have hunting guides on staff, and a whole fleet of dogs. We provide guns and ammo. There’s very little preparation or travel consideration to be made, frankly. All you need to bring are your boots.
“We have a lot of members who arrive here the first time as novice hunters. That’s certainly true of guests as well. But we are set up to help them learn and enjoy the experience.”
The club has secured “preserve” status for its 3,500 acres of hunting ground. Members and guests can hunt from September 1 to March 31, whereas the standard South Dakota pheasant-hunting season opens the third Saturday in October and closes in early January. In exchange, for every pheasant shot at Sutton Bay, the club is required to release another it has raised or purchased.
“Our ‘preserve’ hunting does not mimic the common perception of preserve hunting in any way,” says Amundson. “What we offer is the authentic hunting of native birds and released birds at the same time. The quality of the hunt, the number of pheasants you will see, the terrain you will hunt, and the guides and dogs that will assist you—they all help create the best hunt you have ever experienced.”
What’s more, Lake Oahe isn’t just eye candy; it is one of the country’s premier walleye fisheries. It also has catfish, bass and other game fish like northern pike, and was home to the state record Chinook salmon. Located along the central flyway for Canadian geese migration, Oahe offers enthusiasts a chance to pass-shoot geese along the bluffs or hunt with decoys in pits located in winter wheat and picked cornfields.
Try doing that at Machrihanish.
There are no homes. Members and guests stay in detached cottages of five-star quality, while the sumptuous victuals served in the rustically elegant clubhouse make one wonder just what sort of Faustian bargain the chef has struck.
Then there’s the course, a rollicking links with all the elements: random dunes, ragged blowout bunkers that obscure the line of play, firm-and-fast conditions and howling winds. Marsh routed the longer front nine with the prevailing breeze, which comes in handy on the three par 5s, the shortest of which measures 605 yards. Catch this course on a day when the wind turns around and the front side is downright Sisyphean.
Yet with a prevailing wind, the opening nine is a joyful frolic down wide, undulating fairways as the holes tumble this way and that on their way to enormous, undulating greens that are smartly angled and bunkered so even the most straightforward approach requires significant thought.
The back nine plays higher on the hillside, with Lake Oahe to the right. An enormous mesa looms along the left, and this elevation gives the inward nine its own character.
All in all, Sutton Bay is a tour de force from Marsh, who made more than 100 site visits. “I’d fly in Sunday night, spend Monday and Tuesday on site and leave Tuesday night for a tournament,” recalls Marsh. “That’s just what the members do today, only they have the good sense to come in on Friday night and make a weekend of it.”
Try doing that at Dornoch.