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The Links of North Dakota

Architect Stephen Kay crafts a middle-of-nowhere prairie masterpiece

By: Joseph Mark Passov

Appeared in April 2000 LINKS

If you build it, they will come. It’s been more than 10 years since the movie “Field of Dreams” imposed that mantra on the national consciousness. Remember the premise? Kevin Costner starred as an Iowa farmer who heard a voice in his head telling him to carve a baseball diamond out of his cornfield. Against all odds, thousands of people, including ghosts of superstars past, made the pilgrimage. They all came.

The golf world is actually home to dozens of examples of this kind of inspired folly. With sufficient funding and advances in irrigation, almost anything has been possible in recent years. However, no course in the United States is so remote and so great at the same time as The Links of North Dakota. It is located near nothing.

North Dakota’s top-ranked course is situated in the northwestern corner of the state, a region blessed with neither golf courses nor residents to play them. The mailing address on the scorecard is Ray, a veritable village of 603. The closest town is Williston, 28 miles away, though North Dakotans would label it a city by virtue of its 13,000 inhabitants. Without question, the closest “major” city—a three-hour drive away—is Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan, Canada, at 180,000 strong. We’re talking seriously remote—which is exactly why you should see it.

If you build it, they will come. Indeed they did. Thanks to favorable initial reviews, curious golfers from 46 states visited The Links of North Dakota within six months of the course’s opening on July 11, 1995. In 1998, the course achieved its break-even number (financially) of 10,000 rounds per year. In 1999, the course’s personable and persuasive general manager, Patty Downing, boosted the outings total from four to 15, raising rounds played to 12,000. Still, we’re hardly talking Bethpage State Park or Torrey Pines-like numbers. Which is exactly why you should go play it.

What you have is an American links that actually looks and plays in many respects like a Scottish or Irish links. It’s treeless, wind-blown and fast-running. It’s completely affordable (though high-priced for the region), with a peak green fee of around $40. It’s easily walked, and many people do. And thanks to a lack of crushing crowds, there’s no problem fitting in 36 holes a day in late spring, summer and early fall. In fact, due to its peculiar location at the far westernmost area of the Central time zone, there’s practically an extra hour of daylight all summer, so serious golf fanatics could very well squeeze in 54. (Maybe take a cart for that third round.)

It still seems wildly improbable. The Links of North Dakota occupies one of America’s bleakest landscapes, a series of barren buttes and valleys molded and twisted by ancient waterways and by eons of harsh, arid, arctic winter winds. No leafy trees, no colorfully blooming flowers, no gurgling streams grace this property.

What does grace the property are 18 superb holes draped over land ideally suited for golf: rolling and pitching and heaving and tumbling without ever calling for long hikes or heart-pounding climbs to reach greens or tees. The question remains, however: Who would build such a field of dreams and why? Another mystery is how Bronxville, N.Y., architect Stephen Kay, who does the vast majority of his work in his home state and in neighboring New Jersey, came to design the course. Once Kay explained it for the record, it all made sense, even if you hadn’t seen the movie “Fargo.”

“I teach classes in golf course construction and design at [New Jersey’s] Rutgers University,” he says. “It’s a two-year program and at the end of the first year, back in 1993 or so, a quiet student named Stan Weeks approached me and asked if I’d be interested in designing a golf course in the Midwest. I had recently married and had a new baby and I didn’t think I was interested.

“I asked Stan where in the Midwest he had in mind and he replied, ‘Western North Dakota.’ Stan was superintendent at one of the region’s only golf courses, a nine-hole country club in Williston, and felt the area could really benefit from a first-rate 18-hole course.

“Well, I didn’t think there was any way the project was for me, except for one thing: I know a shaper named Marvin Schlauch, who happened to be possibly the best shaper I had ever worked with. Wouldn’t you know, I remembered that Marvin was born and bred in North Dakota. I told Stan and his group to take some aerial photographs of the three potential sites they had. I agreed that if we could get Marvin Schlauch to shape the course and we could all agree on a site, we’d have a deal.”

Of the three sites considered, two were close to Williston, which took care of the access factor, but the terrain was dead level and featureless. The piece of ground that appealed to all was a 30-minute drive from Williston, but was a wonderful, rolling, perfectly natural patch of golfing ground that overlooked the 200-mile-long, man-made Lake Sakakawea.

Locals often refer to the golf compound and its surrounds as “Red Mike,” and for good reason. In fact, the course’s cumbersome official name is The Links of North Dakota at Red Mike Resort, though at the moment the “resort” is limited to RV hookups. If the story of Red Mike is true, perhaps the acreage should have been called “Field of Screams.” As the tale is told, the course is built around a hill where Red Mike, an alleged cattle or horse rustler, was set afire by a vigilante mob in the 1880s, yet lived to tell about it. Today, if you’re on fire at Red Mike, it means that you’re mastering the winds, conquering the greens and making birdies in bunches.

In the end, there still wasn’t enough money to get the project off the ground, but as Kay and the others started to review the initial design, they realized they may never get another chance to work on such an amazing, links-like piece of property. So Kay, irrigation contractor Mike Ames and several others waived their fees and accepted ownership interests in what ultimately amounted to a labor of love.

Kay considered a dozen possible routings, then settled on one after a key assist from his design associate, Doug Smith. Natural. Minimalistic. Lay-of-the-land. Low-profile. Whatever label you attach to Kay’s design, the only important thing to know is that The Links of North Dakota is a throwback to another time, when routings fit the land perfectly, as with Shinnecock Hills or the very best courses in the British Isles. On moderately hilly terrain covered with wispy, golden native grasses, Kay incredibly moved only 7,000 cubic yards of dirt—compared with an average American course that features 250,000 yards moved.

“Topography, soil and views,” exclaims Kay, in gushing about the site’s natural attributes. “The contours were so perfect on six of the greens that I just instructed the contractors to leave them alone. We didn’t re-grade them at all.”

Kay was gifted with wonderful, sandy, rock-free loam soil that extended six feet deep, and with stunning lake vistas from every hole on the course. He seeded the greens with bent grass plus a touch of fescue, a combination found on true links. To complete the links experience, fairways were seeded in seaside bent and fescue.

Designed to play firm and fast, The Links of North Dakota also features 45-yard-wide fairways, roughly 50 percent larger than average, to accommodate shots in the usual breezes that prevail. Perhaps the toughest hole on the back nine is the 457-yard, par-4 15th, which is distinguished by a St. Andrews-like 100-yard-wide fairway.

Kay crafted a marvelously flexible par-72 design with five sets of tees. From the tips, the course measures 7,092 yards, with a top-heavy back nine of 3,684 yards. What makes The Links of North Dakota a modern classic, however, is its variety and its bunkering, both of which contribute to the superior strategic options that are sprinkled throughout the course.

An extended visit to Ireland and Scotland (where he stayed at the home of St. Andrews superintendent Walter Woods) infused Kay with a good sense of what should make for a quality links experience. The result is a routing that mixes short holes and long, that offers doglegs in both directions and that takes advantage of the terrain at every opportunity.

Most authentic are the bunkers. They are superbly placed at every turn. Depending on the wind that day, some will come into play—laughably—while the next day, you wouldn’t even give them a second thought—just as on a traditional links. Notably, Kay displayed admirable restraint in designing his bunkers. Not one is superfluous, and they are shaped as simple circles and ovals—exactly what you’d see in the old country.

In another nod to Scotland, Kay has included a North Berwick-style “Redan” hole; here it’s the 232-yard 17th, which plays downhill to a large green placed on a diagonal bias, a green further fortified by bunkers and steep drop-offs. The other par-3s, numbers 3, 8 and 11, are excellent holes as well. Three and 11 measure less than 150 yards and feature shallow greens shored by sod-wall bunkers, while the brutal, all-carry, 185-yard eighth is more modern in feel, with a huge dished green that affords some nearly inaccessible pin placements.

Strong golfers will warm to the 473-yard, par-4 12th, which is graced by a sidehill hogback fairway and a broad, sloping green. Nevertheless, the best two holes come early.

The par-4 second is one of the great 350-yard holes in the nation. A perfectly placed trio of diagonally strewn cross bunkers obscures the landing area, but on days where the wind is “normal,” the fun begins with the approach, which generally is on the short side. With Lake Sakakawea beckoning in the background, the sensible play seems to be the right-center of the green, thereby avoiding the pot bunkers that guard the left-front. But overhit that right-center approach a shade and you’ll bound over the firm green, down a steep slope and into knee-high grass. It’s a tad tricky, and a perfect risk/reward design.

The 560-yard, par-5 seventh doesn’t offer quite the peril of the second hole, but is its equal where strategy is concerned. Seven bends to the right after the tee shot, then heads uphill. The challenge comes from the interesting deception created by the placement of the hole’s eight bunkers. Adding further interest is a swale that creases the putting surface; adding to the pleasure is the pure prairie scenery and utter solitude that characterizes this part of the course.

Ultimately, The Links of North Dakota succeeds brilliantly because it’s completely natural, yet never, ever boring, no matter how many times you play it. Kay laughs wistfully and says that as good as it is, there are no guarantees in life and that it could use an investor or two to make it thrive. “We all left our fees on the table when we built this one,” says Kay. “We did it for the love of the game. Given the design, the peacefulness, the views ... we felt that this was a place that would attract true golfers who were willing to take a little extra time to get there.”

The Links of North Dakota at Red Mike Resort is not easy to get to. It is, however, fully worth the journey.  

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