From above the first hole at Sutton Bay Club, I can look out westward across the Missouri River and scan an area about the size of my home state of Connecticut.
So this is the American West. I’ve seen it before in its raw, unmediated form, with native dunes and distant bluffs and scarcely a home or structure to clutter my view. Like the time I made the 55-mile drive through ranch land from North Platte, Neb., to Sand Hills Golf Club in the middle of grass-covered dunes. Or when I headed out to the northwest corner of North Dakota to play golf on bluffs overlooking Lake Sakakawea at The Links of North Dakota at Red Mike Resort.
I’m an Easterner by upbringing and education, accustomed to arguing with family and friends about which one of 12 alternate ways will get me one block closer to my destination in Manhattan. And now I blithely make my way on the 11/2-mile path from the clubhouse at Sutton Bay to the first tee, passing through enough land to make a developer drool – except that there’s no real estate market here and not much of a market for golf, either.
The hills deepen, the path winds and the only thing I spot, other than the main lodge in the receding distance, is a little wooden shack of a beverage stand. Finally, the path ends at the first tee, and all of a sudden I am in the middle of bluffs looking out at the Missouri River and being reminded again of why I love golf: Because it brings us to places like this.
Welcome to the New Frontier of golf course architecture. For decades, especially during the Golden Age of golf course design in the 1920s and ’30s, golf was primarily a bicoastal affair and certainly an urban one, dominated by the Northeast and Midwest. The Carolinas, Georgia, Florida’s Atlantic Coast and California also are home to the handiwork of the great course designers. But standout designs in the American West were rare. Today, they’ve become more common, in large part owing to risk-taking developers, as well as the relative abundance of inexpensive land on a scale unimaginable in traditional golf markets.
Sutton Bay developer Mark Amundson, 46, spent years looking for the right tract. A native of Sioux Falls, S.D., he was a fairly capable amateur golfer, with four state championships to his credit, and had managed to qualify for the U.S. Amateur in 1985 and 1989 as well as the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2000. In 1994-95, he worked as a physical therapist on the PGA Tour, then left to become director of development for Graham Marsh Golf Design. That’s also when he started scouting out the Mount Rushmore State. He had known the Missouri bluffs area as premium hunting ground, but it wasn’t until he set eyes on the old Sutton ranch, 45 miles north of Pierre, that he figured he had what he needed for golf.
When Marsh saw the site in late 1998, he was, says Amundson, “pretty blown away.”
From there, Amundson worked more on instinct than on a feasibility study or a business plan. “People thought I was nuts,” says Amundson.
“But I knew of Sand Hills and thought that if we included hunting, fishing and golf, and we did it right, people would come here, too.”
They have. Marsh’s design of Sutton Bay debuts at No. 13 on this year’s America’s Best Modern Courses list.
Of course, one man’s hell is another man’s paradise. Fifteen years ago, a Lincoln, Neb.-based building architect named Dick Youngscap headed out into the middle of the Cornhusker State’s 15,000-square-mile region known as the Sand Hills to visit his brother-in-law. Youngscap recently had spearheaded a development team that put together Firethorn Golf Club, a Pete Dye-designed prairie-style course on the southeast fringe of Lincoln. While out in the Sand Hills, Youngscap thought he might be able to do something really different. He told his brother-in-law, a rancher, that “if you ever see land up here for sale that the ranchers think is garbage, give me a call.”
When the call came, Youngscap drove 41/2 hours from Lincoln to an 8,000-acre ranch south of Mullen. There he stood on a knoll, which afforded a view of nothing but sand blowouts, cattle tracks and wisps of prairie grass.
“Isn’t that the biggest mess you’ve seen in your life?” asked the rancher who owned the property.
“I think it’s the most beautiful piece of ground I’ve seen in my life,” replied Youngscap.
He calls his decision to build a golf outpost there “an emotional impulse, not a rational decision.” But he also figured he could make it work if he could keep the front-end costs down. “More courses have been ruined by too much money than by too little,” says Youngscap.
He put together a group of investors and bought the land for $1.2 million, or $150 per acre. The design team of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw was entrusted with stewarding the project through by maximizing the native rolls and sand hills without having to bulldoze anything.
The course cost all of $970,000 to build, three-quarters of which was spent on the irrigation system. The water source was right there underneath in the form of the massive Ogallala Aquifer, one of the most extensive freshwater sources in the United States.
“The key to the whole project,” says Youngscap, “is that we had the three basic elements right there in the ground: contours, sand and water.”
When Sand Hills Golf Club opened in June 1995, it made an instant impact as a minimalist counterweight to the lavish, highly contrived designs sprouting up throughout the country, many of them designed to sell real estate. Sand Hills wasn’t designed to sell anything, just to honor golf. And while it has been profitable as a private club since its second year of operation, according to Youngscap, its real legacy is to the old-fashioned virtues of land, hand labor and time. That – and lots of sand and wind – have enabled Sand Hills to preside atop Golfweek’s America’s Best Modern List since the start of the ratings in 1997.
More importantly, Sand Hills inspired others, or at least suggested, that if a location were special and a course was built to honor the site’s native features, a viable business was possible. This concept should not be mistaken for the “build it and they will come” syndrome of the golf industry in the mid-1990s. A far more cautious approach, fueled less by the desire to make a lot of money than by a basic love for the game, had taken hold among some purists of course architecture and the sport itself. That’s what drove Youngscap and others, such as Mike Keiser, who in the mid-1990s was president of Recycled Paper Greetings in Chicago. Keiser, a silent investor in the Sand Hills project, traveled to the forlorn southern coast of Oregon and assembled a 2,400-acre parcel of land that included sand-strewn bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Keiser’s vision was modest. “I didn’t need to pay a San Francisco analyst $50,000 for a feasibility study so he could tell me not to build it,” says Keiser. He knew the land would make for great golf and was determined to make the project work financially, so he built modestly. “I figured we’d break even at 8,000-10,000 rounds a year,” says Keiser, “and no one was even bullish on that.”
Last year, Bandon Dunes Resort booked 78,000 rounds on its two links-oriented courses, Pacific Dunes (No. 2 Modern) and Bandon Dunes (No. 5 Modern). This year, a third 18-hole layout debuts, yet another Coore-Crenshaw gem called Pacific Trails (which will be eligible for ranking in 2006). Keiser won’t betray any details about future plans, though it’s no secret that his parcel includes plenty of land that’s ripe for even more quality golf.
Vast open spaces and lots of wind are preconditions but not the only variables needed for getting a design that works right. Bulldozers and large budgets aren’t much help either. What’s needed more than anything else is a certain sense of place and the willingness to let the native features and elements speak. All the detailed plans and blueprints in the world are of no help unless the designers and builders adhere to a basic land ethic that values what’s already in the ground.
That’s how Dan Proctor works. He’s not your typical course designer. If he were, he wouldn’t be living and working out of his house in Paxton, Neb., a town of 700 in the remote west-central part of the state. He and his partner, Dave Axland, preside (sort of) over a little design/build operation called Bunker Hill Golf that’s done a half-dozen fine layouts in lower frontier states.
After working together on the construction crew at Sand Hills, the two teamed to design and build Wild Horse Golf Club in Gothenburg (No. 21 Modern/No. 1 Public Access in Nebraska) and Bayside Golf Course in Lake McConaughy (No. 2 Public Access in Nebraska). Each of the courses came in with total costs of less than $1.5 million.
Proctor, 52, learned most of what he knows about golf courses from Coore back in the late 1970s, when both were working at Waterwood National Golf Course in Huntsville, Texas. Proctor was an assistant golf pro and Coore was the assistant greenkeeper.
“I would ask a thousand questions,” says Proctor, “and he would answer them.”
Today, the approach Proctor and Axland take is a lot like that of their mentors, Coore and Crenshaw. Proctor says they have no Web site and no business cards, though this year they broke form and issued a one-page, black-and-white calendar with their names on it and an etching of one of their golf holes.
Their work style is embedded in the land. “We don’t do designs on paper,” he says. “You do it in the field. You get to know the land so well that even when you’re at home having dinner you’re thinking about golf holes.”