AGAR, S.D. - Perhaps it is one of America's most difficult golf courses to find, some 30 minutes from even the most remote beaten path. You literally have to go into "Lewis and Clark" mode to find the fine links of Sutton Bay, a private slice of golf heaven about 45 minutes north of South Dakota's capitol city.
While finding a way to get on this exclusive track and finding the first tee after you arrive on the property might be difficult, the pay off for the rural journey is exceptional.
I will start by saying Sutton Bay is a great place for a guy to be a guy. Tremendous pheasant hunting on the prairie awaits sportsmen and some world class walleye fishing on Lake Oahe keeps anglers happy. I was there for the golf and General Manager Scott Larson, a South Dakota native, was happy to show me around.
They call it an "inland links" course and it offers incredible views of Lake Oahe, part of the Missouri River, which sits below the 18 holes. It's a nod towards Scotland or Ireland. For me, it was a combination of some of the best courses I've played; kind of a Whistling Straits-Prairie Club-Torrey Pines hybrid. But in fairness, it is very unique in its own right based on its setting and routing.
There is great variety in elevation as the holes wind along a plateau overlooking the lake and then venture out into the prairie abutting farm fields. There is an old burnt out pick-up truck from decades ago still on the property to add to the ambiance; buffalo skulls on sticks forewarn golfers that playing from the tips (7,200 yards) might not be the best idea.
Graham Marsh, who I'm told was very involved with the design, moved a lot of earth to give the course great texture in the form of heaving mounds that can influence lies and mess with your mind. But probably the most striking feature are the often-deep and certainly well-placed craggy bunkers. They frame most of the greens and they grab your attention sitting in the middle of many fairways. My theory on middle-of-the-fairway bunkers is to aim right at them, ensuring that you'll avoid them. The theory served me well.
The fairways are wide and generous. Many times I hit a poor drive that still ended up in the fairway where I would find I didn't have a good look at the green or I had a poor angle, placing a premium on putting the ball in the right spot. This is a very fair test where Mother Nature provides a decent amount of challenge, as the winds out on the prairie can gust pretty good.
Marsh requires a fair amount of thinking from the golfer; thinking less U.S. Open and more British Open. Pin-seekers might struggle here but creative and inventive players who embrace the links style of running or bouncing up approach shots will find the course both fun and entertaining.
It is important to note the current course is less than a year old. The old routing was much closer to Lake Oahe, eroded as the shale-based earth beneath broke up, forcing managers to bring back the designer, who found a more stable footing for a world-class course that will only get better with age. Because Marsh had so much space, you can't find a boring hole, nor could you find two holes that are even vaguely similar to each other.
Sutton Bay is not far from the line that separates the Central and Mountain Time Zones. It is my humble opinion that this will remain a timeless test of golf. It is uniquely South Dakotan; simple and subtle and wildly rewarding and spectacular at the same time.
Words and cameras can't adequately capture the rural setting under the endless sky, overlooking an idyllic lake. A lens is only so wide, and a blog can only be so long.
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