I had the good fortunate to visit Sutton Bay Club in Agar, South Dakota back in October of 2003. Having the golf course to myself in such a remote, isolated setting along the banks of Lake Oahe (a reservoir created by a dam across the Missouri river in Pierre) made for a memorable day, and perfectly captured the "get away from it all" experience the private club members there enjoy. The golf course was designed by Australian professional golfer Graham Marsh and opened the year of my visit.
The rustic clubhouse and cabins sits high on a promontory, 300 feet above Lake Oahe, offering breath-taking views in all directions. The journey from there to the first tee is long, approximately 2.5 kilometres, winding it's way through a 9-hole short course that encircles the practice range.
The golf course is set down below the clubhouse on land described as "Missouri breaks", tumbling haphazardly towards the lake, meaning the majority of the holes have strongly canted fairways. Combined with the ever-present prairie wind, fairways aren't as seemingly hard to find due to the generous widths provided in the design. The golf course features an out-and-back routing with front nine holes running roughly parallel to their back nine counterparts. This feature of the routing harkens back to the many courses in the British Isles and can offer a much sterner test on one side or the other depending on the strength and direction of the wind.
Because of the elevation change running across the golf course, Marsh did not need to get right down next to the lake for golfers to feel like the wake was lapping only a short distance from the edge of the fairways. The only real negative aspect of the landscape is the abundance of rocks that reside in the roughs, making recovery shots at best dangerous, at worst unplayable - although again, it should be noted the fairways were generously wide.
No. 1 is a beast at 661 yards offering a tremendous view of Lake Oahe from
the back tee and again on the approach into the green.
No. 2 is a short par three benched into the hillside.
Fairway bunkering throughout the course artfully bleeds back into the native landscape,
here at No. 3 featuring an uphill approach into a skyline green.
The approach into the 651-yard fourth features a fall-away green and greenside bunkering
that obscures the right hand portion of the putting surface.
No. 5 is a mid-length one-shotter, uphill to a shallow green, fronted by deep bunkers.
No. 6 illustrates a strategic high-point of the design, asking golfers to carry or play a right-to-left
drive into the lower fairway, opening up the approach into the green.
No. 7 is one of the weaker holes on the property, downhill to a shallow target,
more about execution than strategy.
The third plus 600-yard par five on the front nine, No. 8 does not have a particularly exciting 2nd shot and
thus seems excessively long. It does however, cover the requisite terrain to reach the spectacular 9th.
The final hole on the front nine is a great one-shotter with a spectacular backdrop and the green
set diagonally to the line-of-play, forcing golfers to know how far they can carry the ball.
No. 10 is strategy 101, challenging the fairway bunker to provide an approach playing down
the length of the angled green and free of forced carry over greenside bunkers.
No. 11 displays the type of width offered at Sutton Bay with the ridge and bunker encroaching from
the left hand side hiding even greater width beyond, requiring only a modest carry.
Overall, the golf course is replete with strategic decisions and provides stunning views at every turn. The rugged bunkering amplifies the strategy of the golf holes and offer further visual stimulation. A good test of the quality of a golf course is the desire to head back to the first tee after completing a round, and after a 54-hole day I can attest it is a lot of fun and full of testing golf shots. One major quibble I have with the design is walkability. While the terrain ensures a full workout for the walking golfer, it is the long green to tee walks that become tiresome, especially for those not playing the back tees.
General Manager Mark Amundson, a gracious host, had lunch prepared for me and packed away in the little hut that resides beyond the 18th green, enabling hungry golfers to grab a quick meal before heading back to the first tee for another game. A perfect solution to avoid the hassle of making the long cart-ride back up to the clubhouse after each round for refreshments.
I chose to write about Sutton Bay first of the numerous golf courses I've travelled to experience due to the fact the golf course will not be around much longer. Sadly, the terrain upon which it was built is prone to slip, intensified by greatly fluctuating water levels on the lake in recent years and regular irrigation practices on the golf course. The maintenance crew has not only had to deal with hundreds on irrigation breaks, but also dramatic shifts in greens and fairways that have materially altered the original design integrity of the golf course. To resolve these headaches for the membership, the club has chosen to abandon the existing course and re-build on the high bluff. It is my understanding that a new 18 holes, designed again by Graham Marsh, will be open for member play in 2013.