Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sutton Bay Club

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.

No. 12 has a generous fairway, however a substantial carry is required to avoid challenging the fairway
bunkers.  Into the wind, laying back short of the fairway bunkers is safer but leaves a tough approach.

No. 13 is a lengthy, downhill par three that offers a running approach for those trying
to keep the ball under the ever-present prairie winds.

No. 14 features a blind drive and testy approach into a perched green with a sharp fall-off short and right.

Fairway bunkers pinch the landing area on No. 15, making reaching the green in two a tougher proposition.

The approach into No. 16 offers an infinity green and appropriates the wonderful scenery.

The flag shown here at No. 17 is not visible from the tee
as the green is set into a natural amphitheatre.

The rock-hewn rough is evident here at No. 18 surrounding the 65-yard wide fairway.
The approach here is played into a shallow, wide green.

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.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Site Selection

All to often, golf course architects are hired after the most important decision regarding a proposed golf course has already been made.  Is this the best scenario for ensuring a financially feasible and successful project?

After market demand considerations have been weighed, and a suitable area for golf course development has been identified, developers should consult a golf course architect to help narrow the search for an ideal location.  Access to quality water for irrigation purposes is a must.  While the cost of land is an important factor to consider, not understanding the impact certain parcels of land can have on construction costs and long-term maintenance can have far greater financial implications and prove detrimental to the viability of the venture.  

In regards to land itself, flat terrain and heavy clay soils are the least desirable.  In the construction phase of the project, a substantial volume of earth will need to be moved to create positive drainage throughout the site, and form interesting topography for golf.  Barring capping fairways with a layer of sand, which is cost-prohibitive in most instances, a network of sub-surface drainage pipe is needed to speed drainage after heavy rain events.  The sub-surface drainage will ameliorate a bad situation, but it will never match the drainage of sand based soils.  It is easy to see how quickly the initial savings on the cost of the land can start to erode over less than ideal terrain.  Add to the equation losses in revenue due to course closures and restrictions on motorized carts due to the limited drainage capability of the soils in question and the business model begins to look less and less manageable.

Presenting high quality turf over flat fairways and heavy soil is a costly maintenance challenge.
Photo: Richmond Country Club in Richmond, BC
Contrast the scenario above with a gently undulating landscape over sandy soil and we can identify a number of large savings in the construction and long-term maintenance of the project.  Golf architects can find golf holes in such a landscape, as opposed to building them over the existing terrain.  Freely draining soils greatly limit the need for sub-surface drainage and provide an excellent medium for growing turf grass, which will lower annual maintenance costs.  Golf courses moulded out of such ideal terrain are not prone to course closure in the aftermath of heavy rain, and thus do not loss out on lost green fee and motorized cart revenue.

Golf holes are found rather than created on an ideal canvas.
Photo: Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, NE
In addition to the soils and topography of a site, golf course architects have a keen eye for identifying landscape features, views, vegetation and natural water bodies to be incorporated into the design and retain a sense of place to the finished product.  Further, golf course architects understand the acreage requirements for a new golf course, and the acceptable safety buffers needed to ensure adjacent land uses are not in harm's way. 

It is important to look beyond the monetary value of real estate when deciding upon a parcel for golf course development as real savings and project viability can be found beneath the surface of the landscape and in the contours of the property.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

A Passion for Golf Courses

Golf is unique in the world of sports in that each and every playing field is one-of-a-kind.  The terrain upon which golf courses are built varies enormously and the design features employed by golf course architects are limited only by their creativity.  Further, the playing fields of golf are not played on but interacted with.  The act of hitting a golf ball presents its own challenge just like any other sport, however, golf courses themselves present unique tests, problems and obstacles that need to be overcome.  Add to that the fact the game is played outdoors at the mercy of the weather and you can be assured a new experience with each round.  I'm certain it was this variety that captured my interest in golf course architecture.     

Because of this infinite variety, I am always looking for opportunities to visit golf courses as a means to further my education in the field of golf course architecture, and to enjoy the beautiful journey a round of golf take you on through some of the most incredible, secluded places on earth.  It is always exhilarating to enter the grounds of a new golf course with only a hint of the adventure ahead.  While I certainly enjoy the challenge presented by the game and the courses over which it is played, I find visiting golf courses more akin to strolling through a living, breathing museum.  They provide inspiration for golf course architects and add many shades to the colour palette of design tools at their disposal.

My goal in writing this blog is to put into words my thoughts on all aspects of golf course design and to post pictures of interesting features and golf courses that I've seen on my never-ending quest.  My passion for golf and golf courses drives me to learn more about their design, construction and maintenance, culminating in a desire to help produce golf holes that enable more and more people to enjoy this great game.