Bully Pulpit’s 18-hole layout lies close to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, named after the 26th President of the United States who once used it as his favourite hunting ground. Roosevelt also owned a ranch there that he retreated to when both his wife and mother died on the same fateful day in 1884.
While in office, the President coined the term “bully pulpit” for the White House (meaning a great platform from which to influence opinion) and this was the rather appropriate name chosen for the golf course when it opened for public play in 2004.
Designed by Dr. Michael Hurdzan, the Bully Pulpit course sits just south of the small town of Medora, along the Little Missouri River, with the final five holes routed through the spectacular landscape of the North Dakota Badlands.
Playing to a par of 72 and measuring a meaty 7,413 yards from the back tees, the course is owned and operated by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, which is a public non-profit organisation formed in 1986 to promote the historic character of Medora and the surrounding area.
Highlight holes on the course include a couple of par fives on the front nine: the left doglegged 4th, laid out along the banks of the river, and the 6th, which features an intriguing split level fairway. On the inward half, the signature hole on the course is the 161-yard 15th, played downhill to a “postage stamp” green that falls away on every side.
It is hard for me to really evaluate this course fairly. I loved the layout in many ways, especially the back nine. The setting in the Badlands is nothing like I have ever seen, and I enjoyed it immensely. The course was in such atrociously poor condition when I played (late May, 2021) that I could hardly believe it. At that time, they were still working on I believe re-routing three holes, but that was no excuse for the rest of the course to be as bad as it was (see pictures). Based on more recent photos I have seen, the conditions when I played are not the norm. Don't be too put off by them, especially since it was late May (early in their season). Even so, when I asked (politely I think) in the pro shop why the course was in such poor condition, the staff were stunned. Whatever do you mean poor condition? I did not press it.
Nevertheless, I was driving through on a long trip West, and had wanted to play here for a long time. The holes that are up in the Badlands formations on the back nine are just amazing, with some seriously dramatic elevation changes. There is a string of about four holes that are really like a roller coaster, taking you up and down the Badlands formations. The par three up there is a terrifying tee shot across a chasm, and it is basically hit the green or lose the ball.
I would really like to go back there sometime now that the new holes are in and hopefully experience the course in something like passably good condition. As it was, while I loved the beauty of the surroundings and the layout through the Badlands, the mostly dull front nine and atrocious conditions would give me pause, and I surely would not pay full freight there unless I was sure about the conditions.
I looked forward to playing Bully Pulpit for many reasons, having read about it after it opened, knowing it was located in a beautiful setting, reading favorable reviews, as well as being designed by Dr. Michael Hurdzan whose courses I usually admire.
Yet I was disappointed in the course. Some of that could be due to three holes being closed, which when looking at them as only dirt as I went by on my cart looked to be one very good hole and two “better” holes. These three holes were replaced by a couple of par 3’s and a par 5. The routing was changed as well with holes 1-3 and 13-18 being the same while others holes were interchanged with three new holes and others shortened (4-5 became 6-7 and 8-11 became 9-12). The result was that the normal par from the black tees fell from over 7400 yards to 6421 yards. I played mainly the presented Black tees and moved to the Gold tees where the long forced carries combined with high winds meant a tee shot would only be lost.
In the main, I thought the course to be too difficult as well as often good holes being lessened by poor design flaws or poor land. The par 3’s often have limited green surrounds. Balls hit to the wrong side or too long will quickly go into tall grass where one would be fortunate to find the ball. If found, the chance of recovery is less than 10%. Many of the par 4’s have long forced carries which are overly difficult both when the winds are high (they were for me) as well as playing out of a long chute of trees. Sometimes one is also playing to a sloped fairway that can be too narrow.
The green surfaces are not overly done except for a view where the slant of the hole is too severe. Overall, the greens are a disappointment.
I did not care for the famous holes of 14-16. These are the holes built on the most scenic and highest points of the course. Two of them have poorly designed greens, overly tilted fairways, and penalty areas too close to the fairway. There is an all-or-nothing aspect to all three holes. Sometimes holes should not be built simply for the view. I disliked these three holes probably more than any other three consecutive holes I have ever played.
I do not think the “new routing” influenced my assessment of the course as I tried to assess the holes as objectively as I could. I will only comment on the holes that I think are consistent to their location on the previous routing, although perhaps the routing is being changed.
1. Par 4 - 466/435 – this hole begins with a wide fairway that looks even wider due to the practice area to the left. There is a single early bunker left off the tee followed by two bunkers fronting the green with the one of the right placed 20 yards short. The ground is flat for the hole and the green is large but also somewhat flat. It is a boring hole.
2. Par 4 – 400/363. The hole has a collection area of early bunkers placed just after the start of the fairway. The hole angles to the left with a bunker well up on the left. The final bunkers are at the green on the front right and left middle. There is a tree that hangs over the bunker on the left. The hole is basically flat and the tee shot from the black tees has a forced carry of probably 190 yards from a narrow chute over taller grass. It is an average hole.
3. Par 4 – 433/411. This is a sharp dogleg right with the tee relocated more to the left. As I went down the right side I did not notice anything going on in the fairway. There is tall grass and scattered trees down the right side. The green has no bunkers and has a higher back left. It is a nice hole.
4. Par 5 – 571/532. This hole plays along the Little Missouri River to the left out of a narrow chute of trees with a long forced carry. Near the end of the forced carry is a high mound on the right with tall grass where the White and Red tees are. There are flanking bunkers up the fairway about 160 yards from the green. The green is thin with a small front bunker and another on the right. The green has various high points and lower swales in it. The tall grass begins quickly if one is long over the green or to the left of the green. There really is very little room for recovery. I thought the hole to be a bit unfair off the tee and in the green surround but I did like the shape of it.
5. Par 3 – 195/185. The green is narrow at the front and again there really is little room from the green to the tall grass and trees. The safe play is to be short of the green. This hole should either be shortened by ten yards or allow 10 more yards on the left and rear for a chance at recovery whether than searching for a ball.
6. New hole
7. New hole
8. Par 3 – 195/170. The tee is now elevated enough to grasp the nearness of the danger that comes from the left side too close to the green. This danger is in the form of a deep stream, often dry, but with broken, uneven ground and tall grass. I did not know it was there. There is a bunker on the right side. The trees and tall grass once again start quickly behind the green. Basically there are two sides to this green where one likely will lose a ball. I thought the hole asked too much for perfection.
9. Par 4 - 463/433. This hole has a long forced carry from the back tee playing through a chute of trees. The hole is heavily tree lined on both sides with fairway bunkers down the right side. A tree comes into play about 100 yards from the green on the right. There is a single front bunker. The green is flat. I felt the hole was too suffocating off the tee.
10. Par 4 – 448/397. Playing from an elevated tee, this is a sharp dogleg right with a collection of four bunkers on raised mounds down the right side. I do not know if bigger hitters can carry these bunkers from the back tee as the wind was strong pushing a ball left. There is a long forced carry from the back tee to even reach the fairway which starts at the first bunker while the final bunker angles into the fairway about 40 yards after the start. I moved up to the gold tee. The fairway widens after the tee shot with a final bunker short left of the green. The green is somewhat flat with subtle movement. It is a dramatic tee shot but then not much after that.
11. Not in play
12. Par 3 – 203. The tee was moved up to perhaps 120 yards and with the wind behind the green was too large for the length of that tee shot. The green is somewhat flat. I looked at the back tee and saw nothing interesting here.
13. Par 4 – 318/291. Once again one plays through a narrow chute of trees with a forced carry of about 200 yards to what appears to be no fairway since the left side cannot really be seen off the tee. The green is slightly higher and has a large depression in the front middle where balls will gather. The backdrop to the hole is beautiful with a tall, colorful stone hill on display. It is a fun hole but it should be opened up by removing trees on the left side by adding another 20 yards of sight.
14. Par 4 – 404/395. You climb up a tall mountain to find the fairway well below you, perhaps 120 feet of a drop. The wind was howling in my face so strong that I actually moved up two sets of tees to 323 yards. From the two back tees the fairway is a sliver and has a required carry of perhaps 210 yards but longer due to the wind. The fairway is also tilted strongly left to right where tall grass and trees await off the right side. Basically one has to be able to pound a ball 250 yards minimum off the tee to a landing zone of maybe seven yards in order to avoid a ball kicking to the right and being lost. There are no bunkers on this number one index. Due to the strength of the wind I still had 170 yards to the green which is elevated with a substantial fall-off if short. I laid up in front of this green angled to the left. Once on the green it is steeply banked back to front and left to right. I did not understand why they did not do a better job of shaping the green to make it more level. The tee shot demands too much as well as the green. As I walked to my cart, I could only think about how only a masochist could like this hole.
15. Par 3 – 161/153. From the Blue/White tees one can see all of the green as these tees are to the left of the two back tees. From the Black and Gold tees they see about 40% of the left side. The green is downhill and plays below a substantial rock formation. If one hits short of the green the ball is lost as it will be in an environmentally protected area or stay in the rocks. To the left of the green is a long bunker set 15-20 feet below the green (I decided not to walk down to have a look). This long bunker is designed to catch balls hit to the left. This leads to a blind recovery shot. If one misses right of the green they likely hit the cart path and end up in another environmentally protected area. The rear of the green also falls away to another protected area. The view from the tee is stunning as it is miles long of interesting rock formations and hills. Overall this is an all-or-nothing shot from the tee. I aimed 30 yards right of the flag due to the strength of the wind and was fortunate to find my ball two feet off the back. While this is a dramatic view and tee shot, it is not golf.
16. Par 4 – 451/421. This hole plays sharply downhill even more than the fourteenth. However, this time there is a wide fairway. But because the fairway tilts to the left, one should favor the right side. If one goes too far right they will likely have a lost ball due to the tall, thick grass. The worst part of this hole is the green which has a single sliver of a bunker on the front left but sits well above the fairway, even 10-15 feet for a pitch from 60 yards. The green is very narrow at the front and even too narrow at the rear even though it widens. The green slants sharply right to left consistent with the land. I had a putt of 15 feet above the pin, barely touch the putt and it nearly went off the green. This is one of the worst shaped greens I have played for the length of the hole and the position of the green. The word that came to mind was “stupid.”
17. Par 5 – 503/478. From another elevated tee with a forced carry of perhaps 180 yards, there are two fairways here because there is a large, both long and wide, bunker complex in the middle of the fairway. This bunker complex is about 30 yards wide and 70 yards long. Go left and one is safe but blocked by the trees in terms of trying to go for the green. Go right and one has a slight chance of going for the green. However, the green is placed off to the left and becomes a sharp dogleg. There is a large central bunker about 75 yards short of the green. The green is very tiny and sits with no room around it as a rock wall begins immediately behind it with trees on the sides. It is another silly green given its size and lack of any recovery. Granted, most players are going to have 60-100 yards for their third. But if one is trying to protect against birdie/par, then simply shorten the hole.
18. Par 4 – 406/374. From the Black tee one plays through perhaps the narrowest chute of trees on the course with a forced carry of perhaps 190 yards. There are three fairway bunkers down the left side. As the fairway turns to the right, trees are allowed to come in from the right as well as another bunker. I did not understand the point of this given the green is already difficult to access. The green is placed on a hill about 20 feet high with two fronting bunkers built into the hill. The green is somewhat thin on the left side where again there is perhaps five yards of relief before the tall grass and trees begin. It represents a final chance to lose another ball. This hole has a dramatic ending with the elevated green and fronting bunkers, so it does not need all of the difficulty that comes from the tee shot and the tree and bunker on the right. It also needs more room around the right and back of the green.
Bully Pulpit has stunning scenery but is contrived to be overly difficult. The scorecard I had, showing the yardage of 6421 yards including at least two easy substitute par 3’s still showed an index of 75.4 from the Black tees. That would likely qualify it as one of the hardest “short” courses in the USA. As presented with very poor green surrounds where the tall grasses begin too quickly, as well as holes that require too much off the tee or in the approach shots to the greens, this translates to a course that becomes a grind despite the sometimes gorgeous scenery. While others praise 14-16, I walked away wishing this were a part of a trail from the nearby park rather than golf holes. Overall I found myself aggravated by the course rather than finding interest in it.
Great Course in western North Dakota home of Teddy Roosevelt.
Front 9 great layout in the little Missouri River basin. Back 9 great layout thru Badlands.
They are redesigning hole 3 and 4
Will have to play during next visit to a must see Medora Musical. Have a few bunkers they are giving back to nature.
Hole 8 perfect par three to finish front 170 no where to miss Tight 9 finish with trees on entrance to green
Hole 12 200 yard par 3
Short hole 13 requires Accurate drive to be rewarded with wedge to green
These is beginning of accurate shots
14 down hill drive that requires a little fade to find the fairway - then up hill to slight dogleg left green
15 par 3 from one spot to another must carrying the canyon maybe 10 yards to miss in front or ball is gone
16 great hole down the hill enjoyable for all
Great to see ball land and chase down the fairway then uphill to a tricky fast green
17 down hill dogleg left Par 5 with some waste areas in middle of fairway to small green with river behind green
18 tough finishing hole dogleg left to uphill green - bunkers guard left
Must play if in Midwest Area
14-16-18 greens could be made more receptive to long approach shots
Located in the Badlands section within North Dakota is Bully Pulpit -- named for the phrase used by former US President Teddy Roosevelt when describing the platform that any Presidents can use in advocating his positions. The course is primarily set in a valley floor which has several holes near to the Little Missouri River.
Much of the fanfare tied to Bully Pulpit has centered on holes 14-16 which work their way directly into the hills. The uphill 14th is a quality hole with not one bunker included. The land itself is the star. At the par-3 15th is one of the most scenic and devilish short par-3 holes in all of American golf. Hitting the green requires the most well-executed approach. The 161-yard hole plays from a ridgetop to a green also set on a ridgetop. The slightest error can mean some big time numbers on the scorecard. When wind is blowing the target can become an immense chore to hit and hold. To give an example the 15th at Bully Pulpit is on par with the likes of the 8th at Royal Troon because there's literally no place to miss.
The downhill par-4 16th that follows is also well done with a bottleneck fairway that provides a demanding target to hit. The par-5 17th is especially well done with a series of bunker that split the drive zone between right and left sides. The par-4 18th caps the round in solid fashion -- a mid-length par-4 to a green set just above the fairway so that one's approach has to be hit with precision.
The downside with Bully Pulpit is that the first third of the layout is fairly ordinary. There's no real design elements that add much beyond the natural beauty of the land itself. That does change at the long par-4 7th but the real qualities of Bully Pulpit have to wait till you get to the 10th tee. The inward half is over 300 yards shorter than the front nine but the range of holes, the unique terrain and the need for a range for a broader array of shotmaking expertise is clearly called upon.
The golf season is not a long one in this part of America but the Medora area is quite a recreational getaway on a number of fronts. Bully Pulpit would certainly gain from an updating of a few of the holes from the outward side. Not overdressing them as sometimes Hurdzan and Fry have done with other projects but in being able to add design elements that can add a bit more to holes not blessed with quality terrain.
Nonetheless, for those venturing through western North Dakota a side visit to Bully Pulpit is certainly well worth the time and effort.
by M. James Ward
As a footnote to my review above, Michael Hurdzan is the sole man involved with the design here at Bully Pulpit and often in other projects Hurdzan worked in close concert with his former partner Dana Fry. The two produced a number of quality layouts and many of the flourishes came about through the brilliance of Fry's very creative side.
The front side at Bully Pulpit just does not have the design details to make it shine. The holes, at certain points, are demanding but the lack of creativity becomes a predictable result as the front nine plays out. You can easily see this through the boring green contours. They are lacking the kind of connectivity in which shaping shots to get into certain positions is de rigueur.
It's a shame the front side does not the have the design details to produce a comprehensive golf experience. The back nine helps matters along and the final five holes will clearly be remembered. A revisiting of the front side -- either by Hurdzan or another architect -- could very well help provide Bully Pulpit with a platform that's lacking now.