The Links of North Dakota is where the xenophobes go to experience the thrill of British and Irish links golf. The course is routed across sandy ground on Lake Sakakawea – this huge body of water was created when part of the Missouri River was dammed. The Links of North Dakota truly represents an authentic flavour of links-like golf in the US homeland.
Stephen Kay designed the course and it turned into a labour love, which came to a near perfect conclusion thanks to expert shaper Marvin Schlaugh. Writing in the excellent Secrets of the Great Golf Course Architects by Michael Patrick Shiels, Stephen Kay commented, “The topography was something you’d see in Ireland; sandy soil all over the site, several feet deep without a rock in it! The entire state of North Dakota is clay and horrible soil – except for this one little 250-acre hill with sandy loam soil. It was perfect for a golf course… I looked around and realised that the Good Lord was about to let me build my first Top 100 golf course.”
Completing the authenticity, the Links of North Dakota is completely devoid of water but plenty of bunkers, undulating fairways and fickle winds will interfere with proceedings. Five tee boxes provide plenty of options for golfers of all abilities so playing the Links of North Dakota need not be a torrid experience.“The entire construction process, for eighteen holes, required us to move only 7,000 yards of dirt.” Said Kay. But most importantly for the world of golf, the Links of North Dakota is open to visiting golfers for a relatively modest green fee of around 60 bucks.
For purists The Links of North Dakota is a misnomer, as it is hardly near the sea. However, the course has many elements of a classic links course. When we were there the weather was nasty, windy, rainy and my playing partners said it felt just like Machrihanish.
The opening holes are relatively easy, so make sure you get off to a good start. The first hole is welcoming. I would suggest taking one less club on the approach as it runs away from you. The 2nd is a slight dogleg left with a blind tee shot, but is a birdie oppty. Off the tee aim over the center bunker. This will set up a flip wedge to a green protected by 4 bunkers. The 3rd is a short par 3 that is surrounded by 5 bunkers and the 4th is a short uphill par 5. Get your birdies early. The long par 4 slight dogleg left 5th is your first real test. Off the tee aim left of the fairway bunker on the right elbow. For your approach, better to miss right than left. The uphill 6th is a beast of a par 4. Fairway bunkers right. Take an extra club on the approach. Large greenside bunker left and if you miss right the contour will kick it left. The 7th tee box can be disorienting. The best line is the left side of the first left fairway bunker. Ignore the fairway bunkers right, they create an optical illusion. Once again, an extra club to this uphill green. The 8th is a devilish little par three protected with 3 front bunkers. Long is better. The 9th is a gimme par four dogleg left. Aim your tee shot between the right greenside bunker and the right fairway bunker.
The back opens with a long par five with an afterthought dogleg right. Possible to get home in two, but three quarters of the green is surrounded by gunch. Play it as a 3 shotter and set up your favorite wedge yardage. The 12th is a long what you see par four. Position your drive between the two fairway bunkers and hope you can get home in two. Par is a good score on this hole. The short uphill par 4 13th is a little tricky. Up until this hole the fairways have been pretty expansive. This was a rude wake up call for me. Both 14 and 15 are long difficult par fours. If you are not getting off the tee, you will be looking at bogey at best. The 16th is a bit of a reprieve, slight dogleg right. Favor the left off the tee to give you the best angle to the redan green that is protected by a bunker complex on the right. The long downhill par 3 17th is the number 8 handicap hole. Left is death, short left is a bunker well below the green with another one back right. While the hole plays at least a club less, it is not for the faint of heart. The 18th is a par 5 that bobs right and provides an oppty to go out in style. Ideal tee shot is left of the fairway bunkers. The second shot is the decision point fly the fairway bunkers in front of me 50 yards short of the green or play it safe and go left?
A good but not great course. Also, an excellent economic value. The downside is it is nowhere. The upside is, not a lot of traffic. If I was ever in that neck of the woods again, I would play it.
I salute golfers who make the trek to this remote layout. Architect Stephen Kay did a fine job in bringing to life a number of holes -- but the first third of the layout is really forgetful -- the holes really do not stand apart in any noticeable way. Things do pick up when you reach the par-5 7th. The par-3 8th is also quite good as the putting surface is well-protected by bunkers and internal contours.
While the course highlights the "links" dimension the fairways do not provide the kind of rollout one would naturally expect. The greens are nicely done but far too often the contours created lean more towards the pedestrian and predictable side of things.
The strongest element of the courser comes over the final six holes. The combination is well done and the demands are clearly a few notches beyond what's been encountered earlier in the round.
I really liked the par-3 17th. Just under 240 yards from the tips -- the downhill hole can play much shorter because of the elevation but Kay has smartly defended the hole to repel anything but a stellar execution. The closing par-5 18th can also allow for major swing changes -- especially when helped by a westerly wind.
There's little question the costs to play are quite reasonable but then again when you do travel to such a remote area one would hope the final costs to play would be set low enough to attract golfers. Anyone coming to the Links of North Dakota had best realize it's not in the same category with the likes of Wild Horse in Nebraska or Red Rock in South Dakota or superior to the likes of Hawktree and Bully Pulpit -- both in North Dakota. There are quality holes for sure but far too often they are counterbalanced by ones that serve only as an anchor to weigh the course down.
by M. James Ward