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.
I admit to having a bias towards links or links-like golf courses. I loved the Links of North Dakota and consider it perhaps my “hidden gem” of the entire USA placing it higher than Wild Horse in Nebraska due to a higher visual appeal, although some of the holes at Wild Horse are superior.
I had the first tee time of the day and as I made my way as a single to the first tee parallel to a road, I looked down the fairway and said to myself, “this reminds me of Gullane, Scotland.” As I played down the first and then saw the Missouri River/Lake Sakakawea off to my left, I began to see even more similarities to Gullane. The second hole goes up slightly and the higher ground revealed the Missouri River/Lake Sakakawea width and bluffs on the opposite side, resembling the firths that one sees when playing Castle Stuart, Kingsbarns, or The Renaissance Club. As I played the course, the feelings became stronger with the course being a mixture of Gullane #1 and #2, Luffness New, as well as even a bit of North Berwick and Muirfield (I am not suggesting it is as good as those two). While the bunkering style is American, the land movement, placement of bunkers, green surfaces and green surrounds brought to mind many of the holes I have played through the years at these courses in Scotland.
While I also admit to being nostalgic at not having been to East Lothian for nearly two years, and wondering if the politicians will ever invite American golfers to come visit again, I felt absolute joy playing the Links at North Dakota. Playing here felt almost as if I was in East Lothian making a tour of the local courses. While normally as a single walking I can play a course in under two hours, because there was no one behind me I took my time and hit multiple shots around the greens and multiple clubs into some of the greens. The maintenance staff was out working as I chased them around the course. As a result, whether they forgot to put flags back in the cups or we waiting to come back around to do the greens after I finished, there were twelve holes I played without the flags in. On some of these holes I could see the flag laying off a side of the green which meant the cup was close, but on half of them I could only guess. Other than eighteen, I guessed wrong. But it did not lessen the experience except on the tenth hole where I had a semi-blind shot to perhaps the largest green on the course.
I have recently been playing a lot of highly regarded public courses. As soon as the round ended, I texted two of my friends and said, “if I have ten rounds to play, I would play here 9 times and Lawsonia Links only once.” That is the regard I have for the course versus Lawsonia which is receiving universal praise from a small group as one of the best public courses in the world. I would also play here more times than at Sand Valley even though Sand Valley has two courses and a par 3 on offer.
One sees the Missouri River/Lake Sakakawea on nearly every hole, save the seventeenth and eighteenth. It is a view that makes you smile. This is part of the genius of the routing which goes out and back in different loops for each nine, although the eighteenth finishes about an eighth of a mile from the clubhouse. The routing takes advantage of every rise and fall or natural contour of the land to produce memorable or fun holes. While the teeing areas were often in poor shape due to a recent drought and heat, the fairways and greens were in good condition, perhaps due to the sand below the surface.
I found at least one thing that I liked about each hole, even if two of the par 3’s are similar. I do not say that about many courses where sometimes a flaw is obvious or a hole is made overly difficult or too easy.
On a non-windy day this course acts like a links course and one can score here. I do not know how it plays in high wind. I had nearly zero wind as there had been a heavy thunderstorm throughout most of the previous night before my round. So on the one hand, I had no wind, but on the other hand I had damp fairways lessening the roll-out.
I read the other two reviews with interest. I do agree that the front nine offers more opportunities to make par or birdie as the back nine is more challenging while overall occupying higher ground.
The fairways are somewhat wide although there are some bends in the fairways as well as placement of bunkers making the driving corridors a bit narrower. There is no “first cut” as higher prairie grass lies off the fairway, although it does vary in size and thickness so one can get fortunate with a less heavy lie. The greens vary in size with only a couple very large and one small one. There is excellent shaping on the surfaces of the greens although six of the greens required no shaping.
Designed by Stephen Kay with a routing assist from Doug Smith and the green shaping by Marvin Schlauch (native to North Dakota), the course measures 7092 yards from the “Tee Five,” rated 74.8/128. I played Tee Four at 6639 yards rated 72.7/122. There are three sets of lesser tees dropping down to 5249 yards. In building the course, less than 7,000 cubic feet of earth was moved. The tees sit in front of each other except for one hole with grass walkways to connect them between the surrounding higher grass.
1. Par 4 – 407/386. This hole plays straight to a generous, flattish fairway but with out-of-bounds off to the left and taller grass down the right. The only fairway bunker is off the left requiring a tee shot of 290/270 yards to clear it. It was not in play for me as I hit down the right side. This turned out not to be the better side as the pin was located behind a large fronting bunker on the right corner. I hit a poor second that did not make this bunker but found myself facing a tight landing area between the rise between the bunker and green with the green slanting away from me. I landed short of the flag but the ball still went six inches off the green on the left corner. I liked how this hole pretended to be simple, yet demanded a shot left side of the fairway to have a look at the green as well as the green falling away. This is not a pushover par.
2. Par 4 – 350/328. The second tee is opposite the entrance to Little Egypt County Park as I watched a morning runner enter it. There are three cross bunkers placed diagonally right to left with the first one requiring only a carry of 170 yards while the furthest one on the left requires a carry of 233/220 yards. I played out to the right after enjoying the visual. There is a final fairway bunker placed well right requiring a tee shot of 290/270 to reach it. Assuming one finds the fairway, the approach shot has a better visual as it is played to an elevated green with four bunkers placed across its front. The green is elevated about six feet on the front and left and perhaps as much as nine feet at is rear. On this green one gets their first expansive look at the Missouri River/Lake Sakakawea. The small green is tilted to the front and left and is oval in shape.
3. Par 3 – 145/132. This hole plays into a dell with surrounding higher ground on three sides as well as a frew trees that help to frame the hole. There is a slight rise at the front of the green. The green has five bunkers with three at the front and two at the back corners. There was no flag in the cup so I hit left middle and the pin was right front. The green slopes quickly to that right front but then slows due to the higher ground behind it. I thought the bunkering was very good.
4. Par 5 – 505/485. This is a relatively good chance for birdie or eagle, certainly for par if one can avoid the seven bunkers on the hole. The fairway tilts to the left where three bunkers are staggered at 220/250/330 off the tee. There is a single fairway bunker on the right at 250-270 yards. The fairway has a shelf on the right side before the bunker which can stop a ball from entering it. The fairway goes gently but steadily uphill from the tee to the green. At the green there are two bunkers on the right, the first one about 70 yards from the green. Another bunker is on the left opposite the second bunker on the right, both placed about 15 yards short of the green. There was no pin so I guessed back left again but it was at the opening in the front leaving me a long downhill putt. There is a diagonal spine going right to left on the right side of the green of about two feet in height as well as a slightly higher tier on the back left. The front right pushes the ball towards the middle. I liked the shape of the green and the placement of the bunkers. However, given the width of the fairway this is one of the easier holes on the course.
5. Par 4 – 445/415. The hole bends slightly left and is a gentle downhill to an infinity-like green given the ground drops away behind the green and one is looking at the lake for the entirety of the hole. There is a large bunker off the right about 215-240. There are a lot of ripples in this fairway which is wide. A second small bunker can be found about 90 yards from the green on the right. The third bunker is on the left of the green and is long. The green has a false front although one can get a ball to run onto it but it will not go far given the higher backside of the green.
6. Par 4 – 465/436. This hole looked like a par 5 from the tee so I thought I parred it until I checked the scorecard. The tee shot plays over a collection area of three bunkers placed in a sort of island roughly 190-230 from the tees. The hole plays uphill and there is a series of three bunkers on the left side of the fairway and green beginning about 90 yards from the green. Once again, there was no flag in the cup but this time I could see where the flag was lying next to the green as my second shot left me 40 yards. The green is large and one has a good chance at recovery if the pin is back right. The rest of the green has a lot of subtle movement. The mound on the front right is not severe.
7. Par 5 – 560/518. This hole reminded me of the uphill par 5 fifteenth on Gullane #1 although not quite as dramatic a rise to the green. Once again, the bunkering is very good with eight in total of which the first three are down the right side where the land gently slopes to them. The first one is at 180-230 while the second one is 230/280. The hole plays as a dogleg right so play to the left of them which of course brings the next two bunkers on the left further up the fairway into play. The final fairway bunkers are placed opposite each other at 90 and 60 yards from the green which is semi-blind. In my case it was really blind as the pin was out once again. Given I was wrong in my previous guesses, I opted for left again and this time was rewarded with the pin just over the final bunker which is at the left corner and deep. This is a large and wide green that tilts towards the front but has a few little swales inside with a gathering in the middle of the green. This was perhaps my favorite hole on the front.
8. Par 3 – 185/174. This hole is also special, playing slightly downhill to a green perched on a shelf with three fronting bunkers sitting well below the green as the land falls away rapidly at the front, perhaps as much as twenty feet. Any ball hit short and not in a bunker will release all the way down leaving a blind shot for recovery if the pin is in the rear of the green. There is a bowl in the front middle that stretches about halfway into the green in both depth and width. This bowl pushes balls to the front of the green. I could see the flag on the ground off the right side but did not quite make it out of the bowl and got to experience putting from there. The back of the green does not fall away much if one misses the green it is better to be long. It is a lovely view of the green from the tee.
9. Par 4 – 346/331. This hole reminded me of Gullane again although there is no road to the right. It plays as a gentle dogleg left unless one can carry the closest fairway bunker. This bunker is off the left side shaped like a sock with the “foot” coming into the fairway about 20 yards. This bunker begins at 210/225 and ends at 260/275. Another bunker sits off the right at 264/280 and is 25 yards long. A final bunker is deep and the entire length on the right side of the green. The green has ample room to miss it to the left or behind.
10. Par 5 – 570/551. I liked the hole but this is easily the one time I wished the flag had been in as I was both guessing at the precise location of the green as well as where the flag could be as I had thought I had gotten out of position for the second (it turned out to be the shortest route for the approach shot). This hole plays as a sharp dogleg right near the green. The first bunker is down the right about 240-260 yards. I played down the left but failed to consult the yardage guide for the shape of the hole. I decided to play to the right of the two bunkers that I guessed were in the middle of the fairway but turned out to be on the right side. These two bunkers sit about 130-140 yards from the green. The correct way to play the hole is either over them or to the left side where two bunkers sit on the bend to the green about 120-85 yards away. For my approach I had to carry native grasses that hid the long fronting bunker (although if played from the left of the fairway this bunker becomes a right side bunker). I could see a bunker on the left back. As again there was no flag in the cup I guessed right for a change and the pin was front left leaving a long putt that had to navigate a semi-circle tier on the back left while the front of the green pushes away towards the middle. My 70 feet putt was perhaps my finest of the day to get it to within a makeable distance.
11. Par 3 – 139/121. This hole resembles the third, also sitting in a bit of a dell although the tree is before the green. Higher ground surrounds all three sides. There is a single fronting bunker on the right side. The green moves in multiple directions. I did not have a flag to shoot at so I guessed front and it was at the rear leaving a longish putt but fortunately the green is small.
12. Par 4 – 473/438. This was my only double bogey of the day on a day below 80. The hole offers another stunning view of Lake Sakakawea much like the fifth. This creates the illusion of an infinity green. The fairway is very wide once one is beyond the flanking bunkers at 200-230 on the left and 220-250 on the right. Bigger hitters who go left off the tee will find a long run-out as the ground droops substantially off the left side. I had an uneven lie next to the bunker on the left and pushed my ball into a lost ball on the right side. The right side of the fairway has both tall grass and a set of trees coming into the fairway that can result in a semi-blind recovery shot. There are three bunkers placed on lower ground on the left side of the green which is sloped both towards the front and to the rear. Over the green is a fall-off of six-eight feet. If one’s approach shot misses right of the green they will find tall grass as the land falls sharply down a bank. This might be the best hole on the back nine.
13. Par 4 – 369/334. This is the narrowest fairway on the course with the left side having a gully/valley of nearly 100 yards requiring a carry of 210-150. The right side has a few scattered small trees. Near the green on the right beginning 65 yards from the green are four bunkers. The green is long but narrow, consistent with the narrowness of the fairway. The green moves in multiple directions. The hole plays longer than its yardage as it is uphill.
14. Par 4 – 465/422. One must find the right side of the fairway to have a good look at this green. However there are two fairway bunkers there beginning at 200-240 yards from the tee. A center line bunker is placed about 145 yards from the green but one can play to the right of it if they are laying up. The coolest feature of the hole is the semi-circle bunker sitting at the bottom of a mound on the front left of the green beginning about 50 yards from the green and nearly reaching it. The green is somewhat shallow at only 30 yards for the length of the hole and moves to the middle from all directions. A pin at the back needs pace if coming from the front. From the tee this is a visually appealing hole.
15. Par 4 – 457/426. The hole is a dogleg left with ample room to the right to avoid the fairway bunker on the left corner. But going right adds even more yardage to a longer hole. There is a bunker on the front left corner that is deep. If one misses the green to the right they can go down into a gully where a tree and tall grass sit close to the green. It is a tricky second shot given the danger to the right of the green.
16. Par 4 – 407/392. Perhaps the easiest hole on the back nine is next. The hole offers a generous fairway with no bunkers until one nears the green. Beginning about 65 yards out is a collection of five bunkers. There are two bunkers on the back corner of a green that is angled left to right. There is a mound on the left side of the green that can propel a ball onto the green. The green has two diagonal ripples through it spaced at the thirds. I admired the shape of the green particularly since I got within birdie distance despite no flag being in.
17. Par 3 – 232/208. This hole is sharply downhill meaning at least one less club. There is a deep bunker on the front left of the green meaning a ball landing short right could be safe whereas being in that bunker will lead to a blind shot. The green is a redan moving right to left. I did not have a flag in the cup which was back left. There is another bunker well down the hill off to the right. Going long over this green leads to a 15 feet drop that will send one’s ball into some of the tallest grass on the course. It is a hole where precision and confidence is required.
18. Par 5 – 572/542. The fairway is relatively thin off the tee with two bunkers on the right 215-245 off the tee for the first one and requiring a tee shot of 250-280 to clear them. Off the left side is a knob that will kick balls left into tall grass. Further off to the left is out-of-bounds due to a road. The fairway then moves right with a horizontal bunker on the left coming into the fairway about 140 yards from the green. Another long diagonal vertical bunker is on the right about 80 yards from the green. The green is thin and slightly angled to the left placed between two bunkers and a rear bunker. There was no flag in and I decided to hit to the middle of the green where I was rewarded with a 3 feet birdie putt. The green has a higher back tier that falls off whereas the front and middle move in different directions. It is a nice finishing hole. I was told this hole usually plays into the wind making it much more difficult.
As I wrote this review I relived my round by looking at my photos and videos of the course as well as my notes. It truly is the course in the USA that reminds me the most of the courses in East Lothian for which I have great affection. As mentioned, I found something I liked about every hole on the course (even if the flags were not in the cups on twelve holes). It is charming, it is visually appealing on the course as well as with the views of the lake. It is inexpensive. It is a fun, enjoyable walk that does not test one’s wind or leg strength. There is strategy on most of the holes off the tee. There is a good mixture of easier and more difficult holes. The green surrounds and green surfaces are good. It is very much worth the trip to play it despite it’s very remote location.
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