Golf at Sutton Bay is just one sporting component in a vast private estate that’s also devoted to hunting and fishing and the 18 holes here sit on a spectacular cliff top overlooking Lake Oahe, formed when the Missouri River was dammed in the 1960s.
Golf pro turned designer Graham Marsh has over 50 world-wide golf course projects to his name – most of them in his native Australia and Asia – and he brought a considerable breadth of experience to South Dakota when he first looked over the site for this course back in 1999.
It’s said that Marsh laid out most of the course without detailed drawings, preferring instead to remain on site for much of the 18-month construction period, overseeing the shaping of each hole. In 2003 the course opened for play.
"Incredibly, a few years after opening, the ground near the lake became unstable, and Graham Marsh's course started slipping down the shale ledge toward the lake," wrote Tom Doak in The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses. "After several attempts at repairs only to see them crumble again, the hard decision was made to build a brand-new course and abandon the old one. The new course [opened in 2013] is set atop the opposite rim to the clubhouse, with a good 10-15 minute drive, down into the basin, to get from one point to the other.
Sutton Bay Mark II is clearly on much more stable footing, and though it lacks the abundance of water views that the original enjoyed, it has a better flow and is more pleasantly walkable. The old course really felt like 18 signature holes connected by cart paths. In terms of the routing, the new course is arranged in two loops either side of a central comfort station. Holes nearest the edge of the canyon, like 17 and 18 enjoy the pick of the views, along with the short 5th at the far end of the course. As with Old Macdonald in Oregon, the views no longer come throughout the course, but they have greater impact when they do."
I’m sometimes skeptical reading glowing reviews from folks who haven’t posted many reviews here. But Tim and Troy are spot on. Sutton Bay is a Top 100 course.
The only shortcoming I could find is the routing. The course is over a mile from the clubhouse and there are a number of long, unintuitive walks from green to tee. Everything else, however, is splendid. There are tees for every game—5300-7300 yards (though Cody, the assistant pro told me even the top players are likely to play the back tees only when the prairie winds don’t howl).
The line of charm is present on the majority of tee shots—asking the player to decide how much risk to take to obtain the reward of a better line on the second shot. It’s also present on the second shot on three of the four par 5s…..an area where architects often go to sleep. Every green also offers choices on the approach. And once you’re on the green, a whole new set of challenges arise dealing with the contouring. There are some hole locations which could lead to “unfair” putting challenges, but these can be avoided once the player knows where not to land the ball. Despite a very rainy year, the course played firm and fast in September 2019. My stimpmeter read 13.
One of the most interesting things about Sutton Bay is that this is Graham Marsh’s second design there. The first suffered mightily from land movement so severe that there were often multiple irrigation line breaks in a single day. So Marsh went up the hill and used a flat piece of land to create a very linkslike replacement. This is the same challenge Pete Dye faced on the Straits Course at Whistling Straits and Marsh did just as fine job creating a lay of the land looking course.
A links style course. With a course record of 66, don't expect anything but one of the most challenging courses you will ever play. I've played the Old Course, Pebble Beach, Olympic Club... Sutton Bay hangs with the best of them. Breath taking scenery. Truly the most solitude I have ever experienced while golfing. Not only because most of the time its only you and a couple of other groups on the course, but also because you are about an hour from any populated incorporation. I'm a member here but I believe this course belongs on the US top 100 list without question.