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 – now that’s called dedication to duty.
Golfers are treated to magnificent vistas from every part of the property as the round unfolds with fairways routed in an old-fashioned out and back style along the side of the lake. The first two holes tumble towards the water then holes 3 to 16 are strung out along the lower portion of the property before returning to the clubhouse.
Because the architect chose the absolute best eighteen locations for each hole, the flow of the course is a little disjointed in places with long walks between some greens and the next tee but that’s a minor criticism of one of the most natural-looking layouts to emerge from North America in recent years.
Tim nominated Sutton Bay as Gem and the course was added to the Top 100 website in January 2008. Tim’s original comments are as follows: “Sutton Bay should be more than a worthy contender for Your Gems. It should easily be in the Top 100 courses in the World. I have played a few of the courses on that list and Sutton Bay would beat any of them EASILY. I went with a friend and his dad, who has played Sand Hills in Mullen, NE and he said that he prefers Sutton Bay.”
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.