THE LINKS OF NORTH DAKOTA
5153 109th Avenue
Architect: Stephen Kay
Par – 72
EQ – 7/12
Diff. – 7/12
Design – Five stars
Natural Setting – Five stars
Conditioning – Four stars
Cost - $50 peak, $35 reduced
Value – Five and ½ stars
Overall – Five stars
Tees Yards Rating Slope
“Five” 7092 75.1 128
“Four” 6639 73.1 123
“Three” 6242 71.3 119
“Two” 5650 68.6/73.8 114/126
“One” 5249 71.6 122
Architect Stephen Kay built the Links of North Dakota in a remote but pristine plot of land in the northwest corner of the state. The course sits bordering a gorgeous corner of Lake Sakagawea and meanders among heaving natural grass covered dunes. The course is only twenty-eight miles from the nearest town (Williston), but the landscape seems as primal as when Lewis and Clark walked there with the Lake’s Native American namesake exactly 200 years ago
Kay is an interesting figure. He is not only an architect but a professor and one of the game’s greatest historians. His other designs include, among others, McCullough’s Emerald Links, a tribute outside Atlantic city which is a collection of holes from UK courses and the Architect’s Club in central New Jersey, a collection of holes he designed in the style of revered architects such as Old Tom Morris, Alistair Mackenzie and Charles Blair Macdonald.
Kay is also a minimalist. Indeed LND embraces minimalism to such a degree, it feels like a throwback to the way was played many decades ago. Colorless rocks are used for tee markers with only bare wooden posts marked “one” through “five” to indicate the player’s teebox. Fences are mesh wire and dirt trails serve as cart paths. Port-a-potties are done over as wooden stalls (Stay calm…that’s the outside only! The inside is a modern convenience.) In keeping with the old-time spirit of minimalism, the course is an easy walk. The course’s rustic old world feel reminds some of Kelly Blake Moran’s work at Lederach in Pennsylvania, particularly the greens and their hurly burly contours.
Just like the great seaside courses of the UK and Ireland, LND has three primary defenses; the blustering west and northwest winds, the severe green contours and the undulating fairways which frequently present uneven lies.
The wind makes a joke of the listed yardages everywhere, but nowhere is the discrepancy more prevalent then on the par-3s. As a result, all four par-3s all test distance control. The short third plays severely downwind to a shallow green fronted by bunkers. Eight, while only one club longer on the card, plays severely into the wind and is fronted by a deep brush filled chasm and a savage, sod-faced bunker. Seventeen, while 184 on the card, plays two to three clubs downhill. Only the mid-iron11th is sheltered from the wind as it sits in a sheltered bowl. A bunker reminiscent in size, shape and location to the famed “Devils Asshole” at Pine Valley guards right hole locations. This hole also features a great hump in the green and other severe contours making it the most sevre green of the par threes.
The front nine plays out to the lake for the first two holes, then tacks inland to the best holes on the front, the short, downwind, reachable par-5 fourth and the long par-4 fifth which tacks back to the lake before finishing at a picture window green set at the edge of the bluff overlooking the water. The excellent long par-4 sixth plays along the bluff with the lake along the left side and a serene grassy meadow along the right.
The back features one terrific hole after another. The best hole on the course is 12, a murderously long par-4 (473/438/410) into the teeth of the prevailing west wind. The fairway slopes so severely right to left, everything kicks down a huge ridge to the left side. If you find a flat lie, please point it out so people can take a picture for posterity. Once on the green, the adventure continues as the green appears to be draped over the top of a hippopotamus with a gland problem.
The shortest par-4 on the back, thirteen, is also the narrowest hole on the course and plays severely uphill. Sixteen, featuring another picture window green, overlooks the broad expanse of farmland below and its terrific reverse Biarritz green with a long speed bump bisecting it lengthwise.
The back nine routing is perfectly symmetrical – 5,3,4,4,4,4,4,3,5. The excellent routing ensures the wind affects shots from many different directions, downwind, into the wind and varied crosswinds. The long par-4s on the back mostly play downhill but into the wind, the shorter par-4s generally play uphill but downwind.
With excellent green contours and inspired use of the land – the serene flattish landscape of the lakeside holes balanced against the rugged, rolling terrain on the inland holes, Kay shows how an outstanding course embraces the character filled undulations rather than flattening them and removing all interest. Even the blind drives over bunkers on two and four are an interesting challenge – particularly at two where bunker bisect the fairway diagonally from back left to front right.
If there is a drawback, the greens were far to slow the day I played and were a drop on the dry side. In keeping with the rustic feel, the fairways are left a little long, so the ball contains well on the severe ground undulations. Finally, the par-5 18th does not fit with the course. A great 18th is a summation of all that came before, but 18 here explores a completely new area of the course, the least interesting. It borders some guy’s ranch with OB all along the left and scuttles back to the clubhouse from the absolute rear of the property, completely away form the lake and the undulating terrain of the back nine.
Nevertheless, form the moment you walk in and see the wooden “No Coolers – violators will be hung” sign to the minute you dodge bison leaving the property in your ground transport, you know LND is the most natural course in the state.
The course is also colloquially referred to as “Red Mike” after an accused cattle and horse rustler. According to both local legend and the book The Wonder of Williams (as in Williams County, where the course is located), a group of vigilantes sought to rid the region of thieves. While out on one of their purges, they came across Mike camping in the wilderness.
The vigilantes tied Mike to a chair in the middle of what now is the golf course and lit a fire underneath him. They demanded he tell them the location of other thieves and their cache of rustled animals. Mike turned red while the fire burned but provided no information. They had to release him. Ever since, the area has been known as Red Mike Hill.
Pix: top, second green on the edge of the lake. Bottom, par-3 eighth