A different world: South Dakota golf course provides peace and quiet

AGAR, S.D. - It was just past 1 o'clock on a blast-furnace, South Dakota summer afternoon when your faithful correspondent had this realization after tapping in on the third hole at Sutton Bay Golf Course: He was the first and only golfer on the ...

AGAR, S.D. - It was just past 1 o'clock on a blast-furnace, South Dakota summer afternoon when your faithful correspondent had this realization after tapping in on the third hole at Sutton Bay Golf Course: He was the first and only golfer on the course so far this day.

No broken tees, no divots in the fairways, no pitch marks on the greens. Nobody else had seen these particular steamy views near Lake Oahe - and not one other soul had smoothed out an easy double bogey on the downwind par-4 third after hitting a drive into a fairway bunker.

And that, in the end, is what Sutton Bay is all about. It is an exclusive ($75,000 initiation fee) private club that offers a world-class golf course, world-class pheasant hunting and world-class walleye fishing to a limited nationwide membership.

And it is in the middle of nowhere, unless you count the nearby tiny town of Agar (population 83) as somewhere. Pierre, South Dakota's capital, is 45 miles south.

"A busy day out here is 40 people," said Mark Amundson, a partner in the club and its general manager. "We might have nine groups play the course all day. On average it's probably a little less than that, maybe six or seven groups."


Sutton Bay is Amundson's brainchild.

A Sioux Falls native and South Dakota State graduate, he worked as a physical therapist on the PGA Senior Tour in 1994 and '95. It was during those two years that the following conversation took place more than once.

"Where you from, Mark?"

"South Dakota."

"South Dakota? And you golf? How do you golf if you're from South Dakota?"

It was grating, Amundson said, and at least part of the impetus behind Sutton Bay.

"South Dakota is known for pheasants. And walleyes. It is not known for golf. This was an opportunity to put South Dakota on the map for its golf," Amundson said.

So the Sutton Bay timeline began to roll in 1995. Amundson, by this time working for Australian golf course designer and senior tour player Graham Marsh, spread the word he was looking for land along the Missouri River. That led to conversations with Matt Sutton, patriarch of a prominent South Dakota cattle ranching family that owned 40,000 acres along the east shore of Lake Oahe.


Amundson fell in love with the ranch land the first time he saw it in mid-October of 1995, but it took until 1999 until he could convince Marsh and Bill Kubly - the key money man in Sutton Bay's development - to visit the site. Once they did, things began to move much more quickly.

Kubly is the CEO of golf-course construction behemoth Landscapes Unlimited. An investor in Sand Hills Golf Club in Nebraska - an isolated, exclusive golf retreat opened in the mid-1990s (and the inspirational blueprint for Sutton Bay) - Kubly became the founder and chief partner of the South Dakota project.

Marsh signed on as the course's architect. Amundson rounded up investors, bringing the total to 10. Ground was broken in the fall of 2001 and the course opened in 2003.

The result became the best golf course in the Dakotas. Although the comparisons probably aren't fair because North Dakota's Big Three golf courses of Hawktree in Bismarck, the Links of North Dakota near Williston and Bully Pulpit in Medora are affordable public venues built comparatively cheaply, Sutton Bay trumps them all.

These are 18 great holes, with no weak links. The fairways are generous and the greens massive, but the variety of shots needed to get the ball on the putting surfaces is endless. There are more than 80 rugged, links-style bunkers. The panoramic views of Lake Oahe are everywhere.

Marsh built the course in the true links tradition, with the first nine holes going out in one direction and the second nine returning in the opposite direction. That means the ninth green and 10th tee are about two miles from the first tee, which, by the way, is itself about a mile of winding, jagged cart path from the large, lodge-style clubhouse. The front nine plays along Lake Oahe with the prevailing south summer wind, while the shorter back nine plays into it.

Sutton Bay is good enough that it was named the best new private course of 2004 by Golf Digest. It might be headed for the magazine's prestigious list of America's 100 greatest courses.

"It has that potential, given its wide range of shotmaking challenges, its bold greens, flashy bunkering and grand vistas," wrote Golf Digest course critic Ron Whitten. "In other words, it has 'It' all. Which makes it an 'It' course."


The buzz has aided in getting Sutton Bay about halfway to its membership goals. There are 102 members from 22 states (including South Dakota and Minnesota, but not North Dakota). Membership will be capped somewhere around 200.

On average, members golf the course two to three times a year.

"There really are millions of people who have enough money to belong to a place like this. They might already belong to four or six other clubs and have two or three homes," Amundson said. "Money is not the issue. They have so many other choices. What you're really selling here is a lifestyle. You can come here to unwind, take time to relax, watch the sunset.

"I've had people tell me they've actually been somewhat afraid when they were on the golf course because it's so quiet and so remote. They'd never been to a place where there weren't buildings, cars, people and noise. If you're coming from lower Manhattan, this is an entirely different world."

So, too, is playing an outstanding golf course that's seen just one pair of Foot Joys by 1 p.m. on a beautiful summer day.

Forum sports columnist Mike McFeely can be heard on the Saturday Morning Sports Show, 10 a.m.-noon on WDAY-AM (970). He can be reached at (701) 241-5580 or

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