North Dakota’s 19-course golf trail has been 200 years in the making.
On a late January afternoon in North Dakota, the temperature had barely climbed into double digits. Dozens of ice fishing huts dotted Lake Sakakawea where U.S. 83 crosses the recreational body of water created by Garrison Dam. Pickup trucks parked alongside many of the huts, right on the frozen surface.
Ice clogged the Missouri River for its hundred-plus-mile stretch from Williston to Bismarck—as it nearly always does during the first month of the year—in some places creating a frozen crust of uncertain strength from shore to shore. And just below the I-94 bridge in Bismarck, the Lewis and Clark Riverboat, a sidewheeler popular with tourists in the summer, sat out the off-season on stacks of wooden beams. Potentially damaging floes raced by in deceptive currents detected only in occasional patches of open water.
At the height of winter in North Dakota, it is hard to imagine any part of the state being a destination for a fantastic—let alone an enjoyable—golf adventure. In that regard, not much has changed in the 200 years since Capt. Merriwether Lewis and Second Lt. William Clark led a band of more than twodozen volunteers—a U.S. Army unit commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson—to explore the newly acquired land of the Louisiana Purchase.
But just as those frontiersmen discovered another world when their long winter turned to spring and summer, so too will golfers find a surprising collection of courses, as well as breathtaking scenery and a booming energy economy, in the half of North Dakota that comprised the easternmost portion of those 828,000 square miles purchased from France for $15 million.
BIRTH OF A NOTION
“Fishermen go where they think there’s fish. Golfers go where they think they’ll have a good time playing interesting courses.”
With that, former reporter Bob Kallberg succinctly explains his thinking that ultimately produced the Lewis and Clark Golf Trail, an idea spawned in 2000, when folks from St. Louis to Portland were planning what became a Lewis and Clark Bicentennial celebration that lasted 29 months—the length of the explorers’ round trip.
North Dakota boasts more golf courses per capita than any other state (more cattle, too, folks in the Division of Tourism wink). And tourism is the documented third largest economic driver in the state. Kallberg decided to utilize the former to enhance the latter.
“When you’re trying to attract the golfers of the world,” Kallberg says, “you have to have a hook.” In this case, the brave explorers from 200 years before provided it.
Armed only with his concept, Kallberg more or less retraced Lewis and Clark’s path along the Missouri River from Bismarck to Williston, calling on every golf course along the way. He branched out some, too, visiting courses in Dickinson, Medora and Minot as well. And in 2002—a year before the bicentennial began, he introduced the Lewis and Clark Golf Trail to the golf world.
In a colorful four-fold brochure—the first Lewis & Clark Golf Trail Guide—Kallberg extolled the virtues of each course in separate paragraphs for each location. He wrote everything, even “the governor’s message.” His opening is as true today as it was a dozen years ago.
“Lewis and Clark never played golf when they were here in 1804-06,” he began, “but if they came back today—they would.”
Playing golf in North Dakota is all about meeting the people of North Dakota, says Colorado-based golf-course architect Jim Engh, a North Dakota native whose design at the relocated Minot Country Club is scheduled to open next year. “Going up there is about the experience,” he says. “The people make the experience. The people are cool.” Beyond that, great value and challenging variety differentiate the Lewis and Clark Golf Trail from other geographic collections of courses.
Fifteen of the 19 Trail stops have 18-hole green fees less than $30. (Cart fees are additional at all, mostly in the $10-$15 range per player for 18 holes.) That makes most Trail stops affordable for couples or families.
And for the package price of $165 plus tax, even the three priciest courses on the Trail— Hawktree in Bismarck, The Links of North Dakota near Williston, and Bully Pulpit in Medora—average $55 apiece, thanks to the North Dakota Triple Challenge. An added benefit of the Challenge is that it ensures that golfers will tour western North Dakota—from Bismarck to Williston to Medora, regardless of which course they play first.
Pictured Above: Hawktree
Pictured Above: The Links of North Dakota
Pictured Above: Bully Pulpit
As far as challenge and variety go, slope ratings range from the mid-100s to a few in the 130s. Proficient golfers will find plenty of tests at four nationally ranked layouts: the Triple Challenge trio plus 45-year-old Riverwood, which is only about nine miles from Hawktree. But there’s plenty of enjoyable golf for players of all abilities.
Ranked by Golf Digest as the No. 1 course in North Dakota in 2013, the Engh-designed Hawktree ranges in length from 4,868 to 7,085 yards. Black coal sand fills the brawny bunkers; three lakes and a creek come into play on 11 holes; and the wind factors into all 18. Right from the first hole, Hawktree majors in the exhilarating tee shots, quirky greens and copious riskreward options for which Engh has earned his stripes. By the time you’ve reached the uphill par-5 finisher, you’ll be aching to play it again.
Hawktree’s neighbor, Riverwood, is a great course to walk. Defined by the massive cottonwoods common along the Missouri River, this course demands accuracy off the tee. White-tailed deer, wild turkeys and the occasional red fox make it almost like playing in a wildlife preserve. Tom Lehman, an aspiring tour pro at the time, won a tournament at Riverwood with an evenpar 216 in 1982.
The views and scenery where the Missouri River, dammed downstream, forms the western end of Lake Sakakawea add to the experience of a round at The Links of North Dakota, the highly regarded Stephen Kay minimalist layout located on SR 1804 east of Williston. The 7,082-yard course, which opened in 1995, rolls, pitches and tumbles like a links, with wide fairways, waterfront winds, and vexing native rough. Eighty bunkers— some sod-walled—dictate your plan of attack into challenging greens. Making the experience more inviting, a number of on-course cabins welcome players to stay.
Nestled in The Badlands off a road that bears markers reading “Custer Trail,” Bully Pulpit is almost two golf courses in one. The first 13 holes of this Michael Hurdzan design follow the valleys, meadows and woodlands along the Little Missouri River, but 14 through 18 bring you into the rugged buttes that distinguish this unforgiving terrain from the rest of North Dakota near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The canyon winds change the game from shot to shot—especially on the all-carry par-3 15th, where a two- to three-club wind usually howls from right to left and an infinity-edge green perches atop a hill, leaving no room to bail out.
Medora itself is a quaint western town that features numerous historic sites, the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, the nightly Medora Musical (billed as “the rootin’- tootinest, boot-scootinest show in all the west”), and the elegant Rough Riders Hotel, where Teddy Roosevelt is remembered with an 1,100-book library in the lobby, and “Teddy” bears— complete with his trademark wire-rimmed eyeglasses—sit on the bed in each room to greet arriving guests.
Four other 18-hole courses and 11 nine-hole courses have a lot to offer, too. “People in small towns take great pride in their golf courses,” Kallberg notes.
Jim Engh, who grew up in Dickinson and played Heart River Golf Course when it was the nine-hole Dickinson Country Club, knows firsthand what Kallberg is talking about.
Engh designed the nine-hole Medicine Hole Golf Course in Killdeer, and it occupies a special place in the hearts of everyone at Jim Engh Design. “We kinda did that one by the seat of our pants,” Engh says. He, Mitch Scarborough, who is president of Jim Engh Design’s Asia Pacific Operations, and others actually worked on the nine-hole, par 36 Medicine Hole course with many local residents, supplementing bulldozers typically used on such a project with farm tractors and other implements to stay within the community’s modest budget. Residents raised money with bake sales and other activities. Named for a cave in the nearby Killdeer Mountains, it’s the newest course on the Trail, beginning play in 2004.
Two other nine-hole courses—Riverdale and Hazen—bear a mention in the context of community pride.
At Hazen Golf Course, locals find an almost perverse enjoyment in what they call “The Shortest Par Five in North Dakota.” It’s actually a 200-yard Par 3 with a severely crowned green. Making par is akin to eating an entire 32-ounce T-bone in one sitting.
Meanwhile, a truly unique experience awaits at Riverdale, the town built to house workers who constructed Garrison Dam, which is the fifth largest earthen dam in the world, between 1947 and 1953. Touted as “an example of what dedicated volunteers can do to provide a golf experience for their community,” Riverdale Golf Course features synthetic greens. Yes, synthetic. If you want a taste of what the PGA Tour’s lightning greens are like, give Riverdale a try.
PROFITS OF BOOM
Golf aside, if Lewis and Clark did return to North Dakota today, they likely would be greatly puzzled—possibly even frightened— by what they would see on their Missouri River route. Gas flares burn off excess natural gas at many oil wells around the clock, and those rigs known as horseheads (or “nodding donkeys,” to some) pump nonstop, filling vertical tanks that stand silently and motionless nearby like so many soldiers in formation.
Oil was discovered in North Dakota near Williston on April 4, 1951, but the “boom”—that frenzy of exploration and production that rivals the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s in California—began in North Dakota only seven years ago, and shows no signs of waning.
As of last September, the state had almost 10,300 wells capable of producing oil and gas. The annual output was nearly 900,000 barrels of oil—second only to Texas in the U.S.—and more than 250 billion cubic feet of natural gas.
Long-time residents of North Dakota, particularly those in the 17 counties within the Bakken/Three Forks Formation, are struggling to adjust to outsiders drawn to the state by high-paying, steady employment and, in some cases, lucrative returns on investment. It’s fundamentally not much different than when the white man came in 1804. Native Americans along the Missouri River found it difficult to cope with those strangers, too.
The roads within 50 miles of Williston in all directions are what might be called a truck-rich environment, with tandem tankers, heavy-duty pickups, and an assortment of tractor-trailers and rigging outfits outnumbering by plenty the SUVs and sedans. (The top-selling dealerships for pickup trucks are now located in Bismarck.) The bars are busier; DUIs are up.
Towns such as Watford City, home of Fox Hills Golf & Country Club, now include expanses of mobile homes, called “man camps,” to house the influx of oilfield workers. Rents have doubled, or in some cases tripled, squeezing seniors in particular.
Many school districts are “Running out of ROOMS,” as a headline in The Dickinson Press put it. (The accompanying story noted that Hagen Junior High began the 2008 school year with 373 students, but by 2017 the number of seventh and eight graders will be between 550 and 600.) In the same newspaper, another report ominously warned that one town’s natural gas and electric utilities were perilously close to capacity. In Belfield, just down the road from Heart River Golf Club, members of the Zoning and Planning Commission were surprised when a developer planning a 42-acre multi-use project told them: “You’re in a real hurt. Be careful what you approve.”
There are two sides to this story, of course.
The glass-half-full view notes that North Dakota now has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, and has a billion-dollar budget surplus. “The boom is creating lucrative jobs and keeping young people here,” says Steve Pine, president of Pine Petroleum. “The state’s population is up at least 100,000.” Some economists estimate the boom is creating more than 2,000 millionaires per year.
The North Dakota Division of Tourism notes that 59 new hotels opened in the past two years, adding more than 5,000 rooms. Tourism has increased and golf has benefitted, as well. Several courses have undergone renovation or expansion, and play has increased.
“The oil boom has brought people into the state who wouldn’t be here otherwise,” says Chuck McCauley, an owner of The Links of North Dakota. Part of a group that bought the course at auction several years before the boom began, he’s seen it before and after. “Play has at least doubled,” he says. “We get people who’ve heard about the boom and want to check it out, and we get a lot of the folks who’ve come here to work. It’s the same all over this part of the state.”