One of the more remarkable developments in modern times, Sutton Bay is an exclusive hunting, fishing and golfing club built on an isolated cattle ranch more than 40 miles north of the South Dakota capital, Pierre. The club was founded by a coyote state native and built on stunning glacial bluffs that overlook Lake Oahe, a vast body of water that was formed when the Missouri River was dammed during the 1960s. Course architect was Australian Graham Marsh, who first saw the land in 1999 and was immediately awestruck by the size of the lake and the sight of endless dunes tumbling down toward its shoreline. Interestingly, he designed much of the course without detailed architectural plans, preferring instead to stay on site and personally supervise the shaping of each hole during the 18-month construction period.
Despite obvious comparisons with remote cousins like Sand Hills and Ballyneal, Sutton Bay is an entirely different creature altogether. For a start the dunes are not sand-based, while the routing is arranged in a large out and back loop that stretches more than two miles along the lakefront. The most significant difference, however, is the manner in which the ‘discovered’ holes are tied together. Like at Sand Hills, these heaving dunes offered up hundreds of potential golf options, yet instead of focusing on developing a tight, cohesive collection of holes, Marsh chose to select eighteen separate entities, which are often considerable distances apart. As a result the course is difficult to walk and doesn’t flow as smoothly as it may have otherwise. On the positive side, it is loaded with drama and blessed with that special sense that its holes are mere extensions of the ancient, rustic landscape.
Boasting tremendous views from all corners of the property, Sutton Bay starts with a plummeting par five that overlooks the lake and falls more than 100 feet as it winds its way through a series of tall mounds. The 2nd is then a short par three that also falls toward the water, with the next fourteen holes looping along the lowland portion of the site. Throughout the round Marsh’s use of native prairie grasses and sprawling bunker shapes to create unique scenic contrasts and define the generous landing areas is especially effective. As are his green complexes, which are generally well contoured, varied and fit comfortably within the rugged surrounds.
Among the better holes on the outward nine are the par four 3rd, with its wide, inviting fairway and tight skyline green, and the attractive one-shot 5th, played toward a target sliced into a dune shelf. The downhill approach into the shallow green on the 7th is another highpoint, as is the par three 9th, arguably the most spectacular hole on the course thanks to its deliciously perched green and uninterrupted backdrop. Aside from a couple of uncomfortable driving visuals, the back nine is also very good, its holes set higher into the hills and noted for a number of excellent green settings. Particularly memorable is the uphill pitch shot into the par five 15th and the rolling par four 16th, dominated by fantastic lake vistas and an open green set on the edge of a plateau.
This part of South Dakota is famous for its pheasant hunting and great fishing, and for a private club to work in such a remote locale it was essential that the golf be of a standard to complement the other world-class activities available to potential members. To his credit Marsh did an excellent job shaping such an exciting and natural looking layout out of these irregular and unpredictable landforms. Although the general lack of fluency within the routing keeps Sutton Bay from reaching the loftier heights of Sand Hills and Ballyneal, the views are unsurpassed on an inland course anywhere in America and the design is of sufficient quality to ensure that the arduous journey to get here is well worthwhile.