Courses and Travel

North Dakota Golf

Two things stand out on your first trip to western North Dakota, just as they did for Lewis and Clark 200 years ago: First, the savage, rugged beauty of the Badlands; second, the appalling lack of cell service. (While building Fort Mandan, Lewis is said to have heaved his BlackBerry into Lake Sakakawea.)

This Old West throwback is where Theodore Roosevelt hunted buffalo before becoming the 26th president of the United States. He is celebrated in the town of Medora, just as explorers Lewis and Clark, who camped in the state for 146 nights, are immortalized at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn.

"NoDak" is also home to some pretty fantastic (and wildly cheap) golf. Whether you're on the 21-course Lewis & Clark Golf Trail (lewisandclarkgolftrail.com) or cherry-picking its best three tracks on the roughly 500-mile Triple Challenge, from Bismarck to Medora to Williston, as detailed here, you'll be doing plenty of driving, so splurge for the XM satellite radio available in rental cars at the new Bismarck airport (direct flights from Denver, Minneapolis and Las Vegas).

A few more tips: Budget at least four days for this Old West adventure. Don't tell your cardiologist about the pitchfork steak fondue dinner. And lay off the Fargo jokes--that's eastern North Dakota.

Where to Play

Crib Sheet
Bully Pulpit
Greens fee: $39-$49 ($15 for cart)
(701)623-4653; medora.com
Hawktree GC
Greens fee: $60 ($15 for cart)
(888) 465-4295; hawktree.com
Heart River Municipal GC
Greens fee: $18 ($10 for cart)
(701)456-2050
The Links of North Dakota
Greens fee: $50 ($15 for cart)
(701)568-2600;
thelinksofnorthdakota.com
Painted Woods GC
Greens fee: $15 ($10 for cart)
(701)462-8480
Prairie West GC
Greens fee: $20 ($10 for cart)
(701)667-3222;
Riverwood GC
Greens fee: $20 ($10 for cart)
(701)222-6462
Souris Valley GC
Greens fee: $19 ($19 for cart)
(701)838-4112;

Hawktree Golf Club, Bismarck
A mere 15 minutes from the airport--that Starbucks just south of Interstate 94 will be the last you'll see for a while--Hawktree is a bucolic track with few trees and wide-open vistas. As at Montana's acclaimed Old Works Golf Course, the bunkers are filled with black coal slag.

You'll see a few historical tokens along the way, giving architect Jim Engh's 7,085-yard, topsy-turvy design a distinct sense of place. A.broken-down wagon has been left to rot in the long grass to the right of the second green, and a pair of tall rusted windmills stand guard over the fourth and 14th holes. Myrtle Beach it's not.

The downhill, 164-yard third hole is one of the prettiest par 3s you'll ever see without water, with a small, recessed sliver of green framed by thick rough.

Hawktree is eminently playable, and you can even make a good score, with a caveat: You'll want to move up a set of tees the first time. Unless you've played the course or have a very helpful playing partner, you won't know where to aim from the back tees. Best bet: Schedule enough time to play it twice.

Bully Pulpit Golf Course, Medora
West of Hawktree on I-94 (take Exit 27). Drive time: Two hours.

When architect Michael Hurdzan heard about Bully Pulpit, he "had no interest in going someplace you can't get to." When he got there and saw the towering buttes, jaw-dropping chasms and bright-orange "burning" rock, he cut his fee to make sure he got the job. The resulting course made our list of the Top 10 You Can Play in 2004.

The back nine gives Bully its true swagger. A mammoth wall of soft, brown rock--a gateway to the Badlands--backdrops the green of the par-4 11th hole. Before long, you're playing through surreal spires and majestic buttes.

{C} The 404-yard, par-4 14th hole calls for a drive over a gaping maw of rock and native vegetation to a thin fairway--the hardest shot at Bully. The ascent to the 15th tee, on a very exposed ledge, is one of the prettiest cart rides anywhere, with sweeping vistas over your left shoulder. This 161-yard par-3 hole spans a wide chasm to a shallow green--good luck holding it with a tailwind. A huge, boulder is perched improbably above the tee of the severely downhill, 451-yard 16th, dubbed Perched Rock. The dogleg-left, 503-yard, par-5 17th will tempt players to go for the tucked green in two, but few will get there. By the time you finish playing these four stunning holes, you'll be pining to play them again.

The Links of North Dakota at Red Mike Resort, Williston
East on I-94, north on 85 to Williston, east on 1804. Drive time: 3 hours.

Yes, it's a very long drive to Red Mike, named for a notorious 19th century horse thief who was buried there, but then it's a long trip to Scotland, too.

From the gnarly, Pro V1-filled rough to the views of Lake Sakakawea, Red Mike is a pure links experience--inland style. One of the tenets of the owners is that perfection is not when there is nothing left to add but nothing left to take away. So they 86'd the teebox signs marking each hole. But you won't get lost, especially if you pick up the excellent yardage book in the shop.

You'll feel a sense of pride and wonder here--pride that you put in the drive-time necessary to find the place, and wonder that such a track exists in central nowhere. Gary Christian, an Englishman and mini-tour player who shot a course-record 61 in the wind, calls Red Mike "the best links I've ever played in America, and it's 1,500 miles from the sea. The ball actually reacts like links shots should."

Red Mike's architect, Stephen Kay, moved very little earth on the bluffs overlooking the lake. There is no water to hit into, just native grasses and 82 bunkers. The par 3s are memorable, especially the downhill 17th, which is 232 yards long from the back tees and calls for a right-to-left drive or a 3-wood into the wind.

Second-Tier Tracks

It's a big state--break up the driving with a quick 18 on one of these lesser-known courses:

Riverwood Golf Club is long (7,004) and tight--the fairways are lined with Cottonwood trees--but it's a great value at $20.

Same goes for Prairie West Golf Course in nearby Mandan, which is a pleasant, scenic stroll.

Heart River Municipal Golf Course in Dickinson is a tale of two nines. The front nine is flat, the back is clogged with hazards.

A half-hour outside Minot, Souris Valley Golf Club features fairly open fairways and the Souris River on eight holes. The adjacent Jack Hoven Wee Links nine-holer is for kids 12 and under and costs only $1, $5 for an adult accompanied by a child.

Painted Woods Golf Course is a cute little nine-holer just off Highway 83, 35 miles north of Bismarck in Washburn--home of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. Painted Woods Creek meanders through the well-maintained course.

Where to Stay

Bismarck - Best Western Ramkota Hotel
It's close to downtown, and provides access to Hawktree, Riverwood and Prairie West.
(701) 258-7700

Medora - Badlands Motel, The Bunkhouse, Rough Riders Hotel and AmericInn
These hotels are less than a five-minute drive from Bully Pulpit. The AmericInn offers the most updated amenities; the Bunkhouse the most modest. Rates range from $60-$95; the Bunkhouse Package includes a room, golf, steak dinner and the Medora Musical for two for $188.
(800) 633-6721

Williston - El Rancho Motor Hotel
Just 25 minutes from the Links of North Dakota. Rooms are $54.95, double-occupancy, and include refrigerators.
(888) 452-3706; {C}elranchomotel.net{C}

Where to Eat

Bismarck - Bistro
Good aromas abound at this classy sit-down, where the menu features eccentric fare like sautEed Montana ostrich. (As if you didn't ponder enough risk-reward at Hawktree.)
(701) 224-8800

Medora - Pitch Fork Steak Fondue
At 6 p.m. the chef starts slapping hundreds of ribeye steaks onto, yes, pitchforks, then cooks them in giant vats of boiling vegetable oil. Diners at this open-air, cafeteria-style setup sit at picnic tables on a covered terrace overlooking the Badlands at 3422 Chateau Road. For the less adventurous, downtown Medora also has Maltese Burger, Badlands Pizza Parlor and the Marquis de Mores Ice Cream Parlor and Medora Fudge Depot.
(800) 633-6721; {C}Medora.com{C}

Williston - El Rancho Motor Hotel
The hotel dining room and coffee shop serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. Try the prime rib, salmon or walleye--right out of Lake Sakakawea--and a piece of homemade pie for dessert. El Rancho's popular buffet costs $6.85 for lunch and $8 for dinner.
(888) 452-3706; {C}elranchomotel.net

 

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