Review: Sutton Bay Golf Course, SD

The Ultimate Man's Retreat
Sutton Bay is an out of the way, middle of nowhere, man’s paradise.  It is located on the Missouri river just outside of Agar, SD.  The nearest big city is Pierre, SD about an hour south of Sutton Bay.  After driving through the open prairie to get to this course, you enter under the rustic arches onto the expansive property and wind down the driveway until you reach the lodge.  
You can see the lake and the rugged land, but no golf course yet.  While the club is private there are opportunities to visit and join if you are interested.  What makes this such a man haven is not only the awesome 18 holes of golf, but the 10,000 acres for hunting and the 200 miles of lakeshore to fish.  All those recreational opportunities are available through the club with guides and other necessary provisions, but my time at Sutton Bay was all about conquering the golf course.  

When I arrived I was greeted and welcomed just like any member known to the staff would have been treated.  The lodge is huge with a real rustic hunting theme.  The food at the bar and for breakfast was all outstanding.  The rooms were all labeled after famous golfers like Nicklaus, Player, Faldo, etc.  As you entered your room, you couldn’t help but look all the way through to the patio that overlooked Lake Oahe.  The lodge is built on the top of the plateau over looking the lake.  Across the inlet of the lake I could see a couple of holes that I would get to play in the morning.  I sat on my small patio and watched the sun set after a late afternoon storm.  It was almost surreal how beautiful the view is from the lodge.  The room was comfortably set up with nice amenities; a king bed, desk, fridge, a fancy Sutton Bay robe and incredible views.  The only let down was the small TV, but I doubt most people go here to watch TV with so much to do outside.

Sutton Bay offers everything you could want; comfortable lodging, great food, miles from civilization, thousands of acres for hunting, miles of shoreline for fishing and 18 holes of incredible golf.  If you have connections or the funds, this is the ultimate man’s retreat.

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I was the first golfer to go out on a beautiful summer day.  I hopped in my cart, got a couple of instructions, and then proceed to almost get lost.  They described the course as just down the path to the right a ways and then you will have to cut back to the left and you will end up out in front of the lodge.  But I found a worker that kindly explained that I just needed to follow the path for another 15 minutes and I would eventually arrive at the course.  He wasn’t kidding.  It is one long, long drive from the pro shop to the course.  Once you’re out there, you are out there.  

So after climbing my way up to the first tee box, I saw before me simply beautiful topography of rolling hills and rugged dunes, with the lake in the background that Graham Marsh had to work with.  The lake was visible on just about every hole.   Some better than others, but the entire 18 holes are elevated and play a couple hundred yards from the lake.  The front 9 plays on a lower shelf, while the back 9 plays on the upper shelf.  The opening hole is a long par 5 that plays all down hill.  It is almost guaranteed to take three shots to reach the green.  Once on the green, you will find subtle undulations on a very smooth and speedy green.  The par 3 2nd hole also plays downhill to a generous green, just don’t go left.  You will have a hard time getting up and down if you even find your ball.  The par 4 3rd hole starts with a straight fairway that depending on wind and the tee box you are playing, driver might not be the best play.  But if you rip one down the middle a short shot in to the green on the left side will be rewarded.  The long par 5 4th hole is a sweeping dogleg left.  There are bunkers framing the fairway to help aim. There is ample room on the second shot, just make sure to watch the approach since the green slopes front to back.  The tricky uphill par 3 5th hole has a shallow green with a bunker front and center.  It is one of the harder green to hit and hold.  Many of the groups I watched had very few tee balls stay on or reach the green.  The par 4 6th hole played much shorter than the yardage book the day I played it.  This hole has multiple options off the tee when playing short.  The lower left fairway is easily reachable off the tee and leaves a relatively simple chip in.   If you need refreshments now is the time to stop in at the snack shop.   The par 4 7th hole has some pinch in the landing zone, so check your yardage carefully.  Since the green plays down hill and is shallow be very careful on the approach.  Another long par 5 awaits the golfer on the 8th hole.  The fairway is generous off the tee, just avoid the left bunker.  The second shot really needs to stay up the right side and the green juts out to the left and is heavily guarded with junk and bunkers.  Since the green is huge, make sure you find the right distance to the pin to leave with a par.  The uphill long par 3 9th hole offers amazing views of Lake Oahe.  While the green is large, finding the right tier and making sure not to come up short can be tough.
The turn is at the end of the course in the out direction.  You go uphill and turn back in the opposite direction to play the final nine holes.  The par 4 10th hole has an upper and lower fairway.  An ideal line is right over the huge sod bunker in the middle.  A little draw puts you on the upper fairway; a little fade puts you on the lower one.  Either one is playable into the green; just make sure to avoid the big bunkers right and left of this green.  The par 5 11th can be reachable in two for big hitters with the right wind, as long as you stay left.  Visually it doesn’t look like there is room, but it opens up over the bunker and also runs downhill for added length.  If you are uncertain about reaching the green in two, lay up because the bunkers short of the green are nasty.  The green also has some good slope toward the lake so plan accordingly.  The par 4 12th hole has two driving options; carry 260yards of junk on the left for an easier shot in, or play the safe right side of the fairway.   With the green elevated and uphill make sure to take plenty of club.  If you need more food, you pass by the same snack shop you did after the 6th hole.  As you reach the long par 3 13th hole you will be happy to know it plays downhill and also slope front to back allowing shorter shots to run back on the green.  The par 4 14th hole is a blind tee shot to a huge fairway so bombing away isn’t a problem.  The second shot is uphill so some additional yardage should be accounted for.  This two-tier green also slopes toward the lake.  The shortest par 5 on the course the 15th hole is reachable in two if you avoid the fairway bunkers that pinch the landing zone.  The green sets up well for a soft fade approach as long as you don’t cut it short and find the large bunker on the right side.  The 16th hole is a long par 4 that offers the widest fairway on the course, but avoiding the huge bunker in the middle is a must.  If you play your approach shot up the left side you have the best chance of kicking on the green even if your shot is less than perfect.  The par 3 17th hole is an absolute brute.  It is uphill, and looks very intimidating.  The junk and bunker fronting the green make for a scary shot.  To top is all off the green has a false front.  I’m guessing that long is better than short for most people, but I chipped in from the front rough so coming up a little short still worked out for me.  The par 4 18th used to have two tee-boxes for the tips.  The way back tee has since been abandoned in favor of the elevated tee-box, which makes this hole very manageable.  Just finding the right line off the tee to the downhill fairway can make an easy approach.  The views from this tee-box are amazing to look out from the plateau over the entire course.  It is a wide green but not very deep so hitting the right distance and on the proper side of the ridge is key.  Sticking it close and finishing birdie, birdie is a great feeling.
The course has amazing views on every hole and the conditions were near the best I have ever played.  Being private, you can see the green don’t take near the abuse of public courses and with a full maintenance staff busy keeping things in great shape really make for superb course conditions.  It looks and plays like a true links style course most of the time.  The only minor difference I noticed from a few of the other links courses I have played is the amount of elevation changes on certain holes eliminated some ground game.  But the firm and fast conditions did offer a true links experience.  I played Graham Marsh’s “Pines” course at the Prairie Club on the same trip and found many similarities in the layout and design features.  The greens however were a little different.  They played faster at Sutton Bay  but had more undulations at the Prairie Club Pines.

In addition to the outstanding 18 holes of regulation golf, there is a short course to work on your iron and wedge game.  These 9 holes are a drive back from the regular course and play just under the lodge and around the driving range.   This is a great warm-up area and lots of fun to play.  The holes were creative, tricky, and yet enjoyable.  The only downside I saw is the fact that the short course plays nothing like the regular 18 holes.  There generally is only one option on the short course.  You need to fly and stop everything on the green.  There was little room to work on creative bump and runs or as some call a ground game.  Yet the conditions were great and lots of fun, just make sure you know where you are going, it was easy to get lost, some of the signs were tricky to follow and without an aerial map of the course, you can easily miss a turn.

Short Course and Range