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North Dakota's Surprising Golf Gems

I was intent on playing the Links of North Dakota, a highly touted decade-old Stephen Kay design half an hour outside of Williston. Because the hotel offerings in this small city seemed uninspired, we stayed the night at a winsome B&B in the tiny town of Arnegard called the Old School, a converted schoolhouse built in 1915.

While my wife, Amanda, was getting our girls ready for bed, I stepped across the back lot to a biker bar, Horses and Babes, where a friendly woman on a stool announced "incoming" when she saw me walk through the door. I ordered a double vodka on the rocks, and Jack the bartender (who had parked his Harley in the middle of the room) offered me a few slices of venison sausage and a bag of saltines. "You gotta put hot sauce on it," one of the leather-clad patrons insisted. I complied.

A day later, when I left for the Links before dawn, lightning flashed in the sky and the windshield crackled under a driving rain. I tried to be pleased for the farmers, but actually I was upset at my bad luck: One damn rainy day in the past four months and it's the day I arrive to play a fabulous course. Miraculously, the skies cleared. And thanks to the foul weather earlier in the day, I had the course to myself. Even struggling a bit with my game, I enjoyed the course immensely. It's full of rolling fairways, undulating greens and expansive views over Lake Sakakawea. Maybe it was the scarcity of golfers out there, but the course felt almost like sacred land. A diagonal sprinkling of bunkers complicated the uphill tee shot on number two; a horseshoe-shaped upper tier added intrigue to the green of the par-three eighth; and an expanse of wheat fields and prairie served as a spectacular backdrop on seventeen. Here was a true links—complete with pot bunkers and deep native rough—right in the middle of the American heartland.

I went back to the girls with a big smile on my face, and in the intervening days we availed ourselves of a few of the state's other entertainments: Native American museums, a musical in an outdoor amphitheater near Medora, and longer, faster water slides than any we'd ever seen.

At last, well baked by the high plains sun, we backtracked to Bismarck and the course I'd saved for last, Hawktree Golf Club. It's set in the Burnt Creek Valley, fifteen minutes north of the twenty-four-story state capitol (known as the Skyscraper of the Prairie), out where battle lines are being drawn between suburban McMansions and uncluttered ranchland. This Jim Engh design ranks as North Dakota's best, and with good reason. It's a magnificent layout of varied, intriguing holes, abundant elevation changes offering views out into the vastness and a sign near the clubhouse that warns beware of large badger holes in the mown native rough. The par-five tenth—one of eleven holes with water in play—begins with an exhilarating tee shot off a high perch to a fairway pinched by large bunkers. It is followed for most players by a layup in front of a creek and then a wedge into a tricky green.

As the day at Hawktree warmed, so did my playing partners, Chuck, John and Vern. When we stepped onto the tee of the long, uphill eighteenth, Chuck seconded my own emotions by confessing, "I'm getting a little sad now—this is the last hole." Driver, three-wood, wedge, two putts and, having played to my handicap for once, I bade the gentlemen goodbye and returned to the joys of family life.

I had managed to strike just the right balance between golf and family time, which, as every golfer knows, can be an elusive goal. The state that I'd long been dreaming of had repaid my fantasizing with world-class scenery and first-rate golf. I had lots of good memories in the bag—and at least three excellent reasons to counter my friends' puzzlement at our choice of vacation spots.

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