Golfing in North Dakota

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RAY, N.D. -- Take a left at the middle of nowhere, go two miles down the gravel road and hang another left. When you get to the end of the world, you'll be there.
 
Ten years after its construction raised eyebrows and drew more than a couple of chuckles from the locals, the Links of North Dakota has not gotten any closer to anything or anybody. It is 28 miles east of Williston and a few miles west of the boondocks, hard by the shore of a shriveling Lake Sakakawea.
 
In a business in which location is everything, the golf course known as Red Mike was left behind.
 
'It's just hard to get people out here,' says third-year pro Matt Bryant, sitting in an empty clubhouse overlooking a near-empty parking lot on a warm, sunny and calm evening. 'It's so remote.'
 
Which remains just as unfortunate as always, because it is one of the purest tracks golfers will ever play, a little piece of the British Isles within a couple of tanks of gas. It continues to garner national recognition, checking in this year at 53rd on Golf Digest's list of top 100 public courses.
 
'It is as good as anything you'll find in Scotland,' says the magazine's course critic, Ron Whitten. 'People will spend thousands of dollars to fly over there to play when all they need to do is drive to North Dakota.'
 
Isolation has cost Red Mike. It's never been a moneymaker, and the original investors auctioned the course for the bargain bin price of $467,000 in 2002. A group of 15 buyers, most with ties to Williston, have kept the course afloat since then. The annual losses have not been huge -- about $20,000 to $25,000 last year, Bryant said -- but it is red ink. And with businessmen being businessmen, wealthy or not, that's not good.
 
'The biggest question I get is, 'How do you make it work?' Bryant jokes. 'I always say, 'Well, we have guys who need a tax write-off.'
 
The course isn't going away anytime soon.
 
'We're still real optimistic,' says Williston attorney John McMaster, an investor and member of Red Mike's three-person board. 'We can't say we've made any money on the deal, but we view it as a great asset to the area. And we didn't really get into it to make a lot of money, although it would be nice to at least break even. We view it as a positive for people in the area.'
 
Paid 18-hole rounds at Red Mike climbed last year to 8,200, up from 7,800 in Bryant's first summer. That's still a thousand or more short of what the course needs to break even.
 
As a comparison, the municipal courses in Fargo-Moorhead do about 20,000 rounds apiece each year. Bryant came to North Dakota from Colorado, where he worked at courses that had 60,000 rounds a year.
 
So he seeks out positives while working in a pro shop that on a great day sees 75 people walk through the door.
 
'We had a good start in April this year. Rounds were up 50 percent over a year ago,' Bryant says. 'We had 250 rounds last year in April and 375 this year. You can laugh at those numbers, but that's huge for us.'
 
A decade after renowned designer Stephen Kay completed this minimalist layout to rave reviews, the course itself is a bit ragged around the edges, but wholly playable and enjoyable. McMaster is proud the course's conditioning the past couple of years improved with the new investors.
 
Drought has hit western North Dakota hard, and Red Mike is no exception. The course, which drew its irrigation water from Lake Sakakawea, had to drill its own well last fall because there is so little water left in the Missouri River reservoir. Some greens at this early date are crispy.
 
The most expensive part of Red Mike is the gas getting there. Green fees prior to May 15 are $30 for 18 holes. After that it will be $50 on weekends, $40 on weekdays. For that, golfers are pretty well guaranteed to have the place to themselves.
 
This is not assembly line resort golf, with bag boys and valet parking. This is a gravel parking lot and ball washers maybe every fifth hole. But the holes are fun and memorable, and the views of the lake are still pretty good.
 
There is no lodging on site, only a functional clubhouse.
 
'It would probably be helpful to have something right at the course, but there is nothing in the plans for that right now,' McMaster says.
 
If only the course wasn't so far from everything and everybody.
 
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