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The Legend Of Red Mike In the Badlands of North Dakota, what started out as a small town's field of dreams wound up as a nightmarish battleground

March 18, 2002
March 18, 2002

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March 18, 2002

Si Adventure

The Legend Of Red Mike In the Badlands of North Dakota, what started out as a small town's field of dreams wound up as a nightmarish battleground

Stan's folly, they called it, and no wonder. Ten years ago Stan
Weeks was the superintendent of a rinky-dink nine-hole golf
course set amid a prairie of cattle ranches and truck stops in
Williston, N.Dak. Golf was as much a part of the local lifestyle
as three-piece suits, but Weeks was visited by a vision just as
surely as Ray Kinsella heard whispers among the corn. Despite a
legion of naysayers, he built a course, the Links of North
Dakota at Red Mike Resort, which turned out better than he or
anyone else imagined. Weeks's field of dreams, though, slowly
disintegrated into a small-town soap opera of lawsuits,
splintered friendships, a sex scandal and financial failure, and
last month Red Mike was sold at auction for a fraction of its
value. "We did something nobody said we could do," says Weeks,
but the building, as well as the sale, of Red Mike is only part
of the story.

This is an article from the March 18, 2002 issue Original Layout

A tireless self-improver, Weeks, then 29, spent the winter of
1992 at Rutgers taking a class in turf-grass and course
management. On the last day of the semester he ambushed his
instructor, Stephen Kay, a New Yorker looking to make a name for
himself as a course designer, and sold him on the possibilities
of the Badlands. Intrigued, Kay contacted his favorite shaper,
Marvin Schlauch, who grew up in Jamestown, N.Dak. Acting as Kay's
eyes, Schlauch visited three potential sites with Weeks over the
Fourth of July weekend. The first two were mundane. The third was
miraculous.

"You'd swear it was Ireland," Kay says, recalling the first
photos sent by Schlauch. "Rolling terrain. Views of [Lake
Sakakawea] from every hole. The dirt was essentially USGA soil to
six feet deep--you could build greens right on it. I knew I could
work until I was 95 and never get a better site."

The location was known as Red Mike Hill because it's believed to
be the final resting place of a notorious 19th-century horse
thief who was either hanged or set ablaze--depending on who's
telling the story--by a vigilante mob. Red Mike Hill was situated
in the town of Ray (pop. 534), 30 miles east of Williston via
Highway 1804--the Lewis and Clark Trail, a road so lightly
trafficked that passing motorists often wave to one another.

Weeks, whose superintendent's salary was $24,000, needed a
partner to help acquire the land, and he immediately thought of
his friend Mike Ames, an irrigation contractor from Williston
who owns four businesses. (Weeks worked winters for one of them,
setting irrigation pivots.) Ames wasn't a golfer, but two years
of listening to Weeks go on about his dream had turned him into
a romantic. He signed on as Weeks's partner and provided the
money to buy the land. "All I know how to do is water a course,"
says Ames, "but I wanted to build something nice out here,
something North Dakota could be proud of."

The banks were more circumspect when it came time to find
financing for the construction. The Williston area lacked
certain tangibles--money, golfers and tourists, for starters.
The average household income was only $33,000. There were just
20,000 people in Williams County (that's 9.5 per square mile;
the national average is 80), and the number of single-digit
handicappers in the area hovered around single digits. Visitors?
North Dakota ranked 49th in the U.S. in tourism revenue. Another
unhappy number was 200--that's how many miles Ray is from the
nearest city of any size, Bismarck (pop. 55,000). If you build
it...? Not much of a business plan.

After the banks took a pass, the dogged Kay visited North Dakota
several times over an 18-month period to help Weeks and Ames
raise cash. They hoped to pull in $1 million for a resort that
would include the course, a pitch-and-putt, a swimming area, a
boat ramp, plus hiking and biking trails. In the end they
scrounged up $300,000 from 20 area investors who formed the Red
Mike Development Corporation. (Weeks and Ames held 31.8% of the
shares in the corporation.)

"I didn't want the project to end," says Kay, "so I said to
everyone, 'Why don't we leave our fees on the table?' That's
what we did, and we built the course for only $300,000." The
budget restraints, coupled with the virtues of the site, led to
an amazingly natural design. Kay barely touched the land, moving
only 7,000 cubic yards of earth. (It is not uncommon for the Tom
Fazios of the world to move upward of a half-million cubic
yards.) The accoutrements were also down-home. Off Highway 1804
golfers turned in at a sign that simply read GOLF COURSE, bumped
along for three miles to the modest cedar-sided clubhouse, which
was there all by its lonesome.

The Links of North Dakota at Red Mike Resort officially opened
on July 11, 1995, with a greens fee of $26. (Because of the cost
cutting there was no resort, only an RV park adjacent to the
clubhouse.) The reviews were rapturous. Golf Magazine called Red
Mike "one of the purest expressions of links-style golf ever
conceived outside Scotland." Golf Digest ranked Red Mike the
best course in North Dakota and No. 2 in the country in the Best
New Affordable category. In 1997 Red Mike debuted at No. 41 on
Golfweek's Top 100 Modern Courses list. This should have been
the culmination of Weeks's triumph, but he wasn't around to
enjoy it. By then he had already been cast out of his Eden,
felled by a kind of original sin.

"I thought she was 22 or 23," says a Red Mike shareholder of one
of the course's early pro-shop assistants, who was really much
younger. "I told Stan, 'Maybe you should get rid of her.'
Instead, he ended up fooling around with her. I mean, get a
Playboy--you don't fool around with an employee."

On Oct. 10, 1996, Weeks, single but the father of a
four-month-old son, was charged with corruption of a minor. The
following February he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30
days in jail, with 30 days suspended, plus two years' probation
and a $25 fine. "It was my own wrongdoing," Weeks says in the
flat tone characteristic of North Dakotans. "I don't make
excuses for what I did--it was the worst thing I've ever done."

Like the story of Red Mike himself, what happened next depends
on who's doing the telling. According to Weeks, he went to the
board meeting following his arrest and offered his resignation,
which was rejected. Weeks says his fellow shareholders wanted
him to seek treatment. "I went into the psychiatric ward at the
hospital, did everything they wanted me to do, got all the
approvals from the people there," he says. "Two weeks after I
got back, Mike [Ames] asked me to resign. I'd wanted to get out
all along, thinking it was best for the company. Then after
everything was said and done, they told me, 'We're sorry, you're
done.' That's what hurt."

Says Ames, "We tried to help him out, but Stan's unpredictable.
He became more of a liability than an asset. We decided we needed
to go on without him, and that offended him. He tried to make
life miserable for us."

Shedding Weeks wasn't easy. He and Ames still owned the land. On
March 11, 1998, the Red Mike Development Corporation sued the
Ames and Weeks partnership, but the shareholders were really only
after Weeks, claiming he had refused to follow through on a
land-purchase agreement; the same day, Weeks sued the
shareholders, trying to evict the corporation for nonpayment on
the lease.

It took 19 months for the courts to sort things out, and even
then Weeks's break wasn't clean. Under a buyout agreement Weeks
retained a five-acre parcel at Red Mike, which he still owns. Why
hold on to an otherwise meaningless plot of land? "I put five
years of my life into it," says Weeks, "and I wanted some proof
that I worked on the venture."

While Weeks's affair and the ensuing nastiness were all the talk
at Williston's one-chair Sunset Barbershop, there was a
concurrent power struggle playing out behind the scenes at Red
Mike that would also shape the course's future. The day of the
grand opening, Kevin Spooner, the treasurer of the Red Mike
Development Corporation, told the Bismarck Tribune, "[Red Mike]
is going to be one of the top tourist attractions in northwest
North Dakota." Spooner, too, had a vision--he wanted to take out
a mortgage against the course to build on-site lodging. After
all, Williston is not exactly set up to welcome the traveling
golfer. The best digs in town are the El Rancho Motor Hotel, at
which a room costs $46.95 a night, including HBO. The busiest
restaurant is Gramma Sharon's, at the Conoco station, where the
truckers eat.

Spooner might have been on to something. The biggest recent
successes in course development--Bandon Dunes in Bandon, Ore.,
and Sand Hills in Mullen, Neb.--were as isolated as Red Mike,
but both built lodging as well as courses and became
destinations. Red Mike shareholders, however, felt they were
already overextended and voted down Spooner's proposal. In
February 1996 Spooner also failed to win reelection to the board
of directors. Unable to unload his shares, he sued the
corporation in June '97 for securities violations and fraud. The
case was finally settled last January, and although terms
weren't disclosed, Spooner is said to have received about
$80,000 of his $100,000 investment.

By then things were sliding at Red Mike, and it wasn't hard to
see why. The course was amateurishly marketed (a brochure
featured a player in blue jeans), poorly run (the
longest-tenured general manager had no golf experience) and
underused (only 10,000 rounds a year). Red Mike lost money for
the last three years, and in October 2001 the board decided to
sell the course pending shareholder approval, which soon followed.

Feb. 25, auction day, is bitterly cold, seven below counting the
wind chill. The parking lot at Red Mike is chockablock with
trucks, outfits as they're called here. Inside, with a crowd
heavy on curious townspeople, the ambience feels more like a
mixer than a funeral. There's lots of joking about being only a
few dollars short of the required $50,000 cashier's check needed
to enter the bidding. Lunch is served: sloppy joes and homemade
macaroni and cheese. The keyboardist hired for the occasion
begins her set with the Beatles' Yesterday but then switches to
something more upbeat.

Kay, very much the breezy New Yorker, gives a slide show
detailing Red Mike's bona fides and his vision of its future. An
old picture of Kay side by side with Weeks at the course flashes
by on the screen, unremarked upon. "I said in the beginning that
this had the potential to be a Top 100 course, and everyone
laughed," Kay concludes, his tone gently scolding. "North Dakota
doesn't realize what it has here--it really doesn't. With
bungalows, this could be a home run, a grand-slam home run."

Forty-one preauction information packets had been requested by
potential buyers nationwide--including, rumor has it, some
Augusta National members keen on making Red Mike their personal
summer playground. At the sale the closest things to Augusta are
the matching green jackets of the auctioneer and his associates.
No deep-pocketed developers materialize, just six registered
bidders from North Dakota and Montana, nor does anyone take
advantage of the online bidding option.

As the auction progresses only one serious bidder emerges, a
group of area businessmen who call themselves Save Red Mike LLC.
The group is fronted by Kevin Spooner's former lawyer Marvin
Kaiser. Ames puts in a couple of bids--"I'm no quitter," he said
before the auction--but Save Red Mike soon prevails for a paltry
$467,500. (Bandon Dunes developer Mike Keiser calls the price
"unbelievably low.") It's not enough to pay off Red Mike
Development Corporation's outstanding debts, so shareholders
will have to reach into their pockets one last time before being
rid of Red Mike.

Kaiser, turned out in a purple shirt and snakeskin boots, says
he will bring in experienced management, improve marketing and
customer service, draw players from a wider region, develop a
junior program, create a North Dakota golf trail and, yes, raise
prices. (For now, housing can wait.) Asked if he expects any
more local support than the previous owners received, Kaiser
says, "With the threat of the course being lost, I think the
community now senses what we have here."

Weeks shows up at the auction, too, to say his goodbyes, but he
walks away nursing more grievances. "I'm mad at the architect,"
he says. "He didn't even say hi at the sale. Red Mike is the
best thing that ever happened to him, and I'm the one who
brought him on." Despite his obvious bitterness, Weeks claims he
has moved on. He's now the superintendent at Hawktree Golf Club
in Bismarck. Hawktree opened in 1999, and it edged out Red Mike
for best-in-state in the latest Golf Digest ranking, while
placing No. 2 in the country in the Best New Affordable
category. Weeks has no financial stake in the course, but having
helped shape the land, he has plenty invested emotionally. "It
kind of gets in your blood," he says, "taking the dirt and
making something grow."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN A steal The much-acclaimed Links of North Dakota at Red Mike was sold at auction last month for a paltry $467,500. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN A sex scandal brought down Weeks, the man behind Red Mike.FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN Going once...The auction drew more curious locals than bidders like Ames (left, with calculator) and Kay (bottom, to Ames's left).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN The winners Kaiser (center) and his Save Red Mike LLC carried the day.
"It was my own wrongdoing," says Weeks. "I don't make excuses for
what I did--it was the worst thing I've ever done."
"I didn't want the project to end," says Kay, "so I said to
everyone, 'Why don't we leave our fees on the table?' That's
what we did."
"With the threat of the course being lost," says Kaiser, "I think
the community now senses what we have here."