Little Course On The Prairie The people in a tiny North Dakota town longed to have a place to play, and finally made their dream come true

Aug. 02, 2004
Aug. 02, 2004

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Aug. 2, 2004

2004 Olympic Preview

Little Course On The Prairie The people in a tiny North Dakota town longed to have a place to play, and finally made their dream come true

To the editors:

This is an article from the Aug. 2, 2004 issue

First of all, I want to thank you for selecting me as a course
rater for the proposed edition of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Best
American Golf Courses. In no way should this letter be
interpreted as a complaint or a criticism. I fully understand
that a first-time course rater like myself can't expect a plum
assignment like Hawaii or Florida, where big-budget resort
courses and private clubs open by the dozens every year. You
should understand, however, that my assigned state, North
Dakota--while "golfier" than practically any other state, with
roughly 110 courses for a population of 642,200--isn't exactly
the Monterey Peninsula. To get to the Medicine Hole Golf Course,
I had to rent an SUV at the Bismarck airport, drive west 100
miles on Interstate 94 to Dickinson and then go north another 33
miles on Route 22 to Killdeer (pop. 700). On this last stretch of
prairie highway I met maybe five cars heading south, and two of
the drivers I recognized as course raters for Golf Magazine.
(They were driving very fast.) ¶ Secondly, I want to make it
clear that Medicine Hole deserves a high rating. While at first
glance it may appear to be simply another small-town nine-hole
course, it has a lot going for it. For one thing, it wasn't
designed by a farmer on a tractor. The architect was Jim Engh of
Castle Rock, Colo., who has become a fixture on the Best New
Courses lists with such eye-popping layouts as the Sanctuary in
Castle Rock, Colo., Tullymore Golf Club in Stanwood, Mich., and
Fossil Trace Golf Club in Golden, Colo. I found Medicine Hole, at
3,290 yards and par 36, to be a challenging layout in the style
of an Irish links course, with dramatic elevation changes and
knee-high fescue rough.

My problem is with the rating sheet you sent me. To begin with,
you have two boxes, and I'm supposed to check one--NEW COURSE or
ESTABLISHED COURSE. Medicine Hole is neither. Yes, it just opened
on June 26, but Engh did his design work way back in 1992, and
the course was in the dreaming stage for almost a decade before
that. At the dedication ceremony Engh told the people of Killdeer
that dinosaur tracks had been found at his Fossil Trace course,
leading to the marketing slogan Sixty Million Years in the

"Your course," Engh said, "is a close second."

I have even more difficulty with the point system. For instance,
there is no way to award points for creative financing. Medicine
Hole was designed and built for $400,000, with much of that money
raised through bake sales, car washes and raffles. When the Dunn
County Golf Association needed land for the course, the Killdeer
town council appropriated $30,000 for a 120-acre parcel north of
town. When the DCGA needed a clubhouse, the local phone and
utility companies sent one over on a truck. (CLUBHOUSE ARRIVES,
read the headline in the Dickinson Press.) When the DCGA needed
more than a hundred grand to install the irrigation system,
Consolidated Telephone guaranteed a $160,000 loan from the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.

And how am I supposed to assign a fair score for COURSE
MAINTENANCE AND CONDITIONING? When I played the course in June,
the fringe grasses were thin and patchy, causing me to stub
several chip shots. The greens were also a work in
progress--bumpy in places and irregular in pace, causing me to
miss a few putts in the two-to five-foot range. (My playing
partners somehow benefited from this irregularity, making
practically everything they looked at.) Technically, then, I
should give Medicine Hole only 5.4 points out of 10.

But consider what they had to work with. Dennis Hartman, a
Killdeer farm-implements dealer, told me that the course property
was rockier than a Jennifer Lopez marriage. So rocky that the
town used to have rock-picking parties. "Four-year-olds, mothers,
grandfathers," Hartman said, "all walking shoulder-to-shoulder
down the fairways with these 2 1/2-gallon ice-cream buckets."
Penny Lee, a member of the DCGA board who was a regular
rubble-rouser, said, "You didn't want to look back, because you
knew how many rocks you'd missed." Consider also the way the land
plunges from the windy ridge on which the clubhouse is situated.
"I bet we've got 20,000 pounds of grass seed at the bottom of our
pond," DCGA president Greg Anderson told me. "It would rain an
inch in 20 minutes, and we'd watch all our seed run down the

Given the difficulty of the challenge--which was tantamount to
growing bluegrass beards on the faces of the presidents on Mount
Rushmore--I give Medicine Hole an 8.1 for conditioning.

Farther down the rating sheet, under DESIGN ELEMENTS/SHOT VALUES,
it says, "a lateral hazard and out-of-bounds should not coexist
on opposite sides of a hole." O.K., that condition exists on
Medicine Hole's par-4 2nd. From the tee you have grassy dunes on
the right with a farm fence just beyond, easily reachable with a
slice when the wind is howling at 30 miles per hour from the
left, which it pretty much always is. To the left of a narrow
fairway is the retention pond. To find the fairway, most of the
members aim straight at the water, counting on the wind to guide
their sliced tee shots back to land. They then either hit a dead
pull into the pond or a push-slice over the dunes and fence.

Fine, I deducted the required points. But where on this damned
form do I get to award points for heroic dedication to golf? Take
Dwight Sabrosky, a surveyor for the Soil Conservation District.
He looks a little like the actor Sam Shepard--slim and weathered,
with a prairie mustache--and except for the fact that he plays
golf in sandals, Sabrosky's a man's man. (When I asked him what
he did when he wasn't on the course, Sabrosky said, "I mostly try
to patch up my marriage, because I'm out here a lot.") Sabrosky
wore cowboy boots when he played his first round of golf. That
was in the early '80s, down the road in Dickinson. "Two weeks
later I bought a set of clubs, and I've been trying to hit the
damn ball ever since."

Sabrosky was one of a small group of golf nuts who, way back in
'82, began to talk about building a course in Killdeer. Among his
coconspirators were Maury Bang, a scrap metal dealer; Pat
Desmond, a computer programmer; and Marshall Bergerud, a
storefront lawyer. Sabrosky says, "We never dreamed it would be
so tough to pull a dead horse up a hill."

Over the decades, I'm told, these Dakota dreamers alternated
between euphoria and despair. It took a couple of years to find
and acquire the land. It took a couple of years to get Engh, a
Dickinson native, to do the course design. It took many years
more to dig a test well, lay a three-quarter-mile pipeline,
construct a crude practice range, deal with land-erosion issues,
pick up rocks, raise money, pick up more rocks, and push dirt
around the property. "I would say at some point everyone in this
community did something," says Neil Eckelberg, a self-described
"hard-headed German." Eckelberg, an oil-field technician, lugged
buckets of dirt up to the top of the ridge to build the pinnacle
tee on the par-4 8th hole, a breathtaking 120 feet above the
valley floor. Shouldn't we give points for that?

Sorry, I realize I'm getting sidetracked. The rating sheet allows
up to five points for "ornamental landscaping, fountains and
topiary." Huh? What Medicine Hole has is wild clover, lots of it.
I'm not talking about those limp shamrocks you have on your lawn.
North Dakota clover is a diabolical flower with stems as thick as
celery stalks. Hit your ball in the rough, and it inevitably
comes to rest between two or more of these plants, making escape
a matter of luck.

No, the only ornamental feature at Medicine Hole is the big GOLF
sign on the ridge. It's visible from the highway, a mile away,
but you have to get up close to appreciate that it's really a
metal sculpture with silhouettes and dies depicting golfers, golf
bags, birdies and eagles. The sculptor was Maury Bang, the
aforementioned scrap metal dealer, who built it years ago to let
people know that golf was coming to Killdeer. "It's a bolted oil
fuel tank that I tore apart," he told me. Bang is an 18
handicapper, but he has little time for golf these days. He's
busy tending bar at his second business, a roadhouse called Two
and Seven-Eighths (because he sells lots of 271/48-inch oilfield
pipe). As for his role in creating the course, he takes credit
for only one thing--hiring Engh, his childhood friend. "There's a
lot of Plain Jane nine-hole courses around," Bang told me. "We
wanted something better."

Anyway, I have designated the GOLF sign a fountain, the actual
water installation to come later, and awarded it five points. I'm
also awarding a half-point for the round stone tee markers, which
I'm told are from the shores of nearby Lake Sakakawea. I'm giving
2.25 points more for STORY BEHIND NAME. (Medicine Hole is a cave
up in the Killdeer Mountains. Legend has it that thousands of
Sioux escaped from a famous battle by entering this cave and
coming out somewhere on the other side of the mountain. Also,
some Native Americans believe that when the buffalo were first
created, they emerged from the Medicine Hole.)

Let's move on. You award points for "on-site tree nurseries."
This is unfair to Medicine Hole, which has only a few puny
saplings on its property. (Those trees, in fact, are slated for
removal because, as Hartman told me, "they don't belong here.")
On the other hand, I'm not allowed to take into account the
economic impact the course has had on Killdeer? The Buckskin Bar
& Grill, for example, has seen a noticeable uptick in tourist
trade since the course opened. I talked to the joint's owner and
head chef, Eric Kehr (a transplanted Philadelphian!). He said,
"Golf brings people into town who are willing to spend a little
money. It's a classy sport, it draws nice people." (Don't let his
white tunic fool you, though. He used to jump on a tractor and
tow an eight-foot landscaping rake around the course site.)

No points for perseverance? This course died more times than
Freddy Krueger. One DCGA officer after another grew frustrated
and quit, only to show up a few months later to reenlist. At one
meeting a fellow slammed his fist on the table and cried, "We're
done! It's too tough!" But somehow they kept their dream alive.
Two years ago, in March, Engh flew in with two of his employees.
They jumped on a couple of Cats and started shaping the holes.
His fee for that work? Zilch. The year before, with the USDA
money finally in hand, the association handed the irrigation
contract to a couple of farm boys, the Schneider brothers, who
had never dug a golf ditch in their lives. They did such a good
job--only one leak in six miles of pipe--that they got a job
offer from Toro. "No thanks," they said. "We're farmers."

So you can understand my frustration. At the June 26 dedication
ceremony, which was held on the 1st tee, Engh cut a
burgundy-colored ribbon, and the principals posed for photos. A
few hours later, during a banquet at the Buckskin, Engh gave a
short speech. "A golf course can really raise the image of a
community," he said. "For a town of this size, what you have here
is really amazing. I hope you're proud of it. I know I am."

You're busy people, I realize, and I've probably told you more
about Medicine Hole than you want to know, but I had to explain
my minor deviations from your point system. The course rating I
arrived at--99.73 on a scale of 100--may seem high. But presented
with the facts as I found them, I am sure you will agree that
Medicine Hole should be named SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's Best New Golf
Course of 2004.

With that taken care of, I'm off to my next course-rating
assignment. Anybody know how to get to Kotzebue, Alaska?

THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN LONG VIEW Medicine Hole (top) was first discussed in Killdeer (pop. 700) in 1982 and was designed in 1992, but the course didn't officially open until this summer.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN LOCAL LOOK The 3,290-yard nine-holer has wild-clover rough, dramatic elevation changes and distinctive stone tee markers.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN COST EFFECTIVE Engh (left) worked for next to nothing to give fellow North Dakotans like Arne Havelka a place to play.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN STAY THE COURSE Hartman (right), a farm-implements dealer, and Bergerud, a lawyer, pushed the project from the start.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN BACK STORY Some Native Americans believe that when the buffalo were first created, they emerged from Medicine Hole.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN BIG DAY Bang (above) was among the many Killdeer golfers to celebrate the official opening of the course on June 26.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN X MARKS THE SPOT The Dunn County Golf Association financed Medicine Hole with the help of bake sales and raffles.
together for rock-picking parties at the course.
Medicine Hole took 12 years to build. "We never dreamed it would
be so hard TO PULL A DEAD HORSE UP A HILL," says Sabrosky.
said Engh. "I hope you're proud of it. I know I am."