Feature Interview with Mark Amundson
June , 2006
1. What is your background?
I have played golf all my life, having been introduced to the game by my mother when I was 3-4 years old. I grew up in Sioux Falls, SD first playing on a par 3 course and then as I got older playing all over the state and region. I played high school and college golf (South Dakota State University) and have competed in amateur events all my life. I have a BS in Physical Therapy from the Mayo Clinic and a MS in Sportsmedicine from South Dakota State U. I practiced Physical Therapy and Athletic Training for 15 years. In 1994 and 1995 I was one of the Physical Therapists for the PGA and Senior PGA tours, traveling the country with the tour taking care of the needs of the players.
In 1996 I began working for Graham Marsh as the director of marketing for his golf course design business in the US. The project at Sutton Bay was in my head even before starting to work for Graham. The first thing I did after starting work with Graham was identify the best golf course builder in the United States and that was Landscapes Unlimited. They are based in Lincoln, NE only a few hours away from my home so it made it easy to get to know Bill Kubly. Getting to know Bill was a very significant event in that he became one of the driving forces behind making Sutton Bay happen and the success it has enjoyed.
2. What drove you to want to develop a retreat in central South Dakota?
My interest in developing a project in South Dakota was driven primarily by the fact that I am from South Dakota and I wanted to see South Dakota put on the map for golf in the United States. The decision to locate Sutton Bay along Lake Oahe (Missouri River) in central South Dakota was driven by a number of factors. First, the need for a great site was extremely important, and I found nothing as spectacular as the landforms along the Missouri River. Second, South Dakota is very well know for its’ Pheasant Hunting and Walleye fishing, and the central part of South Dakota is king for both of those activities. Third, the need for a large number of acres for the hunting operation was critical and the opportunity to find a ranch owned by one person, and a rancher, Matt Sutton, who loved the idea of having his ranch turned into what is now Sutton Bay.
3. How and when did you come to know Graham Marsh?
I first met Graham in 1994 when I was working as a Physical Therapist on the Tour. Graham was in his first year on the Senior Tour and traveled alone a great deal. He was/is an avid exerciser and spent a great deal of time in the Fitness Trailer. We got to be friends over the two years I was working for the Tour and he then offered me the opportunity to come to work for his design company.
4. What was the first walk on the property like with Graham?
The first time Graham and I walked the property was very special. I had been telling him about the site for over 3 years before he made it for a visit and he was blown away by the natural landforms and the vistas available from all parts of the property. We spent 3-4 days pouring over the site on his first visit and subsequently spent literally weeks going over the site on 4 wheelers trying to understand every aspect of the site.
5. Were any other architects considered?
No other architect was considered. Graham has been in the golf course design business since 1985 and done some great work around the world. His proven work on all types of sites, as well as his commitment to this project was paramount to the success of Sutton Bay. Graham spent over 100 days on site during the construction of Sutton Bay while playing full-time on Senior PGA tour.
6. The site at Sutton Bay is a rocky one â€œ how did that impact construction?
One of the final considerations for the routing of the golf course was that minimal earth would be moved. There were a couple of very narrow parts of the site which were the rockiest on the property. There were a couple of green sites that we also extremely rocky. There was no choice but to get rid of the rock, either by burying the rock in large holes, or by carting it off the golf course. A large dozer was needed to push some of the rocks as they were as large as small cars. It was certainly one of the most challenging aspects of building Sutton Bay and having an experienced builder like Landscapes Unlimited made getting the construction done much easier.
7. Please describe the playing attributes of the Pierre shale soils.
The Pierre shale type soil is one that, when wet, turns to gumbo, but dries very quickly and becomes very hard. Given the amount of wind and sunshine, and the lack of significant rains, the playing surface runs firm and fast, much akin to links golf around the world.
8. The site is a windy one. What grasses were used to allow for ground game options?
Much discussion took place before finally deciding on low mow Kentucky blue grass for the fairways and SR1119 bent for the greens. Fescues were considered, but in the end rejected, on the basis that they are difficult to maintain and do not handle cart traffic very well. The environment is a very harsh one in the winter and it was felt that fescues would not hold up well through the South Dakota winters. The low mow blue grass had been used at another course in the area very successfully; it retains a vibrant green color long into the fall, and is very disease tolerant in the South Dakota climate.
9. No course is static with Mother Nature continually presenting a changing set of conditions. Have there been examples of this at Sutton Bay?
There is no doubt that Mother Nature wins any battle she decides to get involved in. We have an interesting climate at Sutton Bay in that we are actually in a semi-arid desert setting. There are varieties of cactus on the site and our average annual moisture levels are 12-14 inches/year. Lake Oahe has a significant effect on our weather and on the land in general. We discussed Pierre shale above and the one other characteristic of Pierre shale is that it can be somewhat unstable. The water level in Lake Oahe has been severely affected by the long term lack of snow in the mountains in Montana. The lake is over 200 miles long and 2 miles wide and in the past 2 years the water level has dropped over 40 ft. from where is was in 2003. This drop, along with the soil conditions, has caused the land to shift in certain places. You can imagine how irrigation pipe tolerates land shifts, subsequently we have had to repair a large number of irrigation breaks and have gone to repairing them with a relatively new type of pipe called HDPE. This stands for high density polyethylene and it is a flexible pipe that can tolerate some movement in the land. We anticipate that the land shifts will slow down once the water levels come back up in the lake.
10. Please describe the bunker construction technique that was employed.
The bunker construction was one of the most interesting aspects of construction to come to grips with. With the soil types being what they are, there are no natural blowouts like you find in pure sand. The desired result was to have bunkers which look like they have been on the land for hundreds of years, and this desire took some trial and error before the final technique was found. The other thing that was very obvious as we progressed was that the scale of the site was so large that the bunkers needed to be very large just to fit the scale of the land. The final process for bunker construction was as follows; the bunker shapes were cut into the native soils and then native sod from the prairie above the course was cut and stacked around the edges of the bunkers. This sod stacking technique gave the bunkers the height and definition needed to fit into the natural landforms. The bunker edges that adjoined the fairways were hydroseeded with fescue grass and then once the grass matured the desired edges were cut in. The upper edges of native sod were also cut to the desired shapes and since have evolved and found their own shapes. This is one area where Graham, Bill Kubly, and myself all had shovels and rakes in our hands, helping the final product along.
11. Sutton Bay may well have some of the longest views in golf without seeing a single non-club related building. Yet building in such a remote environment comes with infrastructure issues. What were the biggest issues that had to be overcome?
There is do doubt that building a facility like Sutton Bay in a remote location creates some challenges not seen in urban areas. Meeting the necessary power requirements was the first issue. There was (is) no 3-phase power within 6 miles of the site and it was very expensive to bring that power to the site. Subsequently, all needed power is handled with single phase power and phase converters where needed. This power issue drove the decision to use geothermal wells for all of our heating and cooling needs at Sutton Bay. There are over 400 wells, each 100 ft. deep, that are used to heat and cool the lodge and lodging units. Potable water was a challenge in that the rural water system was built out in this area with only 1″ water lines, never planning on seeing something like Sutton Bay being developed. We are limited to only 6 gallons of potable water per minute so it was necessary to install a 10,000 gallon holding tank and a booster pump system to ensure water for our guests. The logistics of building over 35,000 sq. ft. of buildings with a general contractor from 250 miles away created many challenges. Trying to find housing for all the workers and getting supplies shipped in to this area were two of the bigger issues during construction.
12. When did Graham Marsh conclude that the first tee needed to be well away from the clubhouse?
There was never a conscious decision to have the first tee a long way from the clubhouse. The most important issue at all times was to find the best routing and the best sequence of golf holes possible with a balanced layout. The north end of the property was some of the best land for golf and the 9th green site was one of my favorites, thus to reach the end of the property the first had to be where it is. The location of the clubhouse was dictated by infrastructure and utility issues and we never really worried about the relationship of the two. Actually, the drive from the clubhouse to the first tee is quite scenic and very relaxing. The other thing that this allowed us to do was to construct our 9 hole par 3 course. The par 3 course is set up in such a manner that is works to play the first 5 holes as a warm up on the way to the championship course and then catch the last 4 holes after your round, or as most members do, just go down in the evening with a large group and have a lot of fun.
13. The out and back routing fits the property well and looks like it was a natural. How many other routings did Graham Marsh discard before settling on this one?
There were more than 25 other routings discussed during the process. Some played in reverse of the present layout while others considered loops of nine and still others looked at being closer to the clubhouse. Each layout and the golf holes within the layout were rated by an in house system that we used to determine the most exciting and challenging course. The fact that the front nine has 3 par 5’s, 3 par 4’s, and 3 par 3’s was not done on purpose, it was just the best fit of the best holes. As indicated earlier, the routing process happened over months of time and many visits by Graham where he spent seven days on each visit on site walking and driving the site on four wheelers to gain a complete understanding of the property.
14. Was pressure ever applied to Graham Marsh to get holes to play directly along the shoreline of Lake Oahe?
This was never an issue as we do not own the land up to the shoreline. The Army Corp. of Engineers owns the land between the private land and the lake. It might have been possible to go to the Corps. and trade land but the process would have been long and tedious. We also felt that the long views of Lake Oahe afforded from higher up on the property were more appealing than the rocky shoreline.
15. What is the playing season and what is your favorite wind condition/direction?
The playing season is longer than most people believe. I think most people hear the words South Dakota and immediately think of the frozen north. We open near the end of April and typically play our last round of golf around Thanksgiving. Once you get to the end of October there are certainly days you would rather be hunting than golfing, but we also get many late fall days when the wind does not blow and it is 55-60 degrees. I enjoy playing the course in all conditions but actually like it best when the wind is blowing 15-20 mph. Sutton Bay is an inland links type course and one of the primary defenses of the golf course is the wind. Our typical summer winds blow out of the south/southeast at about 10-20 mph. When the wind turns around and blows from the north the course is a real challenge. The course can be played along the ground and there are days that a person should hit the ball only 100 yards in the air and let it roll the next 100 yards.
16. There is a financial risk inherent in building such a remote private club. At what point in the process did you sense that the product offering would be of a quality as to attract a sufficient number of members?
The partner group was very confident from the start that we would achieve our goals. If we would not have been confident we would have not ever started the project. The quality of the site, the quality of the hunting and fishing, and the commitment from the ownership group to seeing Sutton Bay succeed are all important factors. There are very few, if any, private clubs in the world that can offer the level of golf, hunting, fishing, accommodations, and service we have, all in one place, and in one membership.
17. Unlike some other remote courses, the cabins and clubhouse provide first rate accommodations. Who is the target membership for Sutton Bay?
Our target members are those who enjoy any or all of the activities we have to offer at Sutton Bay. Obviously the commitment to join a club like Sutton Bay, and then be able to get to the club and use it as you want, takes a certain level of financial wherewithal. I always believed that a certain percentage of our members would be from the states bordering, and including, South Dakota, while others would be from across the US. We currently have members from 27 different states, some of our members enjoy all the different activities and use the club 5-10 times each year, and some participate in only 1 or 2 of the activities and might only come once or twice each year. The reality is; our membership is quite varied and everyone who is a member has chosen to join for a different reason. Most importantly, we have a group of members who appreciate the club, respect our employees, and come to relax and get away from the hectic pace of life.