RURAL RAY — When it began gaining national recognition more than a decade ago, the Links of North Dakota golf course was known for its Scottish flair that harkened back to the game’s earliest days with a tranquil setting along the banks and bluffs of northern Lake Sakakawea.
Today, the course that bills itself as the best in the state — and has hardware to back up that claim — is in the middle of the western North Dakota madness that is the Bakken Oil Patch. When people use the word “flare” there, it has a widely recognized and wholly different meaning.
Ronnie Swartz, the head professional at The Links, said oil’s impact on the area surrounding the course can be seen in plain view at dusk.
“You can stand up on pretty much any hole and see them,” Swartz said. “At night, it looks like the hillsides are on fire just from the flares blowing off the natural gas.”
Oil, and lots of it, is being pumped from two miles beneath The Links and just about everywhere else in northwest North Dakota. Like everything else in the area, the course 28 miles east of Williston has not been immune to the effects of the oil industry.
Swartz, who is in his fourth season there, said business has been down this year. He blames it on the late spring and oil traffic in the area.
The Links had sold 2,016 rounds as of Thursday, compared with 2,622 on the same day last year. Last year, the course had about 8,500 rounds.
The 18-hole, par-72 links-style course is typically open for a six-month season from April 15 to Oct. 15. However, lingering winter weather caused the course to delay its opening until May 1. There were just 15 golfable days in May, Swartz said.
Despite its location and short season, The Links has been ranked by Golfweek as the best course to play in the state since 2008. It has ranked among the magazine’s top 100 courses multiple times, climbing as high as No. 58 in 2005. It has since fallen out of the top 100.
“There’s no reason a golf course like this shouldn’t do 10,000 rounds a year,” Swartz said.
Reaching The Links is about as challenging as golfing it these days.
No matter which direction golfers come from, they must find their way to state Highway 1804. The road, like most others in the Oil Patch, sees a mix of heavy truck and pickup traffic through rolling hills, which leaves few safe chances for regular travelers to pass slower-moving vehicles.
Once drivers are off the highway, four water depots within a mile of the clubhouse create oil truck traffic and are deteriorating the three-mile gravel road from the highway to the course.
“The roads are a big problem in getting out here, just to get to the course,” said Larry Trihub, a retired electrician in his seventh summer working at the course. “It’s constantly water truck traffic. It tears up the roads.”
Truck traffic were never a problem on the county road that led to The Links until the boom began. Now, Swartz believes the roads deter some golfers from driving out to golf the challenging course.
“Look what kind of day we have out there now and we have eight people out there,” Swartz said on the morning of June 6, an ideal day for golf with above-average temperatures and a typical wind coming in off Lake Sakakawea. “We will get busy in the afternoon.”
Swartz said the course rarely sees a day with less than a 10 mph wind, which makes it even more of a challenge for golfers. Winds can blow south and west off Lake Sakakawea or from the northwest. If that happens, it brings in dust from the truck traffic and water depots.
“A day like today, if you get a 10 mile-an-hour wind blowing this way,” Swartz said as he pointed west to east, “and a semi goes down that road, that dust just goes right into the golf course, right into the people playing. It gets bad.”
Michael Delorme recently finished his senior season playing for the Minot State University men’s golf team and spends his summers working at The Links. The Williston High School graduate has seen oil’s impact on the course first hand.
“The road out here from Williston is unbelievable,” Delorme said. “The number of trucks and traffic that’s increased the last six years that I’ve worked out here is unheard of.”
Nearly all of the course’s workers travel from Williston or neighboring towns. Swartz said he preaches caution while driving, especially to the teenage employees just trying to make some summer cash as clubhouse attendants or driving refreshment carts.
“I tell all my young kids, ‘Wear your seatbelt. Don’t text and drive,’” Swartz said. “The old head pro would make them stay until the last golf cart was in. In North Dakota, it can be light until almost 11 o’clock. The young girls that work for me are driving that road at 12 a.m.? No shot. I won’t do it. I’d rather pay for damage on a golf cart.”
Despite the issues with oil and roads, Swartz said The Links is in as good of shape as he has seen it.
The fairways and greens are in near-perfect condition and the native grass, cause for many challenges, is lush because of recent rainfalls.
“Talking to guys who have been members — and even my owners — who have been here for 10 or 15 years, it is the best it ever came out of the winter,” Swartz said.
He said the course still gets its share of golfing tourists as well as those trying to complete the Triple Challenge, a $150 package to golf The Links, Bully Pulpit Golf Course near Medora and Hawktree Golf Club near Bismarck. The three are considered the top courses in the state.
“On a day like Friday (May 31), it was pouring rain, 48 degrees, the wind was blowing 20 (mph),” Swartz said. “I had four golfers. Why they played? They were doing the Triple Challenge. They drove here from Minneapolis, and they had to do it. They came for a golf trip. If you don’t play in that, you’re not going to play.”
The course has 21 spaces in an RV Park and 12 cabins, which are sold with a “stay and play” package. However, all of the cabins are rented out to oil workers and the RV spaces are almost always reserved.
“They don’t use much of the golfing privileges,” Delorme said of the cabin dwellers. “Every once in a while, we’ll have some that get out and play. But the golfing privileges are overlooked with the cabins it feels like.”
With the resort part of its business mostly ruled out by oil and with most area hotel prices outrageously high, Swartz said his hope is to build a membership of local golfers. A single membership at the course costs $1,200 a year.
“To get busier, we’d like to build a membership,” Swartz said.
Until then, The Links will hold its own through the oil boom and continue relying on the same type of golfers who helped build it into what it has become today.
“A lot more people come out just to have a day off from work,” Delorme said. “They want to play a good golf course.”