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A tunnel under the interstate is the gateway to golf fun at Elkhorn Ridge. Click to enlarge photos.
A tunnel under the interstate is the gateway to golf fun at Elkhorn Ridge. Click to enlarge photos.
Success on #2! This ball stopped just short of the ravine.
Success on #2! This ball stopped just short of the ravine.
Watch out for rattlesnakes on #3.
Watch out for rattlesnakes on #3.
East River golfers enjoy the golf challenges and the mountain views.
East River golfers enjoy the golf challenges and the mountain views.
It's a serious uphill climb to #5.
It's a serious uphill climb to #5.
Grab your binoculars if you want to spot the #5 green — it's out there somewhere.
Grab your binoculars if you want to spot the #5 green — it's out there somewhere.
The water on the left is a visible danger on #6, but beware of the hidden pond, too.
The water on the left is a visible danger on #6, but beware of the hidden pond, too.

Can Golf This Fun Be Legal?

May 16, 2013

 

Heading west towards Spearfish at interstate speeds is a tough way to take the full measure of South Dakota’s newest and most fun golf course: Elkhorn Ridge. The course opened its first 9 holes in 2009, which probably wasn’t the best market timing for the residential development that accompanies it. But the golf layout, nestled into the elevations on the east side of a ridge on historic Frawley Ranch in Centennial Valley, four miles east of Spearfish, is South Dakota’s best.
 

A GOLF PATH UNDER THE INTERSTATE?

From the blue tees the course plays 3254 yards, an average length, and sports a 125 slope, a tougher than average layout. You know you’re someplace unique when the cart path from the driving range and modern clubhouse takes you to the first tee box through a tunnel under the interstate! Lest you fear the trip, the carts are equipped with modern GPS, so the yards to and from trouble are clearly spelled out. And when you decide to look for your ball in one of the residential yards or corrals near the course, the cart slows to a crawl and tells you to get back to the business at hand.
 

HOLES 2 THROUGH 5 ARE THE BEST ANYWHERE

The fun really begins on the #2 tee box. The hole is a dogleg left up the ridge, but with two special twists. The landing “target” for your first shot is about 210 yards ahead — and above you! The hole rises over 120 feet in elevation to the target. If that long uphill poke isn’t enough of a challenge, be careful not to hit too far or too left, as there is a ravine. 210 yards — good shot; 211 yards — bottom of ravine.  The second shot (if that whole first thing worked out) is through a cut in the brush and across a ravine to a green cut into the mountainside.

At this point sea-level folks may need to get the Dramamine out, as you are going further up the mountain to the #3 tee box. At #3 you have a par 3 to a landing pad on top of the next hill, 200 yards away. Note the rattlesnake habitat warning signs as you approach the green — there are more ways to get stung here than a bad bunker shot.

#4 is from an elevated tee down to a lush green fairway 230 yards below, and then a second shot up to the green. The gentleness of 4, nestled in the trees along the side of the mountain, is a set-up for the magnificent par 5 that follows — from the top of the world. The cart path shows an arrow straight up, and it understates the climb. From the tee box, you feel like you can see seven zip codes. It takes binoculars (seriously) to really pick out the green structure, far off in the allegedly 500 yard distance. (They must measure from the base of the mountain — it looks like a half mile from the top.) The signature elk print sand traps line both sides of the fairway, way down below. More imaginative minds interpret them differently — a few years ago, my youngest exclaimed, “Those look like bear butt prints, Dad!” Whatever animal or anatomy, they are an impressive sight to see and frame the fairway perfectly.
 

FINISHING HOLES ARE MERE MORTALS — ALMOST

As your ears pop on the descent back to mere mortal golf, the course still has a few surprises. On the par three #6 you can see the imposing water along the left side, but not the pond wrapping around to the back — an unfortunate ball-washing for the more aggressive swinger. #7’s sand feature is one of South Dakota’s largest, and is pretty much unavoidable.
 

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE

The pro, South Dakota native J.R. Hamblet, warned about the elevation. The 285 feet of elevation change on the course is more than the uninitiated will first appreciate, and playing it is trickier than most are used to.  Ok, I’ll give him that elevation greater than a step-ladder challenges we flat-lander South Dakotans, but that’s not the main secret to know. The real local knowledge is that you have to play the course more than once. There are so many blind shots, hidden gulleys, tricky traps, and other things that hate my bogeyness, you just can’t figure it out the first time around. I lost count of how many blind shots I had to trust to the hope of hitting somewhere near the barber pole marker visible over a rise out in a fairway.
 

MORE TO COME

This fall Elkhorn Ridge is going to start construction on another nine holes in, over and around a canyon on the south side of the interstate. If their first effort is any indication, South Dakota golfers have some great fun ahead of them on an exciting and affordable golf track. 

 

Lee Schoenbeck grew up in Webster, practices law in Watertown, and is a freelance writer for the South Dakota Magazine website.


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