Out in the lonely western reaches of North Dakota, great golf has made a surprising stand. The least visited state in the union is home to three world-class layouts, making it arguably the best golf value in the nation.For $140 -- less than the price of a single round at many upscale, daily-fee courses in metro areas -- one can play all three courses that make up the "Triple Challenge": Hawktree Golf Club in Bismarck, Bully Pulpit Golf Course in Medora and The Links of North Dakota near Williston. Each appears on a variety of best-in-America lists. Not only are they remote, they are distant from each other: From Bismarck, it's roughly a 500-mile driving loop to play the courses. The closest pair, Hawktree and Bully Pulpit, are a good two hours apart, and the Links of North Dakota is at least three hours from either of the other two, often via winding, undivided highways. Even with gas prices what they are, it's an amazing bargain. Breathtaking scenery and friendly hospitality come at no extra charge. This is a place where virtually everyone asks (and is genuinely interested about) where you're from. Bismarck is the logical place to begin this expedition, and that's where you'll find Hawktree Golf Club, a modern Jim Engh design that plays up and down hills and depressions blanketed by fescue grasses. The wide, bowled fairways here tend to contain errant shots, so if you like to swing your driver with reckless abandon (and who doesn't?), this is the place to do it. Hawktree's bunkers, often shaped like sinewy troughs, are filled not with sand, but black slag -- another unique feature that's both a nod to the area's coal-producing past and a practical solution to the strong winds that would blow finer material away.
Beginning with the first hole, you'll have tee shots from elevated perches and approach shots that must dodge ponds, wetlands and creeks. Rounds are filled with memorable and exhilarating holes. Indeed, very few play straightaway, and Engh created multiple options -- some with huge risks and payoffs -- for reaching the greens. Such are the contemplative joys of the game at Hawktree. If you're staying in downtown Bismarck, the Radisson hotel is a good lodging option. It's within walking distance of the most enticing eateries, including the metro-style Pirogue Grille and the open kitchen of Bistro. About two hours due west in Medora, Bully Pulpit is a minimalist Michael Hurdzan design hailed by Golf Digest as the best new affordable course of 2005. It begins at the low-lying banks of the Little Missouri River, moves to open meadows and prairie, then climbs for a climactic run through the dramatic and forbidding Badlands. Despite its name, Bully Pulpit doesn't really torment you until the back nine, and even then, it's fairly flat and walkable -- until you reach the badlands holes. After finishing the 13th, courtesy carts are supplied for the hair-raising climb to the 14th, 15th and 16th holes (which, by the way, form a loop, so you can ditch the cart afterward and finish the round on foot). Like Augusta National's famous, nerve-jangling trio of holes called "Amen Corner," the stretch from 14 to 17 here is known in wholesome Medora parlance as the "Oh-my-goodness corner." These vertigo-inducing holes channel through gaps in the towering buttes and rugged badlands terrain.
Medora's historic Rough Riders Hotel provides the best combination of lodging and dining in the city -- though be prepared for a much more rustic experience than what you're likely used to. Most tourists also invariably wind up at the open-air steak buffet at Pitchfork Fondue, where the steaks really are cooked on a pitchfork. It's the spectacle and the setting, rather than the food, that make the meal memorable there. A three-hour ride north from Medora, you'll find the most remote course of the trio, The Links of North Dakota, a wonderfully natural and windswept Stephen Kay design commanding nearly treeless, sand-based terrain high above Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River. The lake is in view on every hole, but there's nary a water hazard in play. Rather, the principal hazards are 82 strategically-placed sand traps, as well as tall prairie grasses and the stern North Dakota wind. In true links fashion, the turf plays hard and fast. The Links calls for an aerial game at the outset of the round because bunkers guard the front of the greens. But then it switches gears, allowing one to be creative and bounce or roll shots onto the slick putting surfaces. Holes five and 15, both long, tough par-fours that play toward the lake, present some of the most stunning visuals on the course. The course hosts only about 9,000 rounds annually, so you usually don't need a tee time, even on summer weekends. Just show up and play. On weekdays, you may literally have the course to yourself. Near the Links, the Missouri River Breaks Lodge and its rustically elegant and spacious cabins overlooking Lake Sakakawea, will likely be the accommodation highlight of your trip. Similarly, Lund's Landing is the best and most convenient place to dine. Be sure to save room for the homemade juneberry pie.