There’s been lots said about Dakota Dunes, Wayne Carleton and Graham Cooke’s effort just to the south of Saskatoon. It won Golf Digest’s Best New Course for Canada in 2005, something that was stunning considering how good Eagles Nest near Toronto is.
The only problem was that I didn’t know anyone who had played it. It was Zelig — popping up everywhere, but with no one to answer any questions. Anyway, finally I managed to see it today.
So what was the hype? The discussion centered largely around the site — set in foothill dunes on a native reserve. The photos looked great and there was talk of a Canadian Sand Hills, except this course was public and could be played for $45.
It is too bad that it doesn’t quite deliver the goods, though it is a solid golf course with some fine attributes.
First, the highlights: Carleton delivers when it comes to playability, punctuating the course with an interesting mix of holes with significant variation in yardage. As well, the best holes almost all have some interesting natural features, like the 8th, with its pinched fairway with a large dune on the left, the 9th, with its blowout bunker just outside the landing area, or the terrific 17th, with its fascinating green site.
The biggest point of confusion, to my way of thinking, is the mix of bunker styles. The natural blowouts that have occasionally been accentuated by Carleton, are excellent throughout. It is too bad there aren’t more. They fit in with the surroundings remarkably well and look like great fun. I didn’t have the good fortune of playing out of one, which was disappointing. The dark, natural sand is distinctive and intriguing.
So what’s the issue? Throughout the remainder of the course Carleton decided to use ovals and bunkers shaped in simple patterns. These pop up in strange places throughout the course (sometimes not that far off the tee on some par 4s) and look like the plain sister next to the natural blowouts. It is hard to understand why Carleton didn’t do more natural appearing bunkers, especially on holes like the fine par 5 18th. It is a lost opportunity.
Nothing seems forced at Dakota Dunes, though Carleton misses on risk/reward 13th. A driveable par four in appearance where players can head over trouble and straight to the green or play safe down the right side, Carleton seems to have missed the delicate balance of providing options. Since playing safe down the right is not that easy and the risk isn’t penalized that heavily, many will simply try for the green.
Beyond that, there is a question of memorability. For such a distinctive site, I expected to be able to recall every hole. I can’t. And with the exception of the 17th, holes with stunning natural settings don’t abound. That doesn’t mean Carleton forced holes into the wrong sites. Rather, some of the sites that lent themselves to the routing simply aren’t remarkably picturesque or wildly naturalistic.
In the end, Dakota Dunes is in many ways the equal of Eagles Nest in Toronto, though I think Doug Carrick’s strategic skill is stronger than either that of Carleton or Cooke. But Carrick makes the same error in mixing bunker styles at Eagles Nest that Carleton does at Dakota Dunes.
One day a great dunes site will be developed in Canada. It could be Alberta Dunes, Mike Keiser’s dream site in Lloydminster. Or maybe not. As far as Dakota Dunes is concerned, it is a valiant effort, but one that comes up slightly short.