From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten:
This may sound curious, but a graphic example of the polarization that defines the extremes of golf course architecture—minimalist versus scorched earth—can be found in the Black Hills of South Dakota. There exists a beautiful, natural, pine-covered mountain range, containing (did you know?) the highest peaks between the Rockies and the Pyrenees of western Europe, and yet some audacious individuals felt they could improve the Black Hills by cutting down the trees, blasting away the rock and creating something totally artificial.
The results were the late Gutzon Borglum’s half-finished Mount Rushmore and the late Korczak Ziolkowski’s barely-started sculpture of Crazy Horse. If you’re a purist, both are scars upon the landscape, a slap in the face of Mother Nature by men gone mad in their arrogance. If you’re a tourist, they’re the main reason you come to the Black Hills. Without them, you’d just as soon go skiing in the Rockies.
It’s that way in golf architecture, too. One faction seems duty-bound to follow, almost exclusively, the flow of the land in the creation of a golf course, adapting the ground only slightly to accommodate the demands of the game. Another faction feels no such duty whatsoever, and will bulldoze away mountains if need be to fashion a beautiful, playable, maintainable golf course that will attract customers far and wide.
Golf architect Ron Farris, who has lived for decades in Rapid City, in the heart of the Black Hills, has worked both ends of the spectrum. While an associate of Perry Dye, handling projects in Japan in the 1980s, Farris moved his share of mountains. But when he got the opportunity in the early 2000s to create a course in his adopted hometown, he decided to go the lay-of-the-land route. That would have been fairly simple, if the land had been down on the flood plain of Rapid City, where most of the city’s courses, including Arrowhead Country Club and Meadowbrook Golf Course, are located. But Farris found land high on the hogback ridge that divides Rapid City and gives the city its unique character.
A minimalist course design in mountainous terrain can be a tricky proposition, but Farris pulled it off at The Golf Club at Red Rock. It is perhaps the best ground-hugging golf course laid out on a mountain slope that I've played this side of Coore & Crenshaw’s Plantation Course at Kapalua in Hawaii.
Indeed, just as at Kapalua, a yardage book or GPS system seems pointless. The opening hole at Red Rock is 340 yards from the back tee, but plunges downhill at least 100 feet, and at the half-mile-high elevation of Rapid City, you can drive the green with a well-struck shot, although a diagonal string of gnarly bunkers short of the green convince most to lay up for position off the tee. But even timid golfers will feel aggressive on the 376-yard dogleg-left fourth, where the green sits far below, at the end of a banked-turn fairway, with all the ground seemingly feeding every ball down toward the green.
But what goes down must also come up, sooner or later, and Farris’ transitional holes going upgrade are things of beauty. The 586-yard second rolls left and uphill against a mountain slope, with a couple of sentinel pines left in the fairway to complicate things. The 405-yard 13th plays over a canyon from an elevated tee to a wide fairway that climbs uphill and around an unreachable target bunker to a green at the top of a ridge.
In true follow-the-flow-of-the-land fashion, Red Rock concludes a healthy distance from the clubhouse, rather than forcing an 18th hole across the landscape merely to finish outside the pro shop. The 17th and 18th play along both sides of a gentle creek valley, the 385-yard 17th on the left, with a second shot over the valley to a perched green, and the 455-yard 18th, off dramatic tee boxes benched into a hillside, has a side-sloping fairway that curves to the right around yet another sentinel pine to a wonderfully isolated finishing green.
But when you let nature dictate the course, sometimes you get awkward situations, and Red Rock has a couple of those. The landing area on the uphill 406-yard third is blind from the tee, so they’ve use an extra-tall “barber pole” in the middle of the fairway to indicate the target area. Even more awkward, at least for first-time players, is the 603-yard 14th, which twists and turns up and down over two deep ravines. To define the uphill tee shot, Farris installed a short target bunker on the right to indicate the preferred line of play (the unseen fairway bends to the right past that bunker), but I suspect most average golfers play to the left of it, getting little roll. A good drive over that bunker will run down into a hollow, from where there’s little clue as to what lies ahead, which is another ravine, filled with bunkers, short of the green. I guess 14 is the one hole where a diagram in a yardage book would come in handy.
Other architects would have carved out the 14th hole for visibility, or artificially elevated the tees, or saddled the fairway, or all of the above. But Farris felt the natural contours established a very good, if challenging, par 5, and if it takes a couple of times around the thing to learn its quirks, so be it.
In truth, The Golf Club at Red Rock is not an absolutely authentic lay-of-the-land layout. In a couple of corners, Farris had to push a bit of earth around to yield to the dictates of the surrounding housing development, which has boomed in recent years. Still, the irrigation pond and the 10th green beside it are about as artificial as Red Rock gets.
For the most part, Red Rock is a satisfying round of golf through the Black Hills of South Dakota, touching all the area's characteristics, from high meadows to pine-lined ridges to dark stream ravines. I've long felt The Golf Club at Red Rock should someday become a destination course in South Dakota, in order to prove that, in golf, you don’t necessarily have to build a monument to attract players far and wide.