Stan's Folly, they called it, and no wonder. Ten years ago Stan Weeks was the superintendent of a rinky-dink nine-hole golf course set amid a prairie of cattle ranches and truck stops in Williston, N.Dak. Golf was as much a part of the local lifestyle as three-piece suits, but Weeks was visited by a vision just as surely as Ray Kinsella heard whispers among the corn. Despite a legion of naysayers, he built a course, the Links of North Dakota at Red Mike Resort, which turned out better than he or anyone else imagined. Weeks's field of dreams, though, slowly disintegrated into a small-town soap opera of lawsuits, splintered friendships, a sex scandal and financial failure, and last month Red Mike was sold at auction for a fraction of its value. "We did something nobody said we could do," says Weeks, but the building, as well as the sale, of Red Mike is only part of the story.
A Tireless self-improver, Weeks, then 29, spent the winter of 1992 at Rutgers taking a class in turf-grass and course management. On the last day of the semester he ambushed his instructor, Stephen Kay, a New Yorker looking to make a name for himself as a course designer, and sold him on the possibilities of the Badlands. Intrigued, Kay contacted his favorite shaper, Marvin Schlauch, who grew up in Jamestown, N.Dak. Acting as Kay's eyes, Schlauch visited three potential sites with Weeks over the Fourth of July weekend. The first two were mundane. The third was miraculous.
"You'd swear it was Ireland," Kay says, recalling the first photos sent by Schlauch. "Rolling terrain. Views of [Lake Sakakawea] from every hole. The dirt was essentially USGA soil to six feet deep—you could build greens right on it. I knew I could work until I was 95 and never get a better site."
The location was known as Red Mike Hill because it's believed to be the final resting place of a notorious 19th-century horse thief who was either hanged or set ablaze—depending on who's telling the story—by a vigilante mob. Red Mike Hill was situated in the town of Ray (pop. 534), 30 miles east of Williston via Highway 1804—the Lewis and Clark Trail, a road so lightly trafficked that passing motorists often wave to one another.
Weeks, whose superintendent's salary was $24,000, needed a partner to help acquire the land, and he immediately thought of his friend Mike Ames, an irrigation contractor from Williston who owns four businesses. (Weeks worked winters for one of them, setting irrigation pivots.) Ames wasn't a golfer, but two years of listening to Weeks go on about his dream had turned him into a romantic. He signed on as Weeks's partner and provided the money to buy the land. "All I know how to do is water a course," says Ames, "but I wanted to build something nice out here, something North Dakota could be proud of."
The banks were more circumspect when it came time to find financing for the construction. The Williston area lacked certain tangibles—money, golfers and tourists, for starters. The average household income was only $33,000. There were just 20,000 people in Williams County (that's 9.5 per square mile; the national average is 80), and the number of single-digit handicappers in the area hovered around single digits. Visitors? North Dakota ranked 49th in the U.S. in tourism revenue. Another unhappy number was 200—that's how many miles Ray is from the nearest city of any size, Bismarck (pop. 55,000). If you build it...? Not much of a business plan.
After the banks took a pass, the dogged Kay visited North Dakota several times over an 18-month period to help Weeks and Ames raise cash. They hoped to pull in $1 million for a resort that would include the course, a pitch-and-putt, a swimming area, a boat ramp, plus hiking and biking trails. In the end they scrounged up $300,000 from 20 area investors who formed the Red Mike Development Corporation. (Weeks and Ames held 31.8% of the shares in the corporation.)
"I didn't want the project to end," says Kay, "so I said to everyone, 'Why don't we leave our fees on the table?' That's what we did, and we built the course for only $300,000." The budget restraints, coupled with the virtues of the site, led to an amazingly natural design. Kay barely touched the land, moving only 7,000 cubic yards of earth. (It is not uncommon for the Tom Fazios of the world to move upward of a half-million cubic yards.) The accoutrements were also down-home. Off Highway 1804 golfers turned in at a sign that simply read GOLF COURSE, bumped along for three miles to the modest cedar-sided clubhouse, which was there all by its lonesome.
The Links of North Dakota at Red Mike Resort officially opened on July 11, 1995, with a greens fee of $26. (Because of the cost cutting there was no resort, only an RV park adjacent to the clubhouse.) The reviews were rapturous. Golf Magazine called Red Mike "one of the purest expressions of links-style golf ever conceived outside Scotland." Golf Digest ranked Red Mike the best course in North Dakota and No. 2 in the country in the Best New Affordable category. In 1997 Red Mike debuted at No. 41 on Golfweek's Top 100 Modern Courses list. This should have been the culmination of Weeks's triumph, but he wasn't around to enjoy it. By then he had already been cast out of his Eden, felled by a kind of original sin.
"I thought she was 22 or 23," says a Red Mike shareholder of one of the course's early pro-shop assistants, who was really much younger. "I told Stan, 'Maybe you should get rid of her.' Instead, he ended up fooling around with her. I mean, get a Playboy—you don't fool around with an employee."