Small-town America home to golf adventures
Wednesday, November 9, 2011
When Paul Schock got the idea a few years ago to build a large golf resort in the wild, remote Sand Hills of north-central Nebraska, he found inspiration for the project in a visit to a large golf resort built on the wild, remote Oregon coastline.
Bandon Dunes Resort has inspired thousands of golfers since its first course opened in 1999. Schock drew a different sort of inspiration from his visit. Like Mike Keiser, owner of Bandon Dunes, Schock had procured a stunning piece of land; his Nebraska property had large sand dunes abutting the Snake River Canyon. The only obvious downside was the location, far removed from any population center. But Schock left Bandon, Ore., more convinced than ever that he should move ahead with construction of The Prairie Club, which opened in 2010 in Valentine, Neb.
“I probably talked to 35 people when I was there, and literally every single person got there the same way I did,” Schock recently recalled. “They found their way to Portland and then they drove to Bandon. It was part of the adventure . . .
“Being remote is obviously our biggest challenge, but the whole feeling of being away from everything also is a big advantage.”
Bandon Dunes’ success has validated that premise on a grand scale, but it’s not the only golf resort that has eschewed the “location, location, location” mantra. That got me to thinking: What are some of my favorite off-the-beaten-path golf resorts? Here are some places I would leap at the chance to visit again – even if getting there requires a commitment.
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The Prairie Club
Getting there: The closest large airports are in Rapid City, S.D. (232 miles), Sioux Falls, S.D. (264 miles), Omaha, Neb. (314 miles) and Denver (376 miles). Smaller airports in Pierre, S.D., and North Platte, Neb., each are 130 miles away. Rapid City is a good option because it’s convenient to Mount Rushmore (my accommodating Delta pilot did a 360-degree loop around the monument on approach) and the Badlands.
Being there: Sand Hills GC, located 70 miles to the south, made this region hip for golfers. The Prairie Club has made the Sand Hills experience accessible for golf tourists. It’s so remote and lightly populated that it’s a favorite spot for star-gazers.
There are two starkly different 18-hole layouts and the short Horse Course in front of the lodge. Everything about the Dunes Course is expansive: the 70-yard-wide fairways, the gaping blowout bunkers, the treeless, windswept landscape. Wind is less of a factor on the Pines Course, which plays along the canyon and has several tree-lined holes. Schock is determined to pull the trigger as early as 2012 on a third 18-hole layout, with architect Gil Hanse awaiting the green light to begin work.
The 31-room lodge and the four-room cabins along the canyon are the embodiment of prairie design and comforts.
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French Lick Resort
French Lick, Ind.
Getting there: The closest large airports are either Louisville, Ky. (83 miles), or Indianapolis (100 miles).
Being there: The closer you get, the more you’ll feel like you’re passing through a scene in “Hoosiers”: winding, two-lane roads, endless fields, large barns, the occasional basketball hoop. French Lick is, after all, Larry Bird’s hometown. A century ago, the French Lick Springs and West Baden Springs hotels, located a mile apart, were a favorite retreat for celebrities, who would arrive by train. The properties had fallen into disrepair by the time that Bill Cook, an Indiana businessman and philanthropist, bought them and began a massive renovation.
French Lick Resort is worth visiting if only to marvel at the 200-foot domed atrium of the West Baden Springs Hotel. While there, however, golfers will want to play the vertiginous Pete Dye Course and the wonderfully restored Donald Ross Course.
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The Wilderness at Fortune Bay
Getting there: Fly to Minneapolis and drive 3 1⁄2 hours, or get a connection into Duluth, which is 63 miles from Biwabik and 85 miles from Tower. It’s common for golfers to visit both resorts, which are 25 miles apart, when in northeast Minnesota.
Being there: Two of the three courses here – Giants Ridge-Quarry and The Wilderness – annually battle for the top spot among Golfweek’s Best Courses You Can Play in Minnesota. All three courses, including Giants Ridge-Legend, were designed by Jeff Brauer, though you’ll be hard pressed to find similarities in the layouts. Giants Ridge-Quarry is particularly stunning and notoriously difficult.
Book ahead: There’s a narrow golf window in northeast Minnesota, and you’ll probably have to fight the state’s famously avid golfers for tee times.
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Meadows of Dan, Va.
Getting there: Fly into Roanoke, Va. (69 miles), Greensboro, N.C. (72 miles), or Charlotte, N.C. (140 miles).
Being there: Part of the joy of visiting Primland is the option of taking the Blue Ridge Parkway before exiting at Meadows of Dan at milepost 177.7. The Parkway scenery is equalled, if not surpassed, by the 30-mile vistas from the upper floors of Primland’s boutique lodge, which opened in 2009. Don’t let the lodge’s barn motif fool you; the 26 rooms embody rustic elegance.
Primland has long been known as a hunting and fishing destination, but golf was added to the mix four years ago when architect Donald Steel conjured an ingenious routing for the Highland Course. From above, as I’ve noted in the past, the fingers of fairways that jut out to, and run along the edges of, the Dan River Gorge might remind some people of New Zealand’s Cape Kidnappers, sans ocean.