MULLEN, Neb. – If you’re looking to get away from it all – really far away from it all – I have just the place for you.
Tiny Mullen, which bills itself as “the biggest little town in Hooker County,” sits smack dab in the middle of the Nebraska Sandhills, nearly 20,000 square miles of grass-covered dunes. Omaha (to the east) and Denver (to the west) each is about 300 miles away.
Maybe it’s one of those strange post-modern inversions of market law (“location, location, location”) that the more remote and inaccessible, the more intense the emotional appeal.
Local ranch life in central Nebraska is arduous, and many young people leave to find work elsewhere. But when it comes to golf, the place is magnetic, and Dismal River is part of the attraction.
Sixteen years ago, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw – working with Dick Youngscap, a hardscrabble architect/ businessman from Lincoln – staked a claim on 1,200 acres in Hooker County and proceeded to revolutionize golf-course architecture with a naturalistic gem called Sand Hills Golf Club, ranked No. 1 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list.
The initial development of Dismal River five years ago was intended as a high-end alternative to that scruffy, low-budget neighbor. Ambitious plans called for real estate, country-club amenities and fawning personal service. Jack Nicklaus, then in the middle of working with Tom Doak on Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., abandoned his usual high-modernist design style at Dismal River and adopted with a vengeance a ground-hugging routing that used the existing contours. Give the man credit for embracing a new style. Dismal River featured a pronounced saddle putting surface, a bunker in the middle of a par-3 green, option-laden, drivable par 4s, a remnant windmill in front of a par-5 green and lots of short-game recovery chipping areas around and behind putting surfaces. The acknowledgement of classic shotmaking is a welcome addition to the Nicklaus design repertoire, even if at times Dismal River is over the top.
That’s why you go and tweak after opening. Some severe greens eventually were softened in contour; washouts and poorly draining areas had to be regraded; and some fairways had to be reshaped to keep the ball in play. Gradually, the editing took hold. The par-72 course, 7,442 yards from the back tees, has now become far more playable, especially from the member tees measuring 6,739 yards.
At an elevation of 3,800 feet, Dismal River affords golfers a 6.5-percent yardage bonus, or 10 yards on 150-yard approaches. The real bonus is turbocharged fescue fairways, which run fast. Even on tee shots, ground contours must be read as if they were (very) long putts. The fairways are plenty wide, but woe be the roughs, which essentially are random stands of wild prairie grass that offer little chance for recovery.
If, as an industry saying goes, “the third owner makes the money,” the new management team at Dismal River, led by chief operating officer Chris Johnston, finally has a chance. Johnston not only is the de facto general manager but also head cheerleader and a whirling dervish of a publicist. He has not been afraid to make changes in the Nicklaus course. And now he has hired Tom Doak to build a second course, this one with a routing through broad, open prairie, then under a dramatic bluff and finishing with two holes on the Dismal River.
When it’s playable, probably by late 2012, there will be even more reason to make the trek.
• • •
Rater’s notebook: Dismal River
1. Ease and intimacy of routing: 7
This is a big property; it’s a mile from the clubhouse to the first tee, where you’ll also find Jack’s Shack. (Don’t miss the chili!) Once on the course, you are immersed in the dunes and wandering around them half lost, half in awe.
2. Quality of shaping: 6
There’s a lot of reverse camber at work here, most of it because of the feature work of the Big Guy Upstairs and Nicklaus’ siting of fairways and greens in spots where a player has to fight deflection away from the intended line of play. Bunker shapes are on the ornate side and not quite natural.
3. Natural setting and overall land plan: 9
The long entrance drive (17 miles!) is hypnotic, with the low-slung, prairie-style clubhouse ahead and the wetlands meadow along the Dismal River under the big hill to the west. Rough-hewn cabins with comfy interiors are terraced on a prairie slope.
4. Interest of greens and surrounds: 5
A bit overdone here and there, especially considering likelihood of high winds. Recent modifications help.
5. Variety and memorability of par 3s: 5
A bit on the short side to compensate for severity; from the 6,739-yard tees, I hit 9-7-8-7-irons. Riviera-style green with bunker in the middle (10th hole) is actually fine; the crazy one is the fifth hole, 188 yards uphill from back (150 from the middle) to a green that is called a saddle but is actually like the bare back of a wild bronco. Luckily, there’s room elsewhere on site for a replacement hole.
6. Variety and memorability of par 4s: 6
On the raw side but a whole lot of fun, with two drivable par 4s and some really intense, oblique-angle shots.
7. Variety and memorability of par 5s: 9
Great set of par 5s, thanks to intruding bunkers on the second-shot landing areas that require thought, care and luck. Some will hate the windmill fronting the fourth hole and consider it intrusive; I thought it a brilliant vernacular gesture to leave it where it has been for decades.
8. Basic conditioning: 9
Consistent, smooth ball roll on bentgrass greens and firm fairways; instead of irrigation bleeding out to the edge, there’s a well-manicured interior and then maddeningly heavy, high, nasty roughs in the immediate roll-out areas where water runoff (and wind-blown spray) have created unduly lush growth.
9. Landscape and tree management: 9
Not much more than waist-high growth everywhere and nothing that obstructs views.
10. “Walk in the Park” test: 7
Scenic, hard and frustrating; also haunting, but in a good way.
Close to a top 100; certainly a top 200 Modern course. With its brazen feature work and starkly angular demands, it’s best thought of as Nicklaus’ version of Tobacco Road. The macho culture and furnishing of the clubhouse make Dismal River seem like a little frat house on the prairie – and many will love that.