The Heartland: Rolling through the Sandhills
Monday, August 16, 2010
We’ve all been there before, but usually at 37,000 feet. And from there, in the jet stream on a cross-country flight, the vast open space designated “Nebraska” on maps doesn’t look very compelling. But as we discovered during a five-day, 800-mile bus tour of the state, the land here has an alluring quality, with massive rolls and natural blowouts. From the vantage point of a bus window, the keen eye of a golfer spots resplendent holes everywhere.
“We” are 28 Golfweek’s Best course evaluators, on a tour of the Cornhusker State, or at least that part of it that’s of interest to students of course design. The irony of such a sojourn is that if you want to experience a modern variant of classic, seaside linksland, the place to go isn’t either coast, but rather as far away from them as you can get –
dead center in the U.S.
First stop is to Wild Horse Golf Club in Gothenburg, a 250-mile drive along Interstate 80 from downtown Omaha.
On the way, we pass under the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, the state’s attempt at a tourist destination in the form of a walk-through showcase of Nebraska history and culture. It spans the highway, and while it’s informative, it has all of the charm of a hollowed-out tree. The real draw here along the banks of the Platte River are the migratory sandhill cranes, the spindly-legged birds that take up residence in the spring and fall and draw nature lovers from throughout the world.
Wild Horse is one of those rare public courses where the game’s diverse demography is on full display. Gucci-clad A-listers just off their Gulfstream 5 line up at the first tee next to ranch hands in cargo pants with six-packs on their golf carts. The course features look like they were hand cut with a pocket knife. Knee-high, wavy grasses have
a strange way of hiding intended target areas when you veer from the ideal line. The clubhouse is your basic little house on the prairie and yet manages, with its simple fare and cluttered pro shop, to make you feel as though you’re in a small-town general store. Wild Horse, rated No. 26 on the Golfweek’s Best Modern list, has a weekend walking green fee of only $41 and surely must be the best value in U.S. golf.
Nebraska: Where to play
• $205 (plus caddie)
• $165 (hosted guest); $220 (public)
• Stay-and-play packages available
• $35.50-$41 (walking)
Welcome to the Sand Hills, 20,000 square miles of rolling sand dunes covered in prairie grasses. This stirring, windswept topography comprises a quarter of Nebraska – or more pointedly, an area two-thirds the size of Scotland or Ireland. The porous soil drains perfectly, ideal for firm turf conditions and ground-game golf. The only drawback for the game is the tendency for the land to migrate of its own accord, thanks to wind and water erosion. Bunkers migrate. Crevices open. Erosion has never seemed more natural.
“The sand has a mind of its own,” says Chris Johnston, chief executive officer of Dismal River. He’s part of a new ownership group that includes course designer Jack Nicklaus and former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem. They preside over 3,000 acres of ranchland, gulches, tumbling sandhills and river bottom. Dismal River sits 20 miles southwest of Mullen, a tumbleweed town (population 485) that looks like it could have been the set for “The Last Picture Show.”
Dismal River operates as a private club, though in an effort to showcase the remote place to prospective members, the club will accommodate guests who have been introduced by their home club’s PGA professional. And well-accommodated they will be, thanks to two dozen rustic cabins and an equally comfy clubhouse overlooking the river bed. The golf course intentionally has a rough-hewn look and settles naturally onto the rolling terrain. The low-impact feel of the place is evident in the putting surfaces, with contours as native to the ground on which they sit. Recently, a welcomed effort has been made to soften some of the contours and make them more receptive.
The Mecca during any such hajj surely is Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen. Since Sand Hills opened in 1995, golfers have made the pilgrimage to this region to experience the club’s native look and simple approach to service and the game. As a private club, Sand Hills carefully limits access. But now daily-fee players and resort golfers hankering for that kind of experience can find it at the newly opened Prairie Club in Valentine, in north-central Nebraska. There, guests have the run of two 18-hole courses that, while sitting side by side, are markedly different in styling and presentation.
The Graham Marsh-designed Pines Course ambles along the high ground overlooking the well-treed Snake River Canyon. There’s a lot of motion to the putting surfaces, and with most of the tees sitting at grade level, you end up playing many tee shots uphill or at least threading drives through corridors that are wider than they first appear.
The Tom Lehman-designed Dunes Course, by contrast, sits on a vast, unadorned site and is routed in a huge counter-clockwise loop. Just walking the course is something of an adventure, not least because of the substantial hikes from green to tee and because at every point where Lehman could have chosen soft ground for his holes, he opted for the more demanding terrain. With its enormous greens – averaging 12,500 square feet – the Dunes Course clearly is built on a massive scale and feels like it fills the whole prairie.
After some demanding golf on those two courses, we took a break (and a stiff drink or two each) for a simpler excursion on The Prairie Club’s Horse Course, a Gil Hanse-Geoff Shackelford collaboration. The scorecard for the day showed all of 732 yards, par-27 for the nine-hole loop. It’s ideally suited for the kind of goofing-around golf that might include a two-man scramble in which you play your worst ball. But with its shots across sandstone canyons, it’s also a harbinger of a third 18-hole course to come, and the land that Hanse has to work with for that one includes open prairie land and some dramatic play across the Snake River Canyon.
Prairie golf isn’t the only Nebraska standard we sampled. On the bus ride from Valentine back to Omaha, we broke up the 297-mile trip with a discussion of our assigned text for the week, native daughter Willa Cather’s 1913 novel, “O Pioneers.” And what better reward for reading this bleak account of everyday life on the Nebraska prairie than to visit another Midwest institution: Culver’s, where the butter burgers (entrée) and frozen custard (dessert) were an ideal conclusion to a pioneering golf trip.