Prairie Club delivers pure Sand Hills experience

Tom Lehman's Dunes Course.

VALENTINE, Neb. – Nebraska’s Sand Hills region is a geological anomaly spanning 20,000 square miles, almost entirely in the north-central part of the state. Waves of grassy sand dunes roll across the landscape, sometimes rising more than 300 feet, defying the notion of the pancake-flat Great Plains.

The Sand Hills, the largest tract of stabilized sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere, does not lend itself to growing crops. It can grow only grass, which serves the dual purpose of feeding the livestock that lazily graze the region while holding the sand dunes in place.

Whether by happy coincidence or dumb geological luck, the Sand Hills region sits smack dab on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest sources of groundwater.

This is, in short, perfect golf terrain. Driving along Route 97 or U.S. Highway 20, imaginary golf holes, framed by huge, naturally formed blowout bunkers, pop off the landscape.

The region, however, didn’t register with people in golf circles until Dick Youngscap got the crazy idea to build a private club just down the road in Mullen, population 485. But then Sand Hills Golf Club turned out to be the greatest American course of the past 50 years, added to many golfers’ bucket lists. Suddenly, the Sand Hills region carried with it a magical connotation.

Paul Schock, who developed The Prairie Club, loves Sand Hills Golf Club. He joined when it opened and still calls it one of his favorite places. But when he began crunching the numbers four years ago, he quickly decided the Sand Hills region did not need another pricey private club. He was more intrigued by the Bandon Dunes model – a remote, multi-course destination set in an exotic location, but with a membership component. He quizzed dozens of Bandon customers, asking them how they had arrived at the Oregon resort. Almost invariably, they told him they had flown to Portland and driven four-plus hours south to Bandon. It was exciting, they told him, an adventure, a chance to explore a part of the country they wouldn’t otherwise visit.

Just as Bandon’s guests would pass wineries and small beach towns as they drove down the Oregon coastline, so too, Schock reasoned, could visitors to The Prairie Club experience the grandeur of Mount Rushmore or the stark, eerie beauty of the Badlands on the drive to Valentine.

The landscape is similarly distinctive at The Prairie Club. The massive, exposed dunes of Tom Lehman’s Dunes Course tumble downward to Graham Marsh’s Pines Course, where several of the tree-lined holes dangle on the rim of the Snake River Canyon.

“We’ve never taken anyone there who has not been awestruck,” says Steve Sanford, Schock’s attorney. “When we first took Tom out there, he walked around for a day and just giggled.”

Schock, 52, whose greatest professional joy as a venture capitalist was finding money for small businesses, had to line up his own financing. His first stop was his old firm, Bluestem Capital. It wasn’t a no-brainer for Steve Kirby, who co-founded the company with Schock in 1992.

“You rarely read the terms ‘golf course’ and ‘profit’ in the same sentence,” Kirby says.

Tyler Stowater, another Bluestem partner, says the firm spent nine months studying the plans, careful to avoid the perception it was making a “friendship deal.” Schock had to convince Bluestem and others that the deal would pay dividends.

In the end, the biggest selling point was the land itself. “We’ve never had trouble getting people to invest once we took them there,” Sanford says.

What appealed to Bluestem was that The Prairie Club wasn’t another real-estate play aimed at the mass golf market. Schock is adamant that the club be a pure golf experience, with no homes on the property.

“We wanted to focus in on a product that avid golfers would want to come and play,” Stowater says, adding that he thought The Prairie Club could draft off of the mystique surrounding Sand Hills Golf Club. Of Schock, Stowater says simply, “I trust him with everything.”

The Prairie Club launched in a strong financial position. Schock says it’s a $34 million project with only $6 million in bank debt. Roughly 40 investors have backed the project, including Bluestem, which threw in $4.5 million.

The Prairie Club opened May 31 with 186 members, each of whom paid the introductory initiation deposit of $15,000. (That fee recently rose to $17,500 for individuals and $20,000 for families.) The club has booked 1,500 room-nights. One course will be reserved for member play each day.

The strong early response persuaded Schock to move forward with a fourth course, Old School, which will be a Gil Hanse-Geoff Shackelford collaboration scheduled to open by early 2012. (The team designed the 10-hole Horse Course.)

Schock’s muse on course-design issues is Alister MacKenzie, whose book, “The Spirit of St. Andrews,” is Schock’s architectural “gospel.” Schock wanted courses that would be easy to walk, with springy turf, openings to greens to accommodate the ground game, and big, fast putting surfaces.

“One of the best things you can do for a golfer is (provide) a pleasant surprise,” Schock says.

Lehman’s Dunes Course is Schock’s formula on steroids, partly out of necessity. Fairways on the elevated, treeless, windswept terrain often are 70 yards wide or larger. The Dunes’ blowout bunkers, which mimic natural formations found in the Sand Hills, are visually daunting, but the course is so big that their presence often serves more to provide definition than hazards.

Marsh’s Pines Course, particularly on the front nine, looks more like something out of the Sand Hills of North Carolina rather than Nebraska, with the early, tree-lined holes close to the canyon eventually giving way to a wide-open landscape. While wind often whips across the Dunes, barely a gentle breeze is felt on parts of the Pines because of the trees and lower elevation. As on the Dunes, the greens tend to rest in natural settings that underwent minimal grading.

“We really focused on places (for greens) that were pleasant spots to be,” Schock says.

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