Celebrating links golf, vast dunesland in Nebraska

The Prairie Club in Valentine, Neb.

The Prairie Club in Valentine, Neb.

VALENTINE, Neb. -- Three hundred sparsely populated miles separate this north-central Nebraska town from Omaha, but for Sherman Bixby, an investment counselor who had made the drive to host some clients at The Prairie Club, the distance seemed even greater.

“It’s a whole different world up here,” Bixby said.

That’s clearly a good thing. Having just feasted on a Nebraska-bred filet and bacon-wrapped scallops, Bixby was relaxing at dusk on the deck just off the Canyon Room restaurant, holding a glass of red wine and wearing the beatific look that one might find on a man who had just stuck his approach across the Snake River Canyon on the 18th hole of the Pines Course for a closing birdie.

“When you get done with a day of golf and sit out on the veranda, there’s absolutely no sound,” Bixby said. “It’s absolutely fantastic. I’m not from a big city, but you can’t get away from sound.” So Bixby savors his regular visits to this part of the Nebraska Sandhills. “It’s an experience that I keep coming back to because it’s so soothing,” he said.

The nighttime sky over Valentine is almost as famous as Sand Hills Golf Club, which is 90 miles southwest of here and raised awareness about the virtues of golf in this part of the Cornhusker State. As Bixby was speaking, astronomy buffs were gathering 15 miles away, down State Highway 97 South, for the first night of the annual Nebraska Star Party, which is sort of like Woodstock for stargazers. They spend their days on the sandy shores of Merritt Reservoir, and at night they unpack powerful telescopes and aim them skyward.

It’s the solar enthusiast’s version of playing 36 holes a day.

I did mine the conventional way – the Dunes Course in the morning, followed by 18 on the Pines, walking the entire way. As initially conceived, this seemed like a fabulous idea, and no doubt would be in, say, late September. In mid-July, with triple-digit temperatures and drought conditions, it became something of an endurance test – the Sandhills Marathon.

My sherpa for the day was Jon Oswalt, an affable Alabamian with serious game – good enough to have shot 67 on each course. So if Oswalt pulls a club or reads a green for you, it would be silly to second-guess him.

The Prairie Club was founded by Paul Schock, one of the top amateurs in South Dakota for more than three decades. An avid outdoorsman, Schock gets the spiritual connection that Bixby felt. That is, in fact, what Schock envisioned long before the resort’s 2010 opening – a “pure golf” experience that “touches the soul.”

That’s a pretty heady objective, particularly given the location. There is – and this will not come as a news flash – no ocean in Nebraska. And there’s a strong argument that mediocre courses have been made great, and great courses made mystical, thanks largely to their proximity to crashing waves.

There’s no denying, however, the Sandhills’ uniquely compelling landscape: endless vistas and stark terrain occasionally interspersed with verdant riverbeds. During an earlier stop at Dismal River Club in Mullen, I overheard a visitor, obviously a

first-timer, describing the setting in a cellphone conversation: “It’s a place calledthe Sandhills. You just can’t imagine this place. It’s beautiful. Who knew?”

Well, Schock knew. He was an early member of Sand Hills Golf Club before launching The Prairie Club. He embraces the region’s minimalist ethic – admittedly, perhaps too much at times. The single biggest complaint he hears from guests is that more signage is needed. At night, it’s easy to miss the understated entrance off of Route 97, and even on the second or third time around the Dunes Course, some might find themselves wondering: Do I turn left or right to get to No. 10? Reluctantly, Schock probably will add a few unobtrusive directional signs.

The Dunes and Pines are very different courses, despite their proximity. The Dunes embodies what the Sandhills is all about. It is expansive in every way: some fairways that exceed 100 yards in width, blowout bunkers formed from huge gashes in the earth and greens that range from large to supersized, such as the 16th, which measures 82 yards front to back. If Schock took the swale out of the back-left quadrant, the state’s beloved Cornhuskers could use the green as a practice field.

With all of that width, some might think they can bomb away with impunity. But bunkering precariously dots many landing areas, and you’ll quickly learn that mounding sometimes creates blind second shots, as is the case with tee shots landing on the right side of the first fairway.

The solitude to which Bixby alluded can be found amid those dunes. On some holes, you’ll hear your tee balls thud on the fairway, like a rock dropped into a canyon river several hundred feet below.

The Pines combines some of those prairie-style qualities with more of a Pinehurst-style Sandhills look, owing to the fact that the routing on three occasions darts into the tree-lined land along the canyon, all building to the classic risk-reward finishing hole over the canyon.

Architects Tom Lehman (Dunes) and Graham Marsh (Pines) are scheduled to make modest tweaks this year – for example, opening the approach on the right side of Dunes No. 5 and creating more space on the left side of the Pines No. 7 fairway.

Far more dramatic are plans for a third course, Old School, which Gil Hanse has signed on to design. Hanse’s tentative routing calls for the course to open on gentle prairie land and build to a dramatic conclusion, with the final seven holes playing along and across the canyon. Schock plainly is itching to green-light the project, but is waiting until membership hits 350; it’s currently in the low 300s. Meanwhile, Hanse already has a busy dance card, which includes building the 2016 Olympics course in Brazil and renovating Doral’s TPC Blue Monster for Donald Trump.

Valentine was the final stop on a trip that covered more than 1,000 miles over five days. Let’s address the elephant in the room. If you want to play golf in the Nebraska Sandhills, you have to be prepared to do some driving. As a fascinating graphic in

The Prairie Club’s yardage books illustrates, the Sandhills region, at 20,000 square miles, is about two-thirds the size of Scotland.

With limited commercial air service to the middle of the state, visitors often arrive via Omaha or Denver.

No one can say that Nebraskans don’t have a sense of humor about this. On U.S. Route 20, about 45 miles east of The Prairie Club, there’s a sign alerting motorists that they are “now entering the middle of nowhere.”

So by those standards, Kearney (pop. 31,000), about 185 miles west of Omaha, is a thriving metropolis. Just five miles south of town, in Axtell, architect Jim Engh recently created what he calls “my version of what Ireland golf is all about” at Awarii Dunes.

Now, you have to understand, Engh makes no pretense that he tried to create an American version of Ballybunion or Carne, nor was he trying to mimic Sand Hills. Engh is talking more on an emotional level about giving golfers “a great ride.”

“I was looking for that feeling of inspiration, of having your brain turned on for four hours, whereas in American golf you go numb because all you do is fire at the flag,” he said.

Engh fell hard for the oddities of the Irish game while living in England from 1987 to ’91, and those who have an affinity for his work know that he likes to bring that sensibility to his designs. He’s comfortable using terms such as “weird” and “quirky” to describe Awarii Dunes – words that probably won’t find their way into any marketing collateral. But they speak to Engh’s strategy of taking risks, lest one of his greatest fears be realized: that a golfer might walk off of one of his courses feeling bored or indifferent.

“I’m in the entertainment business,” he said. “I’m an endorphin salesman.”

If so, business is brisk at Awarii Dunes. (Awarii is the Pawnee tribe’s word for windswept.) You’ll get Engh’s drift almost from the outset: There’s the dramatic two-tiered green at No. 2; the wild, 35,000-square-foot double green for Nos. 4 and 7; and the swale in the front-right portion of the sixth green. The par-5 12th, arguably the best hole on the course, culminates on a diagonal green, the back half of which is shielded by a mound. That green is a close cousin to the singular 17th, which involves a totally blind approach to a narrow, bowled green, virtually assuring a good birdie attempt. Engh might like to mess with players’ minds, but he also typically rewards them with receptive greens.

To those who might find any of this contrived, consider this: A dozen of the greens are just as Engh found them, and less than 30,000 cubic yards were moved during construction, according to general manager Brett Evans.

The course against which Awarii Dunes and The Prairie Club inevitably are measured isn’t necessarily Sand Hills, but rather Wild Horse Golf Club, sometimes referred to as the “public Sand Hills.” Very public, in fact.

Wild Horse, located 65 miles west of Kearney in Gothenburg, is arguably the best golf bargain in America. Players can walk for a peak fee of precisely $43.13; that odd rate suggests a distinctly Midwestern ethos that the customer is getting a fair deal and nothing less. (Juniors can play anytime for $15.)

To get to Wild Horse from I-80, visitors will pass the Pony Express Station, located in a leafy park in the center of town, and the Gothenburg Roping Club, established in 1936. Those two attractions, however, are dwarfed by the enormous Frito-Lay facility, which sources corn for all of the chips made west of the Mississippi River.

So aside from its golf and beef, the Sandhills also produces Tostitos, which is like being 3 up after three holes.

Upon arriving at Wild Horse, the gravel parking lot and modest clubhouse offer no hint that you’re about to play the course that is ranked No. 54 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list and has cracked the top 25 in previous years.

You’ll quickly learn, however, that the only thing scarier than encountering a rattler in the rough is getting above the hole at Wild Horse. The entire course plays fast; even this Punch-and-Judy hitter improbably found himself pin-high on the par-5, 527-yard sixth after a so-so drive and a solid 5-iron. It’s hard not to develop a man-crush on the very reachable par-4 15th, or the 17th, where the shadows cast by the blades of a nearby windmill fall on the tee box in the early evening.

It’s a setting that epitomizes the Sandhills golf experience – widely lauded yet still largely undiscovered, challenging yet serene, in harmony with its environment, and always unpretentious. Bixby, who was on his own golf trip through the Sandhills, probably summed it up best with the first words out of his mouth that night on The Prairie Club’s veranda.

“This,” he said, “is a great place to make memories.”

• • •

If you go . . .

1. The Prairie Club

• theprairieclub.com; 402-376-1361

• Stay-and-play packages start at $499 per night for a double lodge room and include complimentary breakfast and caddie for the first round. Upgrades for unlimited golf cost $100.

2. Dismal River Club

• dismalriver.com; 308-546-2900

3. Wild Horse

• playwildhorse.com; 308-537-7700

• $43.13 (walking); $56.87 (with cart)

4. Awarii Dunes

• awariidunes.com; 308-743-1111

• Stay-and-play packages through a local hotel start at $205 per person.

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