Nebraska's Dismal River shows a softer side

The Dismal River Club in Mullen, Neb.

MULLEN, Neb. -- To reach Dismal River Club, visitors turn off of Highway 97 and travel 17 miles on a paved, one-lane road that ripples across the plains, occasionally cresting on a wave of asphalt that leaves one wondering what, if anything, is approaching from the other side. If it’s a Ford F150, be prepared to drop a wheel off the side of the road and keep on motoring.

Welcome to golf in the wild, vast, untamed heartland. Spanning 3,000 acres, Dismal River Club is the sort of place where one might go not just to play golf, but to disappear off the grid.

“It’s like a dude ranch for golf,” said CEO Chris Johnston, who leads the ownership group that took over the property three years ago.

Johnston bears a passing resemblance to the late comedian John Candy, and presides over the property with a similarly amusing shtick. On a tour of the clubhouse, Johnston led a guest past the bar and quipped, “Now we’re entering the wing of sin” – pointing to hand-crafted poker and billiards tables – “and atonement,” nodding toward the fitness room across the hall.

That sense of humor no doubt has come in handy in the turnaround effort of a property that was troubled from its 2006 opening. The severity of Dismal River’s first course, designed by Jack Nicklaus, was the subject of much Internet chatter, and the criticism was intensified by the club’s proximity to Sand Hills Golf Club, also in Mullen and ranked No. 1 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list.

Simple fixes have been made, moves such as softening some greens and stopping irrigation of the rough so that players can hit recovery shots rather than reach in their bags for another ball. Some tinkering continues,including a new green planned for No. 13; other quirks remain, but nothing that can’t be overcome with advice from a caddie or seasoned member.

“It’s a really good golf course,” Johnston said of Nicklaus’ work, “but it’s being compared to Einstein; it’s being compared to Michelangelo.”

Even on this point, Johnston has maintained his sense of humor. He pointed to a 201-yard marker in the ninth fairway, a reference to the fact that, in its first five years, Dismal River had failed to crack the top 200 on Golfweek’s Best Modern Courses list.

“We figured we must be 201,” Johnston said. “C’mon, you gotta admit, that’s funny.” (Johnston might need to invest in a new marker that reads 196, the spot where Dismal River debuted on the Modern list in May.)

While the concerns about the Nicklaus layout have been largely addressed, the much bigger project is a second course under development by Tom Doak and likely to open by late 2013.

Johnston isn’t exactly downplaying expectations, which is understandable given the quality of the land. On a tour of the Doak site – like the Nicklaus course, it begins one mile from the clubhouse – Johnston explains a routing anomaly.

“We have a front eight and a back 10,” he said. “These are the 18 best holes Mr. Doak could find.”

Doak cleverly has integrated local landmarks – such as blowout bunkers beyond Nos. 7 and 12 or an old buffalo run on No. 13 – as target lines that point the way to natural green settings.

It figures to be a wild ride; for example, the fifth is a 250-yard par 3 that, depending on the wind, could be difficult to reach, while the sixth is a downwind, drivable par 4.

The routing eventually moves downhill toward the riverbed, and it’s already clear that the character of the course will change dramatically over the final seven holes. On the par-3 16th and par-4 18th, in particular, the river figures to be in play.

Dick Johnston, Chris’ father and business partner, said the Doak course could be finished for as little as $2 million. (The Johnstons used to run shaft maker Royal Precision, which they sold to True Temper in 2006.)

The modest price speaks to the Johnstons’ business plan. With a lovely hilltop clubhouse, 78 very comfortable beds for 184 members and a $5,000 initiation fee, they’re trying to deliver a lot of bang for relatively few bucks.

In that sense, it could be a model for a new and more chastened golf economy.

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If you go. . .

Dismal River Club: dismalriver.com; 308-546-2900

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