The next time you’re passing through Mullen, Nebraska—it is, after all, 300 miles northwest of Omaha and close to practically nothing else—you’ll find one of modern golf’s most fascinating artifacts in a small picture frame at Sand Hills Golf Club (private; greens fee upon request; 36410 Sand Hills Rd.; 308-546-2237). The frame is easy to miss in its spot by the dining room threshold, but this is a club that enjoys hiding important things (like, say, the entrance drive) from those who aren’t paying attention. Inside the frame is a single piece of letterhead from the offices of Coore and Crenshaw, covered in sticks and dots, squiggly lines and question marks. It looks like the diagram of a newly discovered nebula—indeed, the accompanying placard describes it as the “constellation map” the architects carried with them as they explored client Dick Youngscap’s ranch land two decades ago. All told, they found 136 (!) holes that might meet their standards—the true challenge was selecting the 18 that would best fit together.
Western Nebraska, as one might surmise, is not your typical golf destination. When it comes to basic modern conveniences—WiFi, Starbucks, gas stations at regular intervals—much of the Sand Hills is stuck in another century. Although the region’s clubs and resorts are oases of good food and comfortable accommodation, non-golfing spouses won’t find spas, boutiques or noteworthy sightseeing diversions (unless you count “Carhenge,” in the railroad town of Alliance, which is exactly what it sounds like).
But for the game’s most zealous acolytes, those willing to stray far from the beaten path in search of new experiences, the Sand Hills area is a dream. Any golfer setting out north from the regional hub of North Platte will intuitively understand Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s star map, as their next hour will be spent passing through a sere and rolling dunescape, fantasizing about the natural golf holes just sitting by the roadside waiting to be brought to life. There could be scores of world-class courses out here…if only there were people around to play them. (Almost exactly the size of Costa Rica, the Sand Hills has an unfathomable population density of one person per square mile.) This might be why drivers will, almost without fail, lift an index finger from the steering wheel as they pass each other—it’s less a greeting than an existential confirmation.
It’s hard to overstate how radical it was at the time for Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion, and his partner to be traipsing around the middle of nowhere, “listening to the land.” Trends in golf architecture often track with the zeitgeist, and the two iconic designs of the 1980s are suffused with the brash maximalism of that age: Pete Dye’s TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course in Florida (with its famous manmade island green) and especially Tom Fazio’s Shadow Creek (in which the architect transformed a blank swath of Vegas desert into an Edenic playground) loudly proclaimed that the man on the ’dozer was king. The idea of building a course almost completely devoid of earthmoving was laughable, as was that of founding a club in a hopelessly remote location. Sand Hills, which opened in 1995 and was immediately hailed as a classic, has inspired two revolutions—one in minimalist construction techniques, the other in what might be called a “Field of Dreams” approach to site selection. Helped along by the boom in private jet travel, golf developers no longer view a remote location as far afield as Cape Breton Island or Tasmania as an insurmountable obstacle. “Sand Hills,” said Chris Brands, codesigner of the nearby Dunes Course at the Prairie Club, “was like Nirvana ending the hair-metal era. The impact was that immense.”
Surveying the scenery from the high first tee, golfers experience a feeling of giddy anticipation like the one serious snowboarders get before tipping into a bowl of fresh powder. The curtain rises with an epic par five that plays down into a valley fairway, then sweeps left before rising again to a ridgeline green, and from there Sand Hills rattles off one furiously imaginative hole after another. The routing boxes the compass, and given the absence of any prevailing wind (but the constant presence of the element itself), one of the greatest joys is in experiencing how differently each hole can play from day to day. For example, the third, a par three of 216 yards, might be approached with anything from driver to seven-iron.
Sand Hills may be a tougher ticket to punch than it was in its early days, when road-trippers could occasionally land a tee time with a polite phone call or letter, but it has retained its unpretentious atmosphere. The guest cabins are almost stubbornly bland and retrograde in decor (we’re talking carpeted bathrooms), but in fairness, this isn’t a place where one lolls around ordering room service. Off the course, the spirit of the club is best captured at Ben’s Porch, a simple shack at the confluence of the first and tenth tees and the home green. Here, real Nebraska ranchers—big guys with excellent facial hair and their names on their belt buckles—grill up burgers infused with the secret spice rub (available for purchase in the pro shop) of the club’s original cowboy chef, the late and legendary Tom Simonson. There are few better places in the game to enjoy a cold beer and watch the evening shadows lengthen across the frontier.
Despite being less than ten miles west of Sand Hills as the crow flies, it takes over an hour to drive to the next stop, Dismal River Golf Club (private; greens fee, from $180; 83040 Dismal River Trail; 308-546-2900; dismalriver.com). One has to track east back to the highway and then due north before finally achieving a southwesterly bearing via a 17-mile wander down a one-lane country road. Dismal River, a private club that’s considering new members, made headlines in 2011 when, moments before a presidential speech to Congress, House Speaker John Boehner was caught on a hot microphone boasting to Joe Biden about a stellar two-under-par round he had recently shot there. “[It’s] one of the hardest courses you’ll ever want to see,” said the Ohio Republican of the Jack Nicklaus design. That’s probably overstating things—the course is a strong, not overwhelming, challenge—but either way, “hard” and “good” are not the same thing. In an area of golf country full of wonderful natural features, Nicklaus seemed to opt for severity at almost every turn, forgoing a flowing, walkable routing in favor of the big vistas offered by elevated tees. The strangest thing about Dismal River is that while by most accounts not much earth was moved in construction, it still feels as if the design was forced onto the land. The shaping, particularly on and around the greens, is woozy and at times badly overdone. Many greens are situated in bowls of some kind, and while this can be an agreeable concept—the slopes allow creative players to feed the ball toward the hole—it gets a bit repetitive.
While Nicklaus’s layout is, in this observer’s opinion, a miss, Dismal River nevertheless has a bright future ahead. The club’s second course, designed by Tom Doak, will be open for preview play this summer and boasts a tremendous natural site, one quite unlike any other in the Sand Hills. The front nine plays over and through a network of dunes atop a broad plateau, while the homeward side crosses the entrance drive and gradually tumbles into the tranquil valley of the eponymous river, with a wall of mountains rising abruptly beyond the opposite bank. In carrying the player through these distinct environments with ease, the routing tells a compelling story—unlike most courses, Doak’s layout starts in one place and ends somewhere completely different. Doak’s work at Dismal River feels as effortless as Nicklaus’s is labored; fans of the former’s previous layouts, oft-noted for their wild and woolly greens contours, will likely be surprised to find among this collection a number of simple discs quietly draped across the land. It’s hard to imagine the Sand Hills reaching its full potential as a golf destination—how could it?—but as the great architects arrive one by one, taking years out of their lives to puzzle over these dunes, it inches ever closer to becoming one of the world’s finest.
The Public Option
The depth of quality golf in the Sand Hills is such that it’s a worthy destination even for those without extensive private-club contacts. On the public side, Wild Horse Golf Club (greens fees, from $40; 41150 Rd. 768; 308-537-7700; playwildhorse.com) is a ground-hugging design that possesses a subtle elegance not often seen in a modest daily-fee facility. It’s just off the interstate in the pleasant Pony Express town of Gothenburg, but lodging options there don’t extend beyond the Super 8s of the world. For quality accommodation, the best base is a couple of hours north at the Prairie Club (rooms, from $295; greens fees, from $165; 88897 State Hwy. 97; 888-402-1101; theprairieclub.com). This former cattle ranch became the region’s premier golf resort upon opening in 2010—though that was mostly by default, it remains an appealing place to spend a few days. Decked out in clubby dark wood and leather, the 40,000-square-foot lodge strikes a modern note; the vibe is Western, but the rural curios (skulls, farm stuff) are kept to a tasteful minimum. Larger groups seeking privacy might grab one of the luxury cabins perched on the rim of the Snake River canyon. The Prairie Club is home to a pair of full-length courses, the Pines and the Dunes, as well as the Horse Course, a fun ten-hole par-three facility ideally played at dusk with a wedge in one hand and a beer in the other.