A trip to the sand hills of north central Nebraska is now de rigueur for any self respecting golf aficionado. It is without question the most unique golfing terrain in the U.S.-a sprawling, scrubby and desolate 20,000 square-mile area called the Sandhills, and the largest area of sand dunes in America. The land is ideal for golf because of the undulating topography, the flora and fauna (over 700 species of plants and 300 animal species), and the sheer isolation of it all.
The golf course that started it all, Sand Hills, a Coore/Crenshaw design opened in 1995 in Mullen, pop 491, ”the biggest little town in Hooker County” is 1 1/2 hours north of North Platte, 6 hours from the Denver Airport, and 5 west from Omaha.
You’ve just thought…might be a great golf course, but that’s three days with travel to play a round of golf. With the other new golf courses in Nebraska’s Sandhills region, it’s now a perfect week to play all the courses there. This area will never attract those who seek out the extras that Myrtle Beach has to offer, the family options of Florida, the dry desert winters of the Southwest, or the scenery of Pebble Beach. It will appeal to the purists who seek to play the game on land minimally disturbed in order to build a golf course. Once here, they will be rewarded with an other-worldly, surreal landscape not found anywhere else in the U.S., and likely the best collection of links-type courses anywhere.
Dismal River is a new Jack Nicklaus design, the first of two courses…the second one may open in 2014, located 20 miles southwest of Mullen. While it’s private, it’s accessible for public play, if you make plans ahead of your visit. It’s a pure links type layout over rolling dunes, the wind is always up, the fairways running hard and fast. It’s a fun course to play, not typical of Nicklaus with a bunker in the middle of a par-3 green, drivable par 4s, a remnant of a windmill in front of a par-5 green and lots of short-game recovery chipping areas. The fairways are plenty wide and forgiving, but get off them, and it’s unkempt prairie grasses and true rough. It’s very scenic, at times hard, but interesting, the kind of course you want a second shot at. A new Tom Doak design opened in 2013, and has more in topography change to it, as it routed It has a softer feel to it, wider fairways with seamless transitions into the greens, and the use of landforms along and through the hole for framing.
Bayside is an hour west of North Platte just off I-80 in Brule, and well off the beaten path, and is as natural as golf can be. It’s a rustic links design by Dan Axland and Dave Proctor, overlooking Lake McConaughy. The course routing is over rough and rugged land with arroyos, ruts, bluffs and native grassland, the experience is much like a desert target course in Arizona in effect. The conditions of the course off the fairway is natural with no maintenance whatsoever, but the fairways and greens are well maintained, in good shape, and offer a stark contrast to the native grasses. The course is accessed by what seems like miles of travel down a dusty road that will make you rental car look like it has been through a dust storm, but is it worth it.
Two hours north of North Platte is the Prairie Club in Valentine, NE, 4 1/2 hours west of Sioux Falls there’s two 18 hole courses, the Dunes and the Pines, with upscale lodging. The Dunes was designed by Tom Lehman and Chris Brands, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the fairways here, they’re about as wide as I’ve ever seen, through the sandhills, very links-like in it’s design, rolling and undulating fairways, huge cavernous bunkers, and wide open and big greens. The Pines course was designed by Graham Marsh where the terrain is a lot different, through a ponderosa forest along the banks of the canyon. There’s also the ten hole par 3 Horse course, designed by Gil Hanse, Jim Wagner, and Geoff Shackelford that has no tee boxes, so you can warm up here for the round however you’d like.
Thirty minutes east of North Platte, just off I-80 in Gothenburg is the Wild Horse Golf Club, a poor-man’s Sand Hills so to speak, a quarter of the cost of playing the other layouts. Dubbed the “Carnoustie of the Corn Belt” , it was designed by Dave Proctor and Dave Axland, who actually assisted Core and Crenshaw in building Sand Hills. The course is an unusual experience, a links like landscape, sweeping dunes, no trees,cavernous bunkers, rolling undulating greens, and framed by tall native heather-like grasses.
Of course the mother lode of Sandhills golf is the original Sand Hills Golf Club, a Top 100 Golf Course, in Mullen by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in 1995. It’s exclusively private, the only reason it makes it in our guide is that it’s open to the public golfer once, if a letter is written in advance of their trip. It’s really where the minimalist idea in golf course design re-emerged, where leaving the land as it is and designing a golf course to fit the contours. The routing is rough and wide open, no lakes, no trees, no flowers and hardly any signage, just pure and natural golf, all that’s missing from a links course is an ocean view! From the movement of the land, the hard and fast fairways, natural bunker forms, massive green complexes, there’s a variety of options of saving par. Throw in the constant wind, and you’d think you were in Scotland!
There’s lodging at the Prairie Club but it’s expensive and not centrally located if you’re playing all the courses. The best centrally located city would be North Platte, a town of 25,000 just off I-80 with a plethora of mid-priced hotels. There’s the typical family/theme restaurants, Applebee’s, Whiskey Creek, etc., but Margie’s might be the best “locals” type restaurant. If you’re traveling through Nebraska and looking for other courses to play along the way, use our Nebraska’s Best Golf Courses link to find other courses along the way.
As always, please add your commentary below if you’ve played any of these courses, or have others in the Sandhills you’d recommend to us.