Driving east from Denver last September on my way to the clubs of the Nebraska Sandhills, I'd decided, as many do, to break up the five-plus hour drive across the prairie. I hadn't given much thought to the fact that my chosen stopover was called Bayside Golf Club. After all, as the '90s college rock hero Stephen Malkmus once mumbled, "There's no coast of Nebraska." But it turns out he was wrong.
Somewhere around Ogallala, I started to notice a trend—massive American-made pickups with boats hitched to the back. What was going on here?
The drivers were pulling their fishing and pleasure craft to and from Lake McConaughy, a twenty-by-four mile reservoir, manmade in the New Deal era, that is the largest body of water in a three-state area. Approaching from the south, the terrain—sere, yellow, severely choppy—steadily rose to a broad plateau. Only after passing through a ranch gate and arriving at the golf club did Lake Mac fully reveal itself. The water was still some distance away, its level low at this time of year, but the views across the basin and for miles around were dramatic.
Bayside Golf Club is a mom-and-pop kind of affair, but an ambitious one. The course was built on a modest budget in the summers of 2000 and 2001 and designed primarily by Dan Proctor. Along with his partner, Dave Axland, Proctor is one half of the "Bunker Hill Boys." The architects had worked on the construction crew at Sand Hills with Coore & Crenshaw and afterward were personally recommended by that club's owner, Dick Youngscap, for original design work at Wild Horse Golf Club, some ninety miles east in Gothenburg. The site selected was ready-made for a subtle, easily walkable design, and the architects drew inspiration for the greens from Perry and Press Maxwell's Prairie Dunes. Today, the course is considered one of the best values in American golf. "At Wild Horse," said Proctor in a phone interview, "their expectations were very low. They just wanted something better than the little flat-as-a-pancake nine-holer out by the airport. So they were blown away."
When they arrived at the Lake McConaughy site for their next project, though, the Bunker Hill team wasn't quite under the radar anymore. "Oddly enough," Proctor continued, "when we went to Bayside, their expectations were really high. Everybody was excited about Wild Horse, but the owners also said, 'We don't want another Wild Horse—we want something different.'" On Bayside's heaving, tumbling terrain, that wouldn't be difficult to arrange. The front nine came first, unfurling across ground more naturally suitable for golf, yielding a couple of neat holes in the 460-yard range—one a short par-five, the other a long and strong par-four. In the case of the former, one can see how the course's limited construction budget sometimes worked in its favor. The 4th features an exciting downhill tee shot that, somewhat unusually, is also partially blind—the brow of a hill obscures much of the landing area. Unnerving to the first-time player, this is the kind of natural feature that many architects would remove without thinking twice, but adds an element of danger and mystery to the hole.
After the first couple of months, Axland took on work with Coore & Crenshaw at the great Friar's Head on Long Island, leaving Proctor to finish the Nebraska project. With the front nine in place, one of the owners, Jason Hiltibrand, felt encouraged enough to begin pushing for a full eighteen-hole routing. Given the level of regional tourism to Lake Mac—close to a million visitors annually—a sense was emerging that Bayside could become a drawing card in its own right. Which brings us to Bayside's roller coaster of a back nine. Proctor recalls: "When [Jason] pointed to the land I said, 'Are you sure? That's going to be some tough golf." This parcel is essentially canyon country—fairways and greens are situated on islands of high ground, with wayward shots punished by steep plunges into scrub filled defiles. When the golfer drives (for this nine, unlike the front side, is basically unwalkable) into these shaded precincts, the temperature of a prairie summer's day can drop by some thirty or forty degrees.
The team, however, forged ahead, just trying to make the nine playable. I've groused about forced carries in the past and now, in writing about Bayside, feel rather like the Boy Who Cried Wolf, because here they are plentiful—and serious. Given the terrain, though, the architects often didn't have much choice. "We don't like forced carries and wanted to shorten them," said Dave Axland. "But the closer you get to the canyons, the lower you get, and it becomes harder to fit tees in there."
The aerial action gets underway right at the turn, as a deep J-shaped gulch separates tee from fairway and fairway from green. Adding to the golfer's worries, it's not uncommon to catch a steeply hanging lie in the fairway after a good drive. Tough hole. The par-five 11th, for its part, is a brutal beauty. Another long carry is required on the drive, though the architects have provided a very wide berth in the landing area. From there, the hole doglegs to the right and progressively narrows to the nail of a long finger of land. The view of the lake from here is spectacular, and with steep falloffs on three sides—left, right and long—the short iron or wedge approach to this green is legitimately terrifying. Proctor admitted that the ownership successfully lobbied for that green site over a more conservative choice further up the fairway. The result is a hole that serves up more than its share of X's, but also lingers in the golfer's memory for some time to come.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the inevitable Bayside-Wild Horse comparison can be found on the former's greens. On this rugged site, Proctor chose to go bold, with bowls, tiers, kicker slopes and undulations galore. The par-three seventeenth even features a bunker mid-green, in a courageous nod to Riviera. Over the course of a week playing my way through the Sandhills, I became fascinated by how various architects responded to their natural sites through their green construction. Jack Nicklaus and his team went absolutely wild on the greens at Dismal River, as did Tom Lehman and Chris Brands at the Prairie Club's Dunes Course. Tom Doak's forthcoming design at Dismal, on the other hand, is notable in part for the fact that it pairs dramatic topography with many "quiet", draped-over-the-earth greens.
One last difference worth noting is that Bayside, unlike Wild Horse, features on-site lodging. Gothenburg is a pleasant and historic town, but it doesn't offer much beyond budget chain hotels. At Bayside, on the other hand, one can enjoy pints and tasty steaks and chops in the timbered clubhouse, then retire to nearby townhouses. Decor is spartan but functional, but the suites are great for buddy trips, and there's always been much to be said for rolling out of bed and onto the first tee.
In the most meaningful way, though—which is to say, in the spirit of the place—the Bunker Hill Boys' two creations in the Cornhusker State have much in common. Both offer golf of a caliber that far outstrips the price tag, in a friendly and unpretentious atmosphere. Going out as a single at Bayside, I played through a foursome of locals on the short par-three 5th. They had reggae music playing on a boom box on the back of one of the carts, and at least one member of the group was playing barefoot. They were obviously having a grand old time, and in this setting the breaks from tradition felt right. I thought about how lucky these guys are to be able to enjoy the game so casually, out here on this wild and windswept patch of country. Road-trippers who take the time to seek out Bayside will almost certainly agree.