At this point, it's safe to say that the proverbial cat is out of the bag when it comes to golf in the Nebraska Sandhills. When one hears of friends making the pilgrimage—flying into Denver or Omaha and making that long, anticipation-laden drive across the heartland—it inspires almost as much jealousy as a trip to, say, Scotland. For this odyssey often involves visits to legendary clubs like Sand Hills, Dismal River or Ballyneal, and even the "add-on" rounds at public facilities like Bayside and Wild Horse deliver major-league golf at municipal prices. But a region needs a full-service resort—a readily available base of operations, with quality food and lodging—in order to be considered a full-fledged golf destination. In the Sandhills, only one place currently fills that role, and it's a good one—the Prairie Club.
Located in the Nebraska town of Valentine—dead north of both the regional transportation hub, North Platte, and the private golf mecca of Mullen—the Prairie Club debuted in 2010. The resort features a pair of full-length courses, the Pines and the Dunes, as well as the Horse Course, a fun ten-hole par-three facility by Gil Hanse that's perfect for a casual knock-around at sundown. The Pines is an enjoyable if slightly too conventional resort course, with moderately interesting holes framed (at times) by too much eye-candy bunkering. Though the routing traverses some appealing forested ground, given the proximity to the canyon it's disappointing the Graham Marsh design didn't get a little closer to exploit the dramatic views.
The Pines merits a full review of its own, but The Dunes, designed by Tom Lehman, is the more compelling layout. The former British Open champion and his lead associate, Chris Brands, spent sixteen months on the routing, and their work shows. “It took us several visits just to understand how far apart things were,” Brands explains of the wide-open duneland. “The scale of the place is so enormous that it messes with your perspective. Tom would see a natural blowout and think it was 180 yards away when it was actually 300.”
The architects then made an interesting choice, partnering these huge landforms with similarly huge fairways. This is almost certainly the first thing even the casual golfer will notice about the Dunes—in places, there's almost a football field's worth of short grass in which to land one's tee shot. For example, if you turn your yardage book sideways, the second hole has a distinct resemblance to a tortoise—the shell being the immense fairway and the green the creature's head. The target is similarly ready to hide at a moment's notice, for while it's almost impossible not to find short grass on the drive should one wish, the bolder player has to flirt with OB stakes all down the right in order to get an open view of the flag. Bailing out left produces an awkward angle and a tough shot over a heavily bunkered hill.
All the short grass is a response to the windy, wide-open site. “We had to make sure the course would be playable even on the worst day,” says Brands. “Our options were to cut the native rough short so that you can find the ball—that's what Sand Hills did—or just make it turf."
The radical width disguises how intricate a design the Dunes really is, though. For example, it's hard to imagine a hole with a hundred-yard-wide fairway where the optimal line of play is actually over the rough, but that's the case on the par-five 12th, which demands a blind drive over a broad rise. A small pot bunker in the middle of the fairway serves as a red herring—golfers are psychologically conditioned to believe that successfully challenging a hazard always results in a reward, but here it often leads to a scrubby lie as the hole abruptly jogs to the left beyond that first ridge. The Dunes isn't usually that blatantly tricky, but nevertheless it's best explored with the help of a caddie. (Carts are available, too, but the club encourages walking.) Like Sand Hills, this is a course with an extremely high “tilt factor,” some of which is due to the flexibility with which it can be set up. Depending on how the superintendent is feeling on a given morning, the tee markers on a given hole may be placed at a 90-degree angle away from where one tackled the hole earlier in the week. “It's all meant to provide variety,” says Brands. “After all, it's not like we didn't have the room.”
The Prairie Club, it should be noted, combines its resort amenities with a private club option. The second story of the clubhouse features a well-appointed members-only hangout with a spacious balcony overlooking the finishing hole of the Pines Course. On alternating days, one of the two courses is made available for their exclusive use, while the other is open to resort guests. The appeal of membership is only likely to increase given the club's plans for a third course, to be designed by Gil Hanse and tentatively slated to begin construction mid-decade. His design will take advantage of the Snake River Canyon in ways the first courses have not, tracking right up to its edge and even, at the par-three 16th, demanding a heroic crossing shot. It's something to look forward to, sure, but the Prairie Club already has more than enough good golf to warrant making the trip to Valentine.