Appeared in November/December 1995 LINKS
The entrance road to the golf course is 55 miles long. One member called the journey the longest hour in golf—except that the land is stunningly beautiful, and along the way you cross west into the Mountain Time Zone and so arrive the same hour you left. Out here in the middle of central Nebraska’s Sand Hills, the grass-covered dunes unfold forever.
There aren’t many golf courses here, about midway between Omaha and Denver, some 300 miles from each city. Welcome to the Sand Hills, 18,000 square miles—an area the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined—comprising the largest grass covered dunesland in the world.
Cattle ranchers have been squeezing a living out of this dry turf for years. Understandably, they were suspicious when Dick Youngscap rode into town with dreams of creating a golf club. The idea of an utterly simple, links-inspired course at Sand Hills routed over native sand dunes appealed to Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. The logistics were problematic—just getting to the Sand Hills and back was a major undertaking. But after seeing the land, Coore and Crenshaw knew they were onto something special.
Finding holes was the easy part. Over a two-square-mile area, Coore and Crenshaw routed some 150 holes. There was no limit to the possibilities on this barren, crumpled land. With its native washes and blow-outs of sand, the dunes offered all manner of perfectly natural settings for tees, fairways, bunkers and greens. The hard part was narrowing down the choices and then puzzling through the connections in the chain.
Most of the holes were built the old-fashioned way: They were found, with little more than some hand labor needed to get them into shape, plus a few nudges from a light bulldozer here, a few days of digging with a shovel there.
As Crenshaw likes to say, there are three basic elements to links golf: sand, firm turf and wind. All of them are found in abundance in the center of Nebraska. Surveying the course from the ground, you see ribbons of fairways, a flag or two fluttering in the wind, and a few flashes of sand that approximate the look of bunkers. Walk a few yards and change your angle of vision and the course appears to metamorphose into an alien landscape. There are no standard reference points out here; this is golf as basic as it gets.
There are some interesting oddities about the routing, dictated by the flow of the land. The back nine is 700 yards longer than the front because the incoming side sits on a broader, more open parcel. The front, by contrast, weaves its way across somewhat more sharply etched terrain, including back-to-back short par 4s. The 7th, only 283 yards, is driveable for the brave of heart, but there’s a risk at having a go at a green that settles into the cross-slope of a large, sandy mound.
The course offers all manner of changing surfaces: The second green is a wildly contoured convex, while the putting green at the par-4 10th is a sprawling, low-lying saucer. The drive at the 469-yard 15th must carry—or fade around—a massive bunker. At the next tee, a 612-yard par 5, players stand on what feels like a precipice and have to draw the ball over a raw wound of scrub.
Sand Hills feels more like a frontier outpost than a country club. Daily life starts and ends at a modest clubhouse that sports a fine restaurant, a comfortable bar and a tiny changing room where you park your street shoes. No one even worries about tee times, since there’s not a clock to be found on the grounds.