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To Sand Hills and Beyond

When the Sand Hills Golf Club opened in 1995, it was more than just a collection of glorious holes set down in the Nebraska prairie. The course was a revelation, a minimalist masterpiece that instantly redefined golf architecture in America. The designers, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, moved as little dirt as possible during construction, letting the terrain dictate an aesthetic of heaving fairways and shaggy blowout bunkers, all framed by exquisite isolation. The end product was a far cry from the bulldozed, tarted-up look of so many modern American courses. The return to a more natural style of golf led to rapturous reviews and a consensus that Sand Hills is one of the ten best courses in the nation.

Sand Hills’ influence was immediate and far reaching, with its essence to be reinterpreted at courses as disparate as Bandon Dunes, Rustic Canyon and Sebonack. However, what made it so singular was not just the design but the destination. Located outside of tiny Mullen (population 502), five hours from the nearest decent-size city—Denver—it quickly became of one of the game’s pilgrimages. For golfers flocking to Sand Hills, it was hard not to notice the landscape along the way. “I was driving around Nebraska not long ago and saw tons of great golf sites,” says Tom Doak, who along with Coore and Crenshaw is a high priest of neo-traditional course design. “You stare out your window and it looks like Royal Portrush. Drive five more miles and it could be Ballybunion.”

A few of these evocative sites have already been claimed, as audacious golf courses have begun popping up in remote corners of Nebraska and other off-the-beaten-path spots out West. Last summer I visited three of the most notable: Ballyneal, Dismal River and Wild Horse. These spawn of Sand Hills offer their own takes on the original, and each is a harbinger of what golf may look like as Sand Hills’ influence continues to be felt across the high plains.

To get to Ballyneal Golf Club, you leave Denver airport and make a right at the first stoplight. The punch line is that said light lies two and half hours down the road, at the end of a desolate landscape of cornfields and cattle ranches in tiny Holyoke, Colorado. Make that right turn and six miles later you are on a road with fewer cars, it seems, than tractors. Eventually you will come to a little sign of weathered wood, emblazoned with one lyrical word: BALLYNEAL. This is the entrance to the club. The understatement is intentional.

“We want to make the right decisions now,” says Rupert O’Neal, the cofounder and managing general partner of Ballyneal, “so that in a hundred years we can enjoy the reputation that Augusta National has.”

It’s pretty obnoxious for a club that opened in September of 2006 to be comparing itself to America’s most venerated golf institution, but the message is made more palatable by the messenger. O’Neal, 48, is an endearing character, a lifelong farmer with a self-deprecating wit and a slightly skewed worldview. He grew up in Holyoke on his family’s 2,500-acre corn and wheat farm, where he and his brother, Jim, used to chase cattle across the dunesy countryside, which the locals call “chop hills” because of the landscape’s sometimes sharp, severe terrain. The boys were introduced to golf by their grandparents, and while watching a long-ago British Open they were struck by how similar the terrain was to what they had in their backyard. It was a notion that Jim never quite got out of his head.

While Jim pursued a life in golf—he is now head pro at the exclusive Meadow Club, an Alister MacKenzie design in Marin County, California—Rupert stayed behind to manage the farm. In 1999 he founded a hunt club for stalking game birds through the prairie grasses. Before long their parents’ health started failing and the O’Neal boys began talking seriously about the legacy their family would leave behind. They invariably returned to Jim’s old dream of building a golf course in the chop hills. Rupert, who had played only a handful of rounds in the preceding twenty-five years, went along.

“I thought we were building an amenity to the hunt club,” he says with a laugh. “I had never heard of Sand Hills. I thought we were going to be the first people to a put a really nice golf course out in the middle of nowhere. But people kept saying, ‘Oh, that sounds like Sand Hills!’”

That letdown soon gave way to relief, as Sand Hills offered proof that a remote golf club could work. After securing options on seven hundred acres about eight miles from their farm, the O’Neals reached out to their ideal designer, Tom Doak, who was riding a wave of acclaim thanks to the 2001 opening of Pacific Dunes, in Bandon, Oregon, another triumph of modern minimalism. Doak was entranced by the O’Neals’ land—he would later say the chop hills reminded him of the dunes at Machrihanish, in Scotland—but he was determined to create something original. “Not that I don’t love Sand Hills,” says Doak, “but I didn’t want to do the same thing. So the challenge became: How do you take similar terrain but create a completely different experience?”

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