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To Sand Hills and Beyond

Not that getting to it is any easier, coming as it does at the end of a seventeen-mile-long private road off of Highway 97, a thin ribbon of dark asphalt that cuts through the otherwise pristine countryside of central Nebraska. I arrived in the early evening and was greeted by the director of golf, Rob Brown, who eagerly gave me a tour of the grounds. Within the clubhouse is a screening room, a card room and a billiards room. Construction on a spa is soon to begin. Spread across the club’s three thousand acres are two stocked fishing ponds and five miles of walking trails; by summer, sporting clay stations should be up and dogs will be available for bird hunting.

The club didn’t skimp on accommodations, either. There are thirty cabins to house visitors. Mine was a two-bedroom beauty with peaked, open-beam ceilings. Each bedroom had a huge flat-screen TV. This was a major upgrade from my cabin at Sand Hills, which was so small and spartan it stirred memories of sixth-grade sleepaway camp.

The food experience at these two clubs is also wildly different. Sand Hills’ course is a long cart ride from the main building, and once out on the course your only dining venue is Ben’s Porch, a little wooden shack where an older gent wearing a cowboy hat and oversize belt buckle will barbecue your seven-dollar burger to order. For dinner at Dismal River I enjoyed thirty-six-dollar crab legs flown in that day from Alaska and desserts courtesy of a pastry chef imported from New York City. (Ballyneal, too, is an epicurean’s delight, its signature dish the lobster macaroni and cheese.)

Standing on the spectacular elevated first tee the next morning, I couldn’t help but wonder where we were going. This 435-yard par four doglegs left, its roller-coaster fairway dotted with rugged bunkering. In the distance a sliver of green is visible behind an enormous sand hill, but don’t expect to spot the flag. The second hole is even more visually intimidating. Rated the number-one handicap, it’s a par four that plays 513 yards from the back tees. Prudence guided me away from the tips, but even measured from the blue tees it’s a 451-yard hole. From the left rough, where I drove my ball, the second shot is totally blind. These opening holes are a few quick punches in the nose, but architect Jack Nicklaus makes no apologies: “Why in the world, if you’re going to leave some major metropolitan area, would you want to come out here and see the same golf course you could see in Denver?If you want conventional, stay home. If you want a unique golf experience, go to Dismal River.”

And yet Nicklaus showed some compassion. The first hole has a punchbowl green that collects off-line shots, and the contours of the second fairway are even more forgiving. From the rough I had slashed at my ball with a five-iron, but I caught it heavy and expected to be thirty yards short of the green. To my delight, the ball ran down a steep slope onto the putting surface, stopping fifteen feet from a front pin. (Thanks, Jack!)

At Dismal River the revelations never cease. If Sand Hills is a meditative stroll in the park, Dismal River is a nerve-jangling tiptoe through a minefield. The fifth hole is an outrageous little par three, uphill all the way to a green that is fitted into a notch between a pot bunker and a towering dune. On the short, par-four sixth, I was unable to resist the green’s come-hither charms, smashing a downwind three-wood pin-high but into a fiendish bunker that was easily twelve feet below the surface of the green. The tenth hole is a gonzo take on Riviera’s celebrated sixth, the par three with a bunker in the middle of the green. Here, Nicklaus conjured a huge, undulating asymmetrical green, the back of which is so recessed that some pin positions can’t be spied from the tee box.

Chris Cochran has been a Nicklaus Design associate for twenty-five years, and he detected a special spring in his boss’s step while they were working on Dismal River. “Jack was definitely fired up about this land and finding the holes that were out there,” says Cochran. “When you talk about an extreme design, that usually means a lot of earth has been moved. This was an extreme design in how little was touched.”

Dismal River opened in the summer of 2006. The next spring Nicklaus was brought back with orders to make it more playable. Native grasses were trimmed back in places, the contours of several putting surfaces were softened, and the thirteenth green was relocated, making the hole forty yards shorter.

If the members found the course too tough at the outset, Nicklaus blames his restraint. “I probably got carried away a little too much on not moving dirt,” he says. “The greens basically were as they were discovered. We left them, for the most part, as is. We let the areas design the greens for us.”

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