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To Sand Hills and Beyond

This respect for the land has resulted in one of Nicklaus’s most imaginative creations, one that demands as many heroic shots as any other course on the planet. When I asked Nicklaus if he had consciously tried to come up with a more rollicking take on Sand Hills, he said it had no influence on Dismal River.

“I had heard of Sand Hills, but I had never seen pictures of it, nor did I know anything about it,” says Nicklaus. “I flew over it in a helicopter coming from North Platte, but that is as close as I’ve come to Sand Hills.”

Dismal River members may get to enjoy that same view. The club has its own 4,570-foot grass landing strip and an eight-passenger Cessna Caravan that is available to pick up members in Denver, Des Moines, Kansas City, Omaha, Lincoln and North Platte. Clearly Dismal River could not be doing any more to attract and pamper members, but so far only 140 folks have signed on, paying either $30,000 for a national membership that has some restrictions on play or $60,000 for a full charter membership. One of Dismal River’s co-owners, Jerry Tanner, says the club would like to build another eighteen holes, and there are plans for a par-three course, too, but first more memberships and homesites must be sold. (They hope to sell up to fifty lots; so far twenty-nine have been claimed.) “We’re trying to be patient,” says Tanner.

Sand Hills has prospered because it was the first of its kind, and it remains unclear if the plains will support other isolated, exclusive golf clubs. To find an entirely different business model, I traveled 120 miles south to Gothenburg, Nebraska, site of one of golf’s most unlikely success stories.

To Reach Wild Horse Golf Club, you take the Highway 47 exit off of Interstate 80, which puts you in downtown Gothenburg. Drive past a John Deere dealership, a doughnut shop, a bank and four churches, until you hit Road 768. Make a left. A mile and a half later you arrive at one of America’s very best public courses. A round at Wild Horse can be had for the princely sum of thirty-three dollars plus tax. Of course, even that is considered steep by the locals, who pay five hundred dollars a year for a membership that provides unlimited golf for the whole family. (Throw in another hundred dollars and you get a year’s worth of range balls, too.)

Wild Horse was a vision that first appeared in mud puddles. The nine-hole Gothenburg Golf Club used to be the only course in town; built in a low area next to a canal, it would become unplayable after even a moderate rain. During these frequent rainouts, the damp and underserved locals would gather beneath a clubhouse awning to bemoan their bad luck. Eventually all the whining led to action. Around Gothenburg, inquiries were made, search parties were sent out, and in due time a 310-acre cattle ranch was selected as the ideal site for a new course. Gothenburg Links Inc. was then formed, loans were secured, and after a long search an architect was selected. The papers were a day or two from being signed when fate intervened. Actually, it was Dick Youngscap.

Youngscap was a family friend of one of the new course’s organizers. He also happens to be the prairie visionary who built Sand Hills. When he heard about the Wild Horse project, he was inspired to recommend Dave Axland and Dan Proctor as course architects. Coore and Crenshaw get all the glory for Sand Hills, but Axland and Proctor, two of the primary shapers, did much of the important work. They had already collaborated to design Delaware Springs, a well-received muni in Burnet, Texas. Most important, they would work cheap.

Axland and Proctor buzzed into town to see the property. “To say we were excited would be an understatement,” says Axland. “The land was less dramatic than Sand Hills, but you could stand there and see great golf hole after great golf hole.”

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