The team began construction in 1997. It was golf’s equivalent of an Amish barn-raising. At the beginning they had only one full-time employee, a kid named Cody Gracey. Much of the labor and equipment was supplied by volunteers from the community. “Farmers would be driving by on their tractors,” recalls Wade Geiken, board president of Gothenburg Links Inc., “and they’d stop and ask what they could do to help. Dave and Dan would tell ’em to tear up some sod, and then the farmers would be on the way to their fields. This happened every day.”
The finished product is a layout that flows gracefully from hole to hole. The fairways are framed not by towering sand hills but by long prairie grasses swaying in the ever-present wind. To make the course playable for a variety of golfers, the fairways are generous and many greens are open to run-up shots. But at 6,955 yards, with a rating/slope of 73.6/134, Wild Horse is all the golf course you could want, especially given that some of the blowout bunkering is fiendish in its size, depth and placement. Because of Axland and Proctor, Sand Hills and Wild Horse will always share the same DNA, making comparisons all the more inevitable. “It’s an honor to be compared with Sand Hills, because it’s internationally renowned,” says Don Graham, Wild Horse’s head pro. “At the same time, we get a little tired of being the little brother. We think we can stand on our own.”
Immediately after it opened in 1999, Wild Horse began garnering accolades. How did the refugees from the old Gothenburg Golf Club feel about all the fuss?“Awestruck,” says Chris Healey, the onetime head of Gothenburg Links Inc.
Wild Horse now ranks as high as twenty-second on lists of the top hundred modern courses, and it would surely be higher if points were given for hospitality. Says Graham, “You don’t have to be a five handicap to enjoy our course; you don’t have to be rich. Everybody is welcome, and being as personable and accommodating as possible is important to us.”
Of Wild Horse’s 25,000 rounds a year, some 40 percent are played by nonmembers. In 2007 golfers from forty-one states visited; the year before, pilgrims from eleven countries made the trip. This steady revenue stream will make it possible for all of Wild Horse’s construction loans to be paid off by 2010.
Yet the Sand Hills revolution may not be finished. On a prime piece of earth an hour north of Sand Hills on the Nebraska–South Dakota border, plans have been drawn up for the Prairie Club, featuring a course by Gil Hanse. Geoff Shackelford, a consultant on that course, says a second eighteen, by Tom Lehman, as well as a third, by Graham Marsh, are also being discussed. Ultimately the project could become a Bandon Dunes of the plains. To date, only the Hanse course has been mapped out, and there’s no word on when construction might begin.
With or without the Prairie Club, however, the sand hills—and the nearby chop hills—have already emerged as some of the most thrilling terrain in the golf world. Says Axland, “When we built Wild Horse we weren’t sure anybody would ever see it. In fact, the same is probably true of Sand Hills. I guess all this proves is that if you build a good course, the golfers will eventually find it, no matter where it is.”
Golf on the High Plains
1 Ballyneal Lane, Holyoke, Colorado.
Architect: Tom Doak, 2006. Yardage: 7,150. Par: 71. Green Fees: $100–$250. Rooms: $100–$250. Contact: 970-854-5900, ballyneal.com. Prospective members welcome.
Dismal River Club (private)
83040 Dismal River Trail, Mullen, Nebraska.
Architect: Jack Nicklaus, 2006. Yardage: 7,584. Par: 72. Slope: 151. Green Fees: $170–$270. Rooms: $120–$180. Contact: 308-546-2900, dismalriver.com. Prospective members welcome.
Sand Hills Golf Club (private)
Highway 97, Mile Marker 55, Mullen, Nebraska.
Architects: Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, 1995. Yardage: 7,089. Par: 71. Rooms: from $90. Contact: 308-546-2237, sandhillsgolfshop.com. Member introduction required.
Wild Horse Golf Club (public)
41150 Road 786, Gothenburg, Nebraska.
Architects: Dave Axland and Dan Proctor, 1999. Yardage: 6,955. Par: 72. Slope: 134. Green Fee: $33. Contact: 308-537-7700, playwildhorse.com. Public welcome.