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Not-So-Little Course on the Prairie

It was your average puff of sand. Sure, when the wind started whipping it around the cowlicked edges of a woolly bunker guarding the twelfth green of the Sand Hills Golf Club, it turned into a tiny tornado no different from the trillions of others that have done their infinitesimal bit over the last eight thousand years or so to reconfigure the natural sand "blowouts" that pockmark the scruffy dunes in this vast and barren part of Nebraska. But before disintegrating, this particular twister rose from a craggy crevice and hung in the air, its sun-flecked grains dispersing in a smoky mist that seemed to sprinkle my target with an illuminating fairy dust. How many paleolithic powder puffs ever did that?

I was standing two hundred yards away, quixotically holding a two-iron, a late-afternoon onesome utterly alone in the middle of America and--at least to the golf challenged--in the dead middle of nowhere. Moments before, walking to my ball with the dull roar of the wind in my ears, with the stark landscape and endless horizon of this immense place, I felt enough like the last man on earth to flash on Rod Serling taking in the scene and batting out a serviceable Twilight Zone. The feeling went away when I surveyed my approach shot, at which point I merelyfelt like the last man on earth anyone would pick to hit a two-iron through a forty-mile-per-hour crosswind. But that's when the fairy dust got sprinkled and changed me into a paragon of pre-shot focus. With a vivid green ribbon of fairway pointing the way between the frame of golden buffalo grasses, the target seemed to get closer. The rolling contours of the putting surface stood out in sharp relief, and the flagstick, even as it was bent by strong gusts, held my attention like a magnetic pole. I got that all-too-rare but unmistakable feeling that I was going to hit a good shot.

At Sand Hills, this sensation is one that a trinity of forces allows to recur with delightful frequency. It starts with an existential surrender induced by the prehistoric awesomeness of the rumpled hills, the nubby carpet of variegated khaki that covers them and the canopy of translucent big sky that seems to fade into deep space; it proceeds along holes so harmoniously unified with the land that the golfer finds himself molded to the target; and it culminates with the sensory sludge of modern life falling away, opening the doors of perception so wide that dirt flying around in a bunker can be spellbinding. It's the state of being golfers crave for the serenity it engenders and the performance it permits, and the reason the game's pilgrims have locked their coordinates three hundred miles northeast of Denver, fifteen miles south of Mullen (population: 540) and a tap-in from nirvana. To the course's greatest devotees, Sand Hills doesn't just make it easy for a golfer to get in "the zone." As a singular place to get lost in the rapture of the game, it is the zone.

Which is ironic, considering that historically the Sand Hills region that sprawls over northwestern Nebraska has mostly been a good place for a man to get lost in debt and despair or, as occurred to more than a few early settlers who tried to explore its disorienting badlands, to just get lost. Perhaps the magic in the landscape was evident to Buffalo Bill Cody when he was riding herd over the grasslands. Few Jeopardy! contestants could correctly tell you that the Sand Hills region--comprising nearly twenty thousand square miles--is the largest grass-covered duneland in the Western Hemisphere. The cattle ranchers who make their living off the arid land are strong, silent types not given to complaint or explication, but just the name of one of the major rivers in the area--the Dismal--speaks volumes. Whatever its nongolf history, the land at Sand Hills replicates the look and playing characteristics of the coastal links of the British Isles more closely than anything in America. The course has firm and rolling ground, strong wind and dramatic dunes to frame its holes. And like the classic links, it's completely at one with the natural ruggedness of its surroundings. The package makes Sand Hills a landmark paean to the game's origins, one so powerful that the past is becoming prologue.

From the moment Sand Hills opened for play only five years ago, it crystallized what was a percolating yearning in the game's collective unconscious. The story of the way co-designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw patiently "discovered" the course--first finding the topographical plateaus and saddles that make the best green sites and then determining how the land best flowed into them--struck a chord. So did the fact that the ridiculously low figure of $150,000 was needed to seed the course and do minimal earthmoving. Even as it was understood that Sand Hills is likely a once-in-a-lifetime property that is ready made for golf, a powerful message--stop messing with Mother Nature--had been delivered to the community of architects.

Sand Hills marked a key moment when course design and presentation turned away from the gaudy, elaborate and artificial of the previous two decades and back toward the classic, understated and natural. As it happens, the "middle of nowhere" is also in the heart of the golf zeitgeist, telling us to simplify, to listen to the land, telling us that less is more.

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