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Not-So-Little Course on the Prairie

"I think about Sand Hills and what it represents a good deal," says Crenshaw, who as a traditionalist was predisposed to follow the muse when he first saw the land in the early nineties. "I have this feeling that it's going to be teaching me things as long as I live."

Crenshaw isn't the only one. To the game's insiders, Sand Hills is the new Mecca of Pure, a far-flung citadel with the intimacy, gravitas, aesthetics and soul to be included in the same league as Dornoch, Machrihanish, Scotland's Prestwick, Ireland's European Club and Australia's New South Wales. But as the only American club on that uncommon rota, Sand Hills brings an extra measure of informality and brawniness that makes it one of a kind.

Whether in the blast furnace of summer or the biting cold of late spring and early fall, Sand Hills is about total immersion in the best of golf, all with a bow to the legacy of the Wild West. Walking thirty-six holes over its sprawling 7,089-yard layout leaves a player wrung out in that sensuous way that is sometimes described as "a good tired"--giddily brain drained from all the possibilities in shot making and management the course provides, rubbery and wind burned from the long hike. From there, the idea is to follow the pleasure principle: slow, sand-blasting shower, sizzling corn-fed steak and tongue-loosening single malt, then the sleep of the dead in one of the club's twenty-six guest cabins until the cycle begins anew the next day--approximately how we'd like to imagine Jones, Hagen, Demaret, Lema and other kindred spirits are spending their days in the afterlife. "Sand Hills is a place for relaxation, conversation and contemplation," says Crenshaw, who visits the place often and will rely on its therapeutic effect as the demands of his Ryder Cup captaincy close in. "When I leave Sand Hills, I always feel renewed."

From this perspective, Sand Hills is really a state of mind--one that begins before you even get there.

Like any mecca worth its mystique, Sand Hills makes you work to reach it. From Denver, to the southwest, or Omaha, to the northeast, it's a five-hour drive. If you like less time in the car, it's best to take a commuter flight from Denver to North Platte, which lies sixty-five easy miles south of Sand Hills. North Platte is the big town for all the rural outposts within one hundred miles, a midwest Mayberry whose

biggest news last year came when Mayor Jim Whitaker promised to "walk naked" down the street if a local humane society raised five thousand dollars. When it did, Whitaker walked his dog, Naked, down the street. With nothing so dramatic in the offing when I hit town, I get in my rental car around midday and head north. Within a few miles, the land turns desolate. I have crossed into Hooker County, with an area larger than Rhode Island and a population of barely eight hundred. Struck by the dearth of cars on Highway 97, I begin a mental count. Fifty miles later, when I turn into Sand Hills, I have seen a total of fourteen vehicles, three of which were hay trucks.

About fifteen minutes out of North Platte, sand dune formations begin to appear. As the hills get higher, the blowouts grow in number and get deeper and more craggy. Suddenly I am routing imaginary holes on the plains, the possibilities coming fast and furious, causing my eyes to leave the road for too long as I crane my neck in an effort to complete my imaginary work. I feel like the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, feverishly driving north, obsessed with a landform whose shape recurs in every object he sees. When I later learn that Coore and Crenshaw originally routed 136 holes on the property, I feel a little better. The fact is, in the Sand Hills, there are holes everywhere.

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