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Not-So-Little Course on the Prairie

So captured am I by the sights that I worry that I've driven past my destination. When I stop to ask a man on the roadside if I've missed my turn, I notice his watch reads 12:40 p.m., the same timethat I left the airport in North Platte. Does time actually stop in the Sand Hills?No. It turns out that about fifteen miles from the golf course, Highway 97 crosses from the western edge of Central Time into the eastern edge of Mountain Time. Still, I have the clear sense that I'm entering a timeless place. When I reach mile marker fifty-five, I look to the left and see a smallsign framed by unfinished branches reading sand hills golf club. It begins a theme of modesty and understatement in the way the club is presented to its members and guests that doesn't vary.

The Sand Hills ethos is expressed in its membership-information booklet, which contains six full-page color photos of its course and four pages of type, following a theme of letting the land speak for itself. "We have no pretensions about Sand Hills," part of the preface reads. "It is simply a place to play golf. . . . We refrain from employing overused descriptive phrases such as 'superior,' 'championship,' and 'one of the best'; the determination of quality is left for others to decide."

Proportionally everything at Sand Hills is subordinate to the golf course. After the nearly three-mile drive down a private road, I see the clubhouse, a solid but underwhelming structure painted a nondescript tan. Parked in front of it are half a dozen gas golf carts, which players can use (so long as they keep them on the fairways and off the native grasses in the rough), but which are mostly employed to get to the first tee, nearly a mile away from the clubhouse.

Although the noxious carts are a surprise, Sand Hills in general eschews many of the conveniences and conventions golfers have grown used to. It doesn't have tournaments, rakes for the bunkers, numbered tee signs, yardage markers (save for 150-yards stakes), a course rating or individually handicapped holes, water hazards, trees, a signature hole, ball washers, a conventional practice range (only a rudimentary warm-up area) or wall clocks. It has one blind tee shot (on the par-four ninth) and, except for a rusting windmill on the eighteenth hole, one building on the course, a small halfway house called Ben's Porch. Sand Hills has never had a public relations or marketing arm. The membership is full at 160, the number at which the club feels it can keep the average play down to forty rounds a day. Daily operations--including evaluating nonmembers' written requests to play the course--are run calmly and efficiently by head pro Jim Kidd, who at a youthful and athletic thirty-nine gives off the unmistakable air of the right man in the right place.

Kidd was born into the tradition of golf that Sand Hills celebrates. For a span of seventy-three years, his grandfather, Willie Kidd, and father, Bill Kidd, served as consecutive head professionals at the Interlachen Club, in Edina, Min-nesota, the site of the 1930 U.S. Open, won by Bobby Jones on his way to the Grand Slam. A leather folder in the Sand Hills pro shop displays letters from Jones and Walter Hagen to Willie Kidd.

But Jim was compelled to begin his own tradition, preferably in the wide-open spaces. Before becoming Sand Hills's first professional, Kidd was an assistant pro in Jackson Hole and a fly-fishing guide in Alaska. Kidd's love of the outdoors is abetted by his wife, Cathy, a horsewoman who helps drive cattle when local ranchers need an extra hand, and by his yellow lab, Gus, whose total run of Sand Hills--which includes long tramps over the course with his master, first dibs on steak bones from the kitchen and plenty of sunbathing in front of the pro shop's picture window--makes him a candidate for the title of Luckiest Dog on Earth. Looking at his luxuriating pooch, the quiet but pithy Kidd says, "We're both lucky."

So is any golfer who gets to play Sand Hills. It is one of the special places in the game where a round is enjoyable no matter what the golfer scores. Although the club's atmosphere is casual and relaxed, a visitor becomes almost subliminally aware that everything before him has been conceived with great care and respect for the game. The knowledge engenders a reciprocal response. In the three rounds I played at Sand Hills, none of my playing partners or even myself gave in to the kind of displays of temper, impatience or despair that are so common on most courses. The golfer who knows that Sand Hills is as good as it gets makes a pact to be as good as he gets, and a best self emerges.

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