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Not-So-Little Course on the Prairie

Of course frustration is easier to deal with at Sand Hills because, above all, it is a fun golf course to play.

Apart from the shot-making pleasure it provides, Sand Hills applies a balm to the senses. The ground feels good to walk on, the sandy turf a springy cushion. The air is fresh and invigorating, the wind whipping up the fresh scent of the native grasses and shrubs. Everywhere the eye travels, it is presented with stunning compositions of color, proportion and stark simplicity. If van Gogh could be brought back to do one golf landscape, he would have to do Sand Hills. The end result of so many stimuli is a kind of low-grade sensory overload that induces a floating euphoria. I was especially susceptible my third time around, playing alone on a brisk late afternoon in early fall.

This feeling started with the realization, as I walked up the first fairway, that I actually had the whole magnificent place to myself--a true "I'm the king of the world" sensation. Almost immediately, I think, the pure pleasure of communing with such a golf course got me into that ideal state that sports psychologists refer to as "physically relaxed and mentally engaged."

The silence in particular was liberating. Within a few holes, I found I was loudly talking myself through the shots as a caddie and a player would, the exercise further immersing me in the process of playing. And the knowledge that no one could hear me intensified the sense of my own private paradise.

By the time I hit my tee shot on the eighteenth hole, I was getting giddy. As I walked past one of the biggest blowouts on the course, a surreally jagged pit that looked as if a gargoyle had been carved from it, my mood escalated and I began to sing. My song of choice, for no apparent reason beyond the spectacle I was getting away with, was "Hello, Young Lovers," in an earnest Steve Lawrence delivery. It might have been the most incongruous mix of golf and music since Chi Chi Rodriguez graced the cover of Devo's Are We Not Men. But the real point was, Sand Hills had enabled me to get into as free a state of pure play as I have ever achieved on a golf course. In just about any mental state, Sand Hills is a thrill ride. It presents dramatic golf, with the ball doing amazing things off the big slopes in big winds.

Wind is a constant at Sand Hills. On a normal day, it will blow between five and fifteen miles per hour from a changing variety of angles, but gusts of up to forty miles per hour are not unusual. The wind is a consideration on every shot. On all but the sharpest slopes, it becomes the primary determinant of the speed and break of a putt. As much distance as a full shot into the wind will lose, downwind shots at Sand Hills are arguably harder. Because the greens are so firm, and ball marks that puncture their surfaces are rare, judging the roll of a ball that is being pushed by a strong wind requires an extraordinary degree of touch. On shots of more than one hundred yards, just keeping the ball within forty feet constitutes a good shot. "There are some shots," says Crenshaw, "where you just have to accept that the ball is going to do something amazing, and just sort of surrender to making your best effort and taking what you get. That's part of the fun of links golf."

But Sand Hills balances those times by giving as often as it takes and, above all, giving the golfer room. It's a big course, one that sprawls in such a way that most holes are visually isolated from the others. Although its par seventy-one might appear long on the card --playing 7,089 yards from the back tees, 6,406 from the middle ones--the fairways' firmness and the elevation (3,400 feet, which allows the ball to travel six percent farther than at sea level) allow it to be negotiated with less than brutish strength. The bigness is manifested more in its wide fairways, entrances to the greens and huge putting surfaces. Combined with the absence of water hazards, Sand Hills--in all but the highest winds--allows offensive rather than defensive golf. It does not unduly punish the average golfer. Given a modicum of control, the good sense not to try for too much out of the rough and a rudimentary short game, there is rarely a good reason for a player with a handicap of less than eighteen to make more than a double bogey. The danger areas are the bunkers (where the heavy, unraked sand makes it hard to control the ball) and the greens (where the speed, break and wind present a daunting test of short putting).

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