Wednesday, September 7, 2016

99 Holes In The Heartland- Sand Hills Golf Club

I recently went on a trip deep into the ranch-land of America playing courses in Nebraska and Colorado. This is the last in a series of blog posts about the 99 holes I played at these amazing courses. 

Sand Hills Golf Club is one of those courses that golfers have heard whispers of but don't really know much about it. They have heard tales that it is the best links course in America, but yet it resides in Nebraska. They have heard it is one of the most naturally sculpted golf courses ever with the construction of the greens only costing $300 a hole. It constantly appears in world rankings as a top 20 course but it doesn't appear on TV for any tournaments nor really shows up anywhere other than certain publications.

Sand Hills is a mystery that I greatly wanted to see for myself and I was fortunate enough to gain an invitation to play and you better believe I rearranged my schedule to see what all the whispers were about.

The course is in the middle of rolling sand hills that look much like the picture above and after driving through many miles of unbroken skyline and hills you have to wonder where the heck is a golf course out here? But here it be nonetheless although you wonder if it is all an elaborate rouse as you have to drive an extra three miles from the main country road just to reach the course.

What all this remoteness makes clear is that SHGC is all about the golf. When you pull up to the lodge you are greeted by a VERY friendly staff who help get your clubs to the bag room, to help you check in, to help you with your tee times (shout out to Mike, the awesome starter) and to help you get set up in the cabins they have for overnight guests.

Some people online seemed a little disappointed in the cabins. Given this is a top 20 course with elite clientele, I think they were expecting something more out of the accommodations. First off, the cabins are fine and offer you everything you need for your stay and secondly, who stays in their cabin at Sand Hills? Its like staying in your hotel room in Hawaii, seems like a waste.

Me and my father-in-law were eager to get out and see the course and so we trundled through another mile of hills just to reach Ben's Porch and the course. From Ben's Porch (kinda a halfway house on steroids that is the starting and ending point for every round) the whole course opens up before you and you get the immediate sense that the golf is in the middle of nowhere and there is nowhere else you want to be.

We didn't play the first day we were there and instead retired to the lodge to put a dent in our credit cards loading up on gear and then settling down for some steaks and mixed drinks. Nebraska is a state known for its ranches and most of the burgers and steaks you eat there come from animals raised within oh say 20 miles or so of the restaurant. If you are a meat eater, definitely try one of the steaks there at SHGC and also get yourself a Sand Hills Mule (a variation on a Moscow Mule).

After a good night's rest by the Dismal River and on the lookout for wild turkeys (apparently they like to bed down under the cabins and efforts to stop them from doing so have been "moderately" successful), it was time for 36 holes!

The first hole is illustrative of both Coore and Crenshaw's design philosophy and the natural routing found at Sand Hills.

Its a par 5 with a forced carry over the prairie with massive bunkers also providing a test if you go in them. The fairway then narrows as you go further up the hill requiring a VERY accurate second shot (I found prairie the first time through, the second time I backed off and used a 5 wood). The third shot is to an elevated green that is insanely fast while offering your amazing views of what you just traversed.

That is the course in a nutshell, rolling fairways with multiple elevation changes, bunkers and prairie that will blow your mind (eventually I started calling my 7 iron my "prairie wedge") and then greens with a lot of challenge and quickness in them). It all sounds tough when I lay it out there like this but actually its a lot of fun!

Now for some random observations:

1) While this course mostly lays it all out in front of you, Coore and Crenshaw make the approach shots to the green tough in two ways. First, several of the flags/greens are hidden by the terrain making you hit at tuffs of grass rather than flagsticks on several of the holes.

(the pin is there somewhere behind the middle of the bunker)

2) The bunkers are just as outrageous as you may have heard. Seriously, sand areas on this course are amazing. Whole fairways are bordered by huge traps:

Bunkers spring up out of the ground looking like they are going to capsize greens like a rouge wave.

The variety of bunkers was impressive from rough hewn ones to smoother, more resort style bunkers, you have bunkers for all seasons here:

To help you put these bunkers in perspective, I think this should do the trick!

3) Almost all of the par 3's are uphill. This was an interesting design feature for sure. Perhaps stemming from the fact that some of the par 4's play a bit shorter (wind dependent)? The one-shot holes though all play long and uphill often requiring a hybrid or wood to gain the green.

4) The course is very fair. You might think from reading the above that this was a grueling test of golf and we came back with sand pouring out from everywhere with a dazed look on our eyes but in reality the course is gettable (especially on the front side) and more importantly enjoyable. There are bailout areas on the right side of fairways

the C+C forced carry isn't for that much on most holes (usually 150 yards or less)

and the greens, while quick, are friendly.

By the way, quick shout out to Kyle Hegland who keeps the course in tip top shape. Kyle, you did a great job despite the warm conditions and everything rolled true (fairway or green).

5) It is a true links course, sans the ocean. I learned to put away my SW and pick up my 7 iron which served me much better on my second 18. Also, our forecaddie got us around the first 18 in great style and was an eagle eye for balls in the prairie grass. You definitely develop your fescue and bump and run games here at Sand Hills which would serve you well on any links course.

What is there not to like about Sand Hills? Even though the course was busy (relatively with 81 golfers) the day we played, each 18 we felt like we had the course to ourselves. Chalk that up to the routing where holes are separate from each other and to the tee time management of Mike and to one of the real benefits of playing private golf, less crowds.

That being said, I wish everyone had a chance to play this course. It was built for the benefit of its members no question but if you ever get a chance to play you should definitely hop on a plane to Denver or Omaha, rent a car and drive through hundreds of miles of prairie and then figure out a way down the dirt roads till you arrive here.

Overall, the course was in amazing shape had a great routing for almost all of the holes (there are a few par 4's on the front that some people consider "weak" but I consider fun), the greens were in amazing shape and all the staff was super friendly and helpful. I would love to play this course again in the cooler Fall or on a windier day because I bet with a crispness in the air, this course is unbeatable. During the Summer with almost no trees, it can get hot but a cool drink on Ben's Porch will cool you off.

Sand Hills GC has no website but here are some other great write-ups of the course:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

We-Ko-Pa Saguaro

"Sting" is putting it mildly Ben. Set in the rolling Fountain Hills just outside of Scottsdale, We Ko Pa's Saguaro course has a LOT of bite to it and will test any amateur golfer.

Almost every hole necessitates a carry over desert scrub brush and/or gullies. The only way to truly attack this course is to drive it long and straight, otherwise you will be picking cactus needles out of your ball all day.

Since the course is set amongst rolling hills, you are often hitting to the tops of hills and if not, you are looking at blind second and third shots.

Unlike its sister course "Cholla", the hole and all of its danger is clearly in front of you. It is one of the ultimate target/execution desert courses you could play in Arizona. There are zero houses surrounding the course (a rarity from what I learned from my Arizona playing companions) and you really are out in the middle of nowhere playing golf.

Just like Talking Stick, my favorite Coore Crenshaw hole at Saguaro was the split fairway par 5, always an interesting challenge especially in a harsh desert landscape.

You will notice the course is very green which is a function of the course being on Indian land and thus having different water rights than other local courses. If you playing golf during the Summer in Arizona, definitely look at places like We Ko Pa who will have top notch conditioning. 

The grass on the greens was kept long to keep it from dying in 115 degree heat but the greens were very consistent so once you nailed the pace you could do pretty well on the greens.

My driver really wasn't working on the day I played the course so it was a pretty frustrating experience playing a course that requires long and straight drives but once I got to 150 yards and in, I could score pretty well. It all comes down to the boom stick here but my incompetence aside, I could see why Saguaro is constantly ranked in the top 5 golf courses in Arizona (considering the amount of courses in Arizona, this is no small feat). 

The staff were all super friendly and the routing kept things interesting throughout. This course is truly a class above in Arizona.

For more info on We Ko Pa, check it out here:

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Talking Stick North

When you think desert you think sand. One of the biggest things about playing Talking Stick North is trying to avoid the sand at all costs, which isn't easy as the duo has sculpted the course so you find your way into bunkers very easily. 

Bunkers, bunkers everywhere and where is my rake? (its a famous poem for sure).

Arizona has a problem; it has a ton of amazing golf courses but very few of them are not in housing developments. So when you can play a course that just sits in the desert and is surrounded by the mountain beauty of Arizona it is a true joy and C+C make a really nice desert course that sits in this landscape and let's you enjoy nature.

This design philosophy is no more apparent than on the Roadrunner hole

which actually has a roadrunner hanging out on it.

I got such a kick out of this and if you play TSN definitely be on the lookout for all manner of wildlife as prairie dogs, birds of all feathers and even a random coyote are present for your round.

The common complaint about Talking Stick is that it is very flat and there isn't a lot of variety in the holes but for the North course I will have to disagree. While there are similar design features on multiple holes (the most notable are forced carries across the desert scrub on tee shots):

those design features are actually interesting and add variety to a flatish terrain. Plus, I would argue that not every course has to have rolling hills and valleys to keep a golfer interested. I quite liked TSN and my favorite definitely has a lot of character to it:

I am a huge fan of split fairways, probably due to growing up and watching the split 8th hole at Riviera. Here at TSN it is a fantastic hole with a real risk/reward depending on which way you play it.

I gambled, went left and barely cleared it (maybe with a generous desert hop or two). The split continues almost all the way up to the green and makes for a really fun hole.

The green conditions were good and as I played this course on the leading edge of Summer, the grass was longer to stave off death so the putts rolled slower but true.

One of my other favorite things about TSN was the pace of play. I was allowed to go out as a single and I got around the course in about 2.5 hours. Even 3somes/ 4somes I saw got around in under 4 which is great. The staff is really friendly as well and I had an enjoyable time at Talking Stick.

Overall I say the course is well worth your time if you are in the Scottsdale area and I look forward to my next visit!

For more info on Talking Stick check it out here:

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Talking Stick South

Arizona is a weirdly beautiful state. Most of it looks like it stepped out of John Ford Western with its miles of scrub brush and towering rock formations. People have harnessed the power of the rivers to turn this desert into a place of grass and trees and none of this is more evident than playing Talking Stick South.

Unlike many of its Arizona brethren,  TSS feels much more like an Eastern Course than a desert one.

The routing is on rather flat terrain which leads to complaints of a lack of variety amongst some of the Arizona golf community but even with a straightforward layout Coore and Crenshaw add in some signature touches like their bunker sculpting:

This course does lay it all out there in front of you that is for sure but Coore and Crenshaw try to take par away from you at every turn by subtle design work which shows up the most around greens. Many of the courses I have played recently have placed their pins in tight positions so if you miss on the short side of the green you are in trouble. Well at TSS, many of the holes increase the penalty for missing the green on the wrong side with severe slopes which make it close to impossible to knock the ball close to the hole:

The real jaw dropping feature of the course is water! Water plays into many of the holes on the back 9 of the course and having played several Arizona courses, this is a rare sight indeed:

Overall I liked TSS and appreciated C+C's attempts to gin up rather uninspiring terrain to give every golfer a test. It is a little weird to be playing a parkland-like course in the middle of Arizona and the pace of play lags a bit but TSS can give you great tee shots and beguiling approaches to the green to keep you interested.

Talking Stick also has a North course designed by the duo, which will be reviewed as well on this site, and is a true desert course that more embraces the surrounding terrain but if you get a chance, play 36 just for the mind trip of playing an Eastern course in the desert.

For more info on Talking Stick South, check it out here:

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Getting On Private Courses

Look at the left side of this blog. You will notice 22 courses in North America that C+C have designed (not counting their renovation work, individual designs, etc.) and a full 11 of which are private. Private golf courses in the United States are almost NEVER opened to the hoi polloi and only if you scrounge a friendship, a business connection or go to a charity event do the rest of us get to peer inside the gate.

Many people have lifted the curtain on courses in print and on the web but very few people tell you HOW they got onto these tracks. I have started the process with my own Cypress Point Quest but John Sabino has really upped the ante with his recently released book "How To Play The World's Most Exclusive Golf Clubs" and boy does he take you all over the world and how to get into these places.

This "how to" knowledge is key when accessing C+C courses like Sand Hills (pictured above). John breaks down throughout the book how he got invites to courses, tips and tricks including fascinating 21st century tricks that even for me as an old hand of the Twitterverse made me perk up my ears.

What all these techniques come down to are establishing personal connections but John offers novel ways to make them happen. The real problem when undertaking a quest like this is geography. The private courses are spread from Tahoe to New Jersey, from Georgia to New York. I am based in California and while I come from the East Coast, I have limited contacts in most places and clearly I need to up my networking game by connecting with people in the same geographic locale as the courses.

So what have I been doing so far? I have written letters, I have made connections through Twitter and I am keeping my ears open at the private clubs I am lucky enough to play to see if there are multiple members. Whether this gets me to 22 or not remains to be seen but I bet I will take a healthy chunk out of the list in the next few years.

John's book will put on the right track to making those connections and I highly recommend you checking it out!

Check out John's review of some C+C courses:

Sand Hills:
Friar's Head:

Want to buy John's book? Check it out here:

All pictures are taken from Mr. Sabino's book are for review and commentary purposes only. All copyrights in such work belong to him. Check out his book and blog for some great golf reading! 

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Coore Crenshaw Quest Update! 2016 Plans

As all three readers of this blog knows, I am on a quest to play as many of the Coore-Crenshaw designed golf courses as I possibly can.

This year I am really ramping up my C+C game and thought I would update you guys on what is going on!

In a month I am going on an Arizona golf adventure and will be knocking off 3, count em 3, Coore-Crenshaw courses, We-Ko-Pa and the two courses at Talking Stick. I have never played golf in Arizona and I am expecting hot, heaping, heat but also great golf courses.

Next up, and BIG news, I have been invited to play at Sand Hills Golf Club!!!! I am beyond excited and have been bouncing off the walls since the invite. So many people say its a golf-life changing experience and I can't wait to experience it for myself!

Part of my Sand Hills trip will take me through Colorado and if I can manage it, I am hoping to get a round in at Colorado Golf Club, which sounds like an ultra-hard C+C track. This hopefully won't be my only trip to the heartland this year as Sand Valley is having a soft opening for its CC course in Wisconsin and I hope I get to see it in person!

Finally, my in-laws live in Texas. I love Texas golf and Texas in general, it really is a country onto itself in many ways which I find fascinating. What is also fascinating is that Texas has 3 Coore/Crenshaw tracks and I am hoping to play Barton Creek and figure out a way to play Trinity Forest which is opening in Dallas this Fall.

In summary: Coore/Crenshaw courses played so far 1 of 22. Definitely will be played after this year 6 of 22. Maybe possibly if I am a good boy will have played by the end of the year? 9 of 22! Wish me luck and if you do have any inroads to Coore/Crenshaw courses send them my way to!