Wednesday, September 7, 2016
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: