Nebraska's Sand Hills becoming world golf destination


The 550 yard par 5 first hole at the Sand Hills Golf Club cuts a path of green through Nebraska’s Sand Hills country. Photo courtesy Scott Sayers

Story by John Neidel, NewsNetNebraska

Nebraska is known for many things.  The Cornhuskers.  The corn.  The beef.  However, some people across the country would have a different answer to the question, “What do you associate with the state of Nebraska?”

Golfer Ben Crenshaw is one of those people.  When the 1984 and 1995 Masters Champion first laid eyes on the region in 1987, he saw a landscape that was good not only for cattle ranching.  He saw the perfect place to build a world-class golf course aptly named the Sand Hills Golf Club.  “When we first got there we couldn’t believe the region was so vast,” Crenshaw explained.  “Everywhere we looked, it was just pristine golf territory.”

Dick Youngscap, the general manager of the Sand Hills Golf Club and the person who had the original vision for building the course, also saw a land perfect for golf.  “There were a very large number of natural golf holes that were already there,” Youngscap said.  “The idea was not to come up to the Sand Hills and make a golf course.  The idea was to find one.”

Bill Coore (left), Ben Crenshaw (back-center), Tom Beck (front-center), and Dave Axland (right) surveying the land during construction of the Sand Hills Golf Club. Photo courtesy Scott Sayers

Youngscap’s comments illustrate the importance of the natural topography of the Sand Hills.  In some areas of the country, golf courses are built in spite of the lack of land features.  The Sand Hills Golf Club was simply placed on land that already existed.  The land lacked pins and tee markers when Crenshaw arrived, but in his mind, their locations were crystal clear.

The problem, Crenshaw explained, was convincing the locals that golf and the Sand Hills could be a beautiful marriage.  After all, when people watched the PGA Tour, they saw courses in California, Florida, and North Carolina with trees, water and other features not found in western Nebraska.

“Nobody could quite understand what we were trying to do at first,” Crenshaw said.  “The local people didn’t know what we were about at all.  They said, ‘You’re gonna build a golf course out here?’  Their idea of golf was to build lakes and to plant trees.  After a short period of time, we showed them holes of historic golf courses in England, Scotland and Ireland, and they said, ‘Well gosh, that looks a lot like our ground.’”

Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore established the golf architecture firm Coore and Crenshaw Inc. in 1986.  Together, Coore and Crenshaw have created 20 new course designs while also doing numerous restoration projects.

Bill Coore (left) & Ben Crenshaw (right) on "Tire-iron Hill" at the Sand Hills Golf Club in 1994. Photo courtesy Scott Sayers

The Sand Hills Golf Club, which opened in 1995, holds a special place in Crenshaw’s heart.  “That one’s extra special because we’ll never get ground like that ever again in our lifetime,” Crenshaw explained.  “We just couldn’t believe that we were getting the opportunity to build it and be a part of it.  It’s one of the things that Bill Coore and I are proudest about.”

There is reason to be proud.  Golf Digest ranks it as the 11th best course in the world. and Golfweek Magazine rank it as the world’s best golf course built in the last 50 years.

One of the reasons golf enthusiasts are drawn to the Sand Hills Golf Club and other courses designed by Coore and Crenshaw is the minimalist and naturalistic approach they take when building a course.  The minimalist approach means changing the existing land as little as possible during construction.  As Crenshaw’s longtime business manager Scott Sayers puts it, “We have to make sure that golf is the number one consideration.  What Ben and Bill look for in a piece of property is something that they can make look like golf just fit in to the property.”

Not the only Sand Hills golf course

Since the Sand Hills Golf Club was built, other golf course architects have followed Coore and Crenshaw’s lead.  Jack Nicklaus designed the course for the Dismal River Golf Club, which opened in 2007 and is located just southwest of Mullen, Neb., about ten miles west of the Sand Hills Golf Club.  While the Sand Hills and Dismal River Golf Clubs are strictly private, Wild Horse Golf Club in Gothenburg, which opened in 1998, is a daily fee course open to the public.  Golf Magazine ranked it No. 67 on their list of the “Top 100 Courses You Can Play.”  In addition, the recently opened Prairie Club is a golf resort with two 18-hole courses, including one designed by former British Open Champion Tom Lehman.  The Prairie Club, located near Valentine, Neb., in the north-central part of the state, was featured in Golfweek Magazine earlier this year and is a semi-private club, which means it is open to the public but also offers memberships.

No matter which of these courses you play, Crenshaw says golf in the Sand Hills is unmatched.  He says it reminds him of the undulating and sandy British Isles where the game of golf was born.  And although this unique region in western Nebraska might be a tough place to get to for many of the 170 members of the Sand Hills Golf Club, Sayers knows why golfers continue to go back.  “It’s a combination of the whole experience, from staying in the cabins to eating good food to being with friends.  It’s pure golf.  There is nothing else.”

Additional facts

§         Many golf courses move hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of dirt during construction.  The Sand Hills Golf Club moved only 25,000 cubic yards, mostly on one hole.

§         A typical USGA green costs $40,000 to build.  In order to build the greens at the Sand Hills Golf Club, the construction team had to start by mowing existing vegetation.  Then they had to till the dirt to a depth of six inches.  After some minor grading work, they applied seed, fertilizer, and water.  Each green cost a mere $300 to build.

§         Here is an illustration of how some golf course architects do not use the minimalist approach.  The 2010 PGA Championship was played at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wis.  So much dirt was moved during construction of that course that crews actually brought in old train cars and put dirt over them in order to facilitate the features and undulations desired by course architect Pete Dye.

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