Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sand Hills Golf Club

A brief apology up front for a longer than normal writeup. I never know when inspiration will hit and it hit in force at Sand Hills. If you want to get right to the golf course, scroll down. Otherwise, indulge me for a brief history and geography lesson to help put Sand Hills in perspective.

My view of the United States is more or less consistent with the famous The New Yorker cartoon. The United States consists of New York, some other east coast cities, New Jersey and California. Nebraska is part of the vast midwest that pretty much doesn't exist. It is a place you fly over. Why in the world would anyone want to go there? The closest that most people I know have ever been to Nebraska is to read Warren Buffet's annual letter to shareholders.

Well, I have to tell you, this view of Nebraska has been shattered for me. The Sand Hills region of Nebraska is out of this world. It is not row after row of corn fields and flat lands. Quite to the contrary, it is one of the natural wonders of this great country.

My trip to The Sand Hills Golf Club (ranked #11 in the world) began with a flight into Denver. Denver is actually the closest large city to Mullen, Nebraska where the golf course is located. It is a five and a half hour drive northeast of Denver. The overall journey to Sand Hills actually took me longer than any of my many trips to play in Britain and Ireland. You can also get to Sand Hills by taking a commuter flight from either Denver or Chicago into North Platte, Nebraska which is about an hour away, but with afternoon thunderstorms common in this part of the country, I'd rather drive. For the investment bankers, hedge fund managers and private equity followers of my blog the good news is you will be able to land your private jets in North Platte.

You leave Denver on Interstate 76 and travel into Nebraska. This part of Northern Colorado is kind of bland and non-descript. It is a high plain with a lot of scrub and frankly not a lot of beauty. Once you cross into Nebraska, it is more or less more of the same until about three hours into the trip you find yourself on state highway NE-61. The contrast to the area you have just traveled through is stark. NE-61 is one of the hidden gem, sleeper roads of this country. For beauty, NE-61 rivals driving between San Francisco and Los Angeles on US-1 or Route 112 in New Hampshire during September. It's that beautiful, although it is a stark and subtle beauty that reveals itself slowly. It is one of the most scenic roads in the country. Have I lost my mind? No, not at all. I had no idea what the Sand Hills region even was prior to this trip. I assumed there was a small area of dunes where they built a good golf course. This assumption has about the same validity as assuming that Donald Trump is modest. The reality is that the Sand Hills region of Nebraska is 19,300 square miles and takes up about 25% of the entire land mass of the state. This is larger than the states of Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware and Rhode Island, combined! A geological anomoly, the Sand Hills region was formed at the end of the last ice age when sand was wind blown into large dunes during a severe drought. It must have been one hell of a drought indeed.

It has the biggest, most impressive sand dunes I have seen anywhere in the world. NE-61 is a two lane road that winds through the Sand Hills region. You round bend after bend and your mind plays tricks on you. You will look away and look back and think once you get over the crest of the next hill you will see the Atlantic Ocean or the Irish Sea. It is bucolic, peaceful and dramatic. You drive along rolling hills punctuated by ranches. To call the area sparsely populated is an understatement. The county seat in Arthur we drove through had a post office, bank, county courthouse, a fairground and not much else. The total population of the county Sand Hills is located in is 793. I have more people than that on just one subway train on the way to work. The beauty of the region is unexpected. You know the Monterey penninsula is going to be beautiful and the Grand Canyon. Likewise, the Pacific Northwest has a reputation for beauty as do the Rocky Mountains. This just takes you totally by surprise. Living in a metropolitan area I never really appreciated how beautiful this region of the country is.

I felt at times that I was in a time warp. The picture above is of one of the 'towns' you pass through on the way to Sand Hills. In many of these places it could be 1930. You drive on NE-61 thankfully for a full hour and then you turn right onto NE-2 to make the final approach into Mullen. NE-2 parallels a Burlington Northern rail line, which has long freight trains made up entirely of coal cars transporting coal out of Wyoming. The rail line is set at the base of the Sand Hills, and here I go again, but it is a beautiful sight. A rail line, beautiful? Certainly, my mind is gone now. But, those of you that have driven it, tell me if I'm wrong.

Once you get into Mullen (population 554 and yes those are bullet holes in the sign), you turn right onto NE-97 south. In shades of Muirfield, you have to know where you are going. The club has told you to look for mile marker 55 on the left side of the road and the Sand Hills Golf Club is your next right. Once you turn off the road, it is 2.5 miles to the clubhouse. The clubhouse is a decidedly understated affair as are the cabins that guests stay in. The cabins sleep two people and are setup on the top of a hill overlooking the Dismal River. You are never given a key since the cabins are on the honor system and are unlocked. The booklet left in each room for guests warns you not to be alarmed if you hear strange sounds in the night. Deer often bed down under the cabins and wild turkeys are known to roost on the porch railings.

The Golf Course

How is it that a golf course built in 1995 and located in the middle of Nebraska is ranked #11 in the world? Well, it deserves to be ranked this high, it is that good. The land is perfectly suited for golf. Architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw have done a masterful job designing the course. In 1993, they actually visited the sight and 'discovered' over 130 golf holes and then proceeded to narrow it down to 18, which is the golf course the world is lucky to have today. Although the area is windy, there is no prevailing wind, so the course is routed to be playable in any wind condition. I'm not sure how you design a course as good as Coore and Crenshaw did, but they pulled it off.

I have never met Dick Youngscap, the man behind Sand Hills, but the man is an obvious genius. No one has had greater vision in sponsoring and developing a golf course since Charles Blair Macdonald when he built The National Golf Links in 1910. The entire Sand Hills Golf Club is on 8,000 acres of land. By way of comparison the East Course at Merion was built on only 120 acres. The place has sand dunes of epic proportions. Some of the dunes are over 400 feet tall. What you see at Bandon or Pacific Dunes, Ballybunion, Sandwich, Cruden Bay and Dornoch are hardly even comparable to what you will see here.

The course is located one mile from the clubhouse over sand dunes. You drive out from the clubhouse in a golf cart, across a private ranch and then arrive at the small starters cabin and outdoor grill room - nicknamed Ben's porch.

14th Green
The 14th green at Sand Hills

The course itself has NO weak holes. The seventh and eighth holes are short par fours and have fantastic risk/reward characteristics. The seventh hole, 285 yards, proves that holes like the short eighth at Cruden Bay are not out of date. The eighth in particular has a sort of bowl shaped green that if you land on the correct spot on the green the ball trickles down to a pin set right behind a bunker. The fourteenth hole also stands out as another super risk/reward hole. It is a 475 par five that most players can reach in two, particularly if the wind is at your back. It is nice as a mortal golfer to have a shot at an eagle every now and then. If you miss your shot, however, you're dead. There are severe bunkers in the back and front and the green slopes sharply from back to front. One of the best holes in the world, in my view. The seventeenth (pictured below), their signature hole, is a short par three and has a postage stamp green.

17th Hole
The 17th green at Sand Hills

Part of what makes the course shine is that every green (except 17) is accessible from the front, encouraging bump and run or pitch shots. The fairway blends into the green in a spectacular fashion. Many play up hill so you can frequently misjudge and under-club in which case you are going to be hitting the same shot again with the ball rolling back to your feet. In shades of Pinehurst #2, the fourth hole at Sand Hills has a dramatic falloff from the elevated green on the right side. Although the holes on the course are not handicap rated, this is probably the #1 handicap hole for most people. It is like Pinehurst #2 on steroids. The eighteenth hole is a long, uphill par four that played into the wind on the two days I played the course and is a worthy finishing hole given the heroic scale of Sand Hills.

At times when playing Sand Hills it feels like you are playing at Royal St. George's or North Berwick or Shinnecock, but also many of the holes have the feel of desert golf with wide fairways and 'target' tee shots. Miss your tee shot, though, and you will be chipping out of the fescue. Consistent with Coore-Crenshaw's design philosophy it is the shots into the green that you have to play well at Sand Hills

Note to golf course architects: Study the approaches and greens at Sand Hills. You don't need to put greenside bunkers everywhere to create a great course. You can walk the course, but this is the one place I recommend taking a cart - for the simple reason that you don't want to tire yourself out for playing again in the afternoon. Believe me, you will want to play at least 36 holes a day.

I had a very peaceful experience at Sand Hills and enjoyed the quiet beauty of the place. You can have coffee delivered to your cabin in the early morning. Each cabin has a wooden deck on the back with wooden rocking chairs. I stayed in cabin #14 which sits up on a bluff over the Dismal River. As the sun was coming up I enjoyed a fresh cup of coffee and a Havana Bolivar #2 while listening to the sounds of the water running below. It was a total state of serenity. At Sand Hills you will see no planes flying overhead. There is no background din of a distant highway. If you stop talking and just listen you will hear total silence punctuated only by the occasional bird chirping or wind blowing.

The entire time at Sand Hills, you are in-communicado. There is basically no cell phone service, blackberries do not work, there is no wireless internet connection, no internet service at all, no Wall Street Journal or USA Today. Cell phones are not allowed. The phones in your room will only let you make collect calls. You are thankfully out of it. Let's hope they always keep it that way. Although being a type 'A' personality I will let you in on a little secret of mine: cell phones do work in the bathroom of the halfway house near the first tee. It created some interesting moments during my trip when my playing partners thought I had a weak bladder, continually spending a lot of time in the bathroom, when in fact I was on the phone.

The Sand Hills Golf Club is also a maternal type of place where they look after you. The men and women there are like a long lost aunt and uncle and they take good care of you. They prepare you a hearty breakfast to order. A genuine westerner, a leather-faced cowboy in a big hat grills you either a hamburger or hot-dog at lunch at the starters cabin/grill. I was so excited driving into Sand Hills that I hadn't noticed that my car had run out of gas after the 5 1/2 hour drive. When I started it to leave the fuel light came on. The nearest gas station is 15 miles from the golf course. The nice people at Sand Hills put a couple of gallons of gas in the car for me from their own private reserve. It reminded me a lot of how people in Manhattan treat each other hailing cabs in the rain.

Eighth Green - Sand Hills
The 8th green at Sand Hills

There are few places in this world left where you can still find true peace. The Sand Hills region is one of those places. At Sand Hills I experienced a range of emotions oscillating from "Where am I?" to "This is unreal". In a post-September 11th world we need to treasure places like Sand Hills where you can still be completely at peace, can see the stars in the sky at night and disconnect from modern life and enjoy the fresh air and wide open spaces. It is a great contrast to modern life. Peace and quiet are sadly no longer valued in the world today. Sand Hills is the antidote to your asshole neighbor who uses his leaf blower at seven in the morning. It helps to heal your soul from all those times sitting in the airport with CNN blaring in your face. It helps you forget all those blowhards on the train that scream into their cellphone. And it reminds us what life was like before everyone had their iPODs and DVDs set so high that everyone around them can hear. It reminds us that peace and quiet are to be treasured and that modern life is sadly out of balance.

The course itself is rather difficult to get invited to. There are only 150-160 members who are scattered all over the world. The course is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Play is limited to 50 rounds a day and an unaccompanied guest can only visit Sand Hills once without the member. If you are ever invited to play, you would be crazy to decline.

The Sand Hills region is starting to be discovered. Jack Nicklaus is building a me too course and resort nearby on NE-97 that will have its own Cessna plane to shuttle passengers in and out. While the region is hardly at risk of being over-run, resorts are starting to spring up for both golfing and for hunting. However, none will ever equal what has been created at the Sand Hills Golf Club. It is one of a kind.

My experience tells me that most avid golfers are not up on famous turn of the century female writers. I'm not normally a Willa Cather type of guy, but I found this quote from her which describes the Sand Hills region: "I wanted to walk straight on through the grass and over the edge of the world, which could not be very far away. The light air about me told me that the world ended here; only the ground, sun, and sky were left. "


The Sand Hills region along NE-61

The Sand Hills Golf Club logo with the ranch-style motif

The Sand Hills Clubhouse

A Sand Hills Cabin

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