American Safari

The Sand Hills became a second golf home after one blind trip turned into years of adventure on the prairie

I usually can’t keep a secret, let alone draw out the punchline, especially with my wife. But this time is different.

After a morning flight to Denver and driving 240 highway miles east-northeast through the plains of eastern Colorado and western Nebraska, we turn left in North Platte onto Route 97, a two-lane ribbon of asphalt with no other vehicle in sight. The road to the Sand Hills.

The plains give way to a gently rolling landscape, nothing but heather green to the horizon. Fifteen miles in, I get a nibble: “This is interesting terrain,” my wife says. I remain silent.

After another 15, where only one vehicle passes from the other direction, she says, “This is really pretty.” A true tug on the line. Lips stay pressed.

As 97 flows north, the prairie-covered dunes grow in amplitude, rhythmically rising and falling a hundred feet or more on either side of the road. Every few miles, new features come into view: black Angus cattle; tan hay bales reclining on lush valley bottoms; dark-blue roadside lakes from a surficial aquifer. Only to revert back to a purely green palette over the next rise. “This is spectacular,” my wife finally exclaims.

Our first trip and she’s hooked. And I never had to say a word. At mile 124.5, we pull in.

Fast-forward five days. The much-anticipated opening is rained out at The Prairie Club, which I had joined as a founding member from Philadelphia sight unseen. New turf too fragile for play. Undaunted, we walk the courses with the caddie master and a golf-magazine rater, and ultimately play 27 holes before heading home. 

As we leave the entrance road and turn back onto Route 97, my wife confesses, “I have bad news for you: I want to come back.”

That was 11 years and 29 trips ago. And four memberships.

No, not at the Sand Hills. But yes, because of the Sand Hills.

When I tell people that my wife, Gina, and I vacation in Nebraska, there are but two responses: “Do you have family there?” or just silence as they await the punchline of a joke. Nebraska and vacations don’t immediately resonate with Philadelphians or many other bicoastal provincials.

What’s there besides cornfields, empty land and Cornhusker football? After all, “Nebraska” is a Native American word for “flat river,” and the early French explorers followed suit, naming the area’s predominant river Platte, their word for “flat.” Those whose college years straddled Woodstock may remember the popular dorm poster, a downhill skier motionless on a flat corn-stubble field: “Ski Nebraska!” In 2018, after the fourth consecutive year of coming in dead last on a ranking of states people want to visit, the tourism commission embraced its selective appeal. Its cheeky new slogan: “Nebraska. Honestly, it’s not for everyone.”

Golfers, however, are exactly the kind of relentless seekers to make that commission’s day. For deep in Nebraska’s rolling green duneland resides the Mecca for minimalist golf design: the Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw–designed Sand Hills Golf Club. Opened in 1995, Sand Hills GC heralded a new generation of modern architects and a collection of stunning cousins with sandy ties to the best of the past.  

As George Waters points out in his book, Sand and Golf: How Terrain Shapes the Game, golf’s history and development sprouted on sandy soil venues: the linksland of Scotland (St. Andrews), the heathland of southern England (Sunningdale, Swinley Forest), the shores of Long Island (Shinnecock Hills, Maidstone, National Golf Links), inland U.S. sand deposits (Pine Valley, Pinehurst No. 2) and Melbourne’s Sandbelt (Royal Melbourne, Kingston Heath). 

My golf perspective was transformed 15 years ago, when I was lucky enough to visit the fiercely private Sand Hills Golf Club, followed by a trip to Bandon Dunes later that year. It was my introduction to the new classics.

Thus began an enduring affair with the Sand Hills region that unexpectedly produced a rotation of golf courses worthy of 4,000-mile sojourns from Philadelphia at least twice a year. Not only for the remarkable golf, but also for the friendships we’ve made with people who call the Sand Hills home or make it their destination. And for the stark beauty of an unaltered landscape where the sky entertains with thunderstorms that roll in from the horizon and stars that shine brighter than we’ve ever seen.

For much of prehistoric time, the Sand Hills were underwater. They were covered by the so-called Cretaceous Sea, the ocean that divided the North American continent between the Rockies and the Appalachians, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. The sea retreated some 65 million years ago, exposing a dry bed covered in sand. This sand then traveled by water or wind; some consolidated and eventually lithified into sedimentary rock we know as sandstone. The rest continued to accumulate into free-flowing dunes, which rose and fell like the waves in the ocean that once made it home.

The area’s “recent” geologic history began roughly 10,000 years ago. The retreat of glacial ice just to the north brought both warmer weather and greater moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico.

This climate change led to a cascade of events. Vegetation took hold atop the dunes. Their intertwining roots blanketed the underlying sand from the wind, freezing the dunes in place in a blink of geologic time. Meanwhile, rain not immediately absorbed by the plant life dripped through the porous sand and collected in underground reservoirs. The result: dry desert dunes anchored by greenery sitting on top of a freshwater sea.

Before the United States acquired rights to the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the territory was part of the French colonial empire dating back to 1699. Prior to that, Native American tribes shared the great plains and prairie with millions of bison.

As North America industrialized, the Sand Hills withstood change, with the exception of its two best-known inhabitants. Through treaties and military conquest, the Native American tribes were forced from the land. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 opened the territory to settlement. Next to go were the bison, hunted to near extinction for meat and sport. By the late 1870s, the bison were gone and the Native Americans has been banished to reservations.

Their land wasn’t particularly arable. Plowing the prairie led to erosion, not crop production. Despite federal incentives to increase population—the Homestead Act of 1862, and the Kincaid Act of 1904, which granted 160 and 640 acres respectively to settlers—few endured. By the great Dust Bowl drought of 1930, most had already given up.

Grazing better suited the land, keeping the native grasses unplowed and their grip atop the dunes secure. With plenty of land available, ranching took hold. Large acreages of native grasses are required in the Sand Hills: between 10 and 30 acres per each cow and her calf, or “one unit” in ranching lexicon. Estimates of the average-size working ranch in the Sand Hills range from 4,000 to 6,000 acres. Ranching today accounts for 80% of the land use, followed by 10% for wild hay used as feed.

Unlike the rest of the once-vast prairie that covered the central United States, 90% of Sand Hills remains essentially unchanged. Encompassing 19,000 square miles in west-central Nebraska and parts of South Dakota, they make up a quarter of the land in Nebraska, the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. They are the Western Hemisphere’s largest grass-covered sand dunes and sit atop the nation’s largest underground water reservoir, the Ogallala Aquifer. Their population of 17,000—fewer than one person per square mile—is outnumbered by cattle 30 to 1.

The climate features extreme winds and temperature. Sustained winds, mostly from the west, of 20 to 30 miles per hour are common; gusts, far greater. Wind-chilled subzero winter temperatures are a constant danger to cattle, especially during calving season.

And yet golf courses continue to emerge. Because from Scotland to Nebraska, when the golf is good, no conditions will stop someone from putting a tee in the ground.