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CapRock Ranch

Look out below—the canyon-side design is a welcome addition to the Sand Hills family
CapRock

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The following essay is part of a larger feature, American Safari, which chronicles one man’s golf journey across the Nebraska plains, and the five courses that shape it. View the full feature here.

Sure, perhaps one membership to a dusty, remote golf club could be explained away. But four? My rationale 11 years ago was that I didn’t want golf in the Sand Hills conditional on an invitation, with the important addendum that I wasn’t getting any younger. The same two factors hold true today, the latter now vastly more relevant.

My introduction to CapRock stems from meeting Trimble at the opening of The Prairie Club. By the next year, he had shown his reserved land to us and shared his vision for the course, which entailed tours in his Land Rover or Gator, with suicidally close views from the canyon rim. 

He’d been dreaming of it for a good 10 years—not to rival Sand Hills, but to protect the Snake River by creating an ecologically sustainable buffer above it. To that end, and with the tutelage of Coore, he set about methodically interviewing the top minimalist golf architects. Ferrying them in from Rapid City, South Dakota, lodging them at his ranch, fixing them the very same dinner at his canyon-rim house, over-serving alcohol and letting them loose on the land. Take from it what you will, but Hanse emerged from the process.

The development of The Prairie Club intervened, and it looked as if CapRock would be its third course. Visions clashed, however, and stymied the development until 2018. That’s when Omaha wealth manager John Schuele stepped in, purchasing 400 acres from Trimble and, critically, buying back 200 acres that included the canyon rim from Schock. That land expanded the routing and doubled the canyon holes to eight. Hanse told investors that the additional canyon holes took the routing “from a nine to a 10.”

Why the perfect score? First, the view. The chop hills are subdued, gentle cousins of the dune family, but still on the Sand Hills grainy soil with tall prairie grasses and few trees. Then the canyon, a gaping valley whose cliffs reveal geological strata tens of millions of years old beneath a 10- to 30-foot layer of compressed whitish sandstone known as caprock. The American Natural History Museum in New York still houses 3,900 fossils collected from the canyon from three expeditions in the 1930s.

Second is an inescapable emotional updraft the land provides. “When I walked that property, almost 20 years ago, I had been to Sand Hills, the golf course, but I’d never really been to the Sand Hills, the region,” Hanse told me. “And the beauty of that landscape, the merger of the sand dunes and the canyon edge, and the pace of life out there became someplace that I always thought was really truly special. It’s hard to explain to somebody how truly magical that place is.”

Trimble sums up the land he’s been on for 36 years: “Lots of open sky, beautiful nights, tall, waving grasses. Sand, wind, grass: the essence of golf.”

Hanse and co-designer Jim Wagner started construction in the spring of 2019. The greens along the canyon rim required digging 3-foot-deep hollows and filling them with chop-hills sand to make them consistent with the deeper sand base of the inland greens. No gravel or drainage was necessary. The greens were seeded with bent-grass hybrids Flagstick and Triple 7, the fairways and maintained areas were grassed with fescue and most of the remaining native grasses were left untouched. 

The par-71 course runs alternately through the nearly treeless dunes and in a figure-eight routing along the canyon populated with tall ponderosa pines. Hanse says that the course design benefited from the long process. “Had we built the golf course when we first walked on the property 20 years ago, I honestly don’t think it would have turned out as good as it has now,” he says. “We probably would not have had the restraint to get the most out of this site. I feel like we really did this go-around.”

 Gina and I arrived on a Sunday evening for CapRock’s Monday morning opening day. The golf course was completely grown in, but some of the facilities were still being finished. The late sunset allowed for a walk on the canyon holes and an unforgettable first view from the clubhouse deck overlooking the 18th green, about 300 yards across the canyon rim.  

In all, four of the eight canyon holes are par 3s that call for essentially do-or-die contact. Short, fat, thin and offline shots—anything that doesn’t fly accurately over the canyon—are gone. I realized that my appreciation for their beauty would be tempered by actually having to play them.

How right I was: When I stepped onto the 18th tee in Monday’s opening round, I had landed safely on just one of the three par 3s I’d faced. But I still couldn’t resist attacking the 200-yard carry that retired Golf Digest senior editor Ron Whitten likened to the finishing hole at Pasatiempo, “but bigger, bolder, deeper.”

As I surveyed the view, with birds gliding below me in the canyon, I pulled out my longest stick. I let it fly. The gorgeous views of the journey continued, and so did I, one ball lighter.