Only two roads lead to Dismal River Club. From the east, 9 miles up Route 97 from the Sand Hills Golf Club turnoff in Mullen is Dismal River Road, its entrance bordered by sun-blanched piles of deadwood—jagged remnants of uprooted hardwood trees in an otherwise soothing green landscape. For the next 17 miles, the paved not-quite-two-lane road dips and rises through gentle dunes and ranchland. It would be an idyllic, relaxing drive except for the very real need to anticipate oncoming traffic on the other side of each hillcrest.
The other route is Soddy Road, an American safari that runs on one lane for 25 miles. The first 15 are paved—50 mph travel through high dunes and wide, fenced meadows. Big rigs use the road to trailer cattle, further elevating suspense for every blind hill. A favorite Soddy Road story is when our caravan of cars was stopped cold by three 18-wheel semis that had parked at Tucker Ranch to unload 150 steers. All we could do was get out and gawk. After that point, Soddy becomes a sand road traveled more by hoof than car through unfenced meadows and dunes. Traffic is so light that cattle lie in the road and yield passage grudgingly. Travel times vary; expect cow delays.
The destination is every bit worthy of the journey. Dismal River Club presents the Sand Hills in grand scale. Atop a massive dune, the clubhouse overlooks the Dismal River valley below. The view from the wraparound deck is my Sand Hills favorite, a ridge of 350-foot behemoth dunes—shaped like so many reclining Renoir nudes—descending to a long river valley through which flow the narrow Dismal River and the back 10 holes of Dismal’s Red course. We joined in 2017.
Yet Dismal hasn’t enjoyed the same critical success as its famous neighbor a mere 7 miles across the dunes. It hasn’t been easy to succeed in a business that historically operated only five months a year in a remote location. The club is on its fourth set of owners.
The current ownership group, led by Mullen native Joel Jacobs, arrived after the addition of the Doak-designed Red course that complements Jack Nicklaus’ White course. Jacobs, whose family ranch is about 20 miles north of the course, knows his way around sports. As a high school student, he was among the original caddies when Sand Hills opened in 1995. He also quarterbacked the Mullen (population 491) eight-man state championship high school football team, earned All-America recognition as tight end at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and played briefly for the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots in the NFL.
After settling in Omaha as a financial adviser, Jacobs saw the opportunity for Dismal and took it. “I knew instinctively what it needed and what it was supposed to be,” he says.
That vision has taken DRC beyond golf, adding further activities—big-game and bird hunting, target, trap and sporting clay shooting, and fishing—with family amenities—horseback riding, hiking, kayaking, swimming pool, hot tub, spa and special culinary and wine events. The club now operates year-round, with access boosted by a luxury bus and charter flights that use a grass landing strip 7 miles away.
That trip when we got an up-close lesson in cattle shipping at Tucker Ranch? Only five in our group of 12—five couples and two toddlers—played golf.
This June, we met a delegation of all-male government lobbyists who played Sand Hills in the morning and Dismal River in the afternoon—a standard trip in these parts even just a few years ago. But, that same day, a closer look at Dismal’s courses would reveal that foursomes were made up equally of couples and guy-trippers. Around the fire pit at night, an all-girl group of well-lubricated singers held sway, a shout for equality if not harmony.
Activities aside, the golf is pure. The Red appears more accessible visually, but is tougher than it looks. The White is just the opposite. Members confide their preference for the latter, it being visually stunning to all, yet accessible to those who know how to play the blind shots. Needle-and-thread, bluestem, prickly poppy, yucca and more native grasses and plants are thick and bountiful—and generously sprinkled with Titleists, Callaways, Bridgestones and more.