On Another Plain 24

On Another Plain

Going past the rankings to find what makes Sand Hills a perfect experience

We missed the gate.

We were a half-hour early and weren’t intending to turn in, but didn’t even realize we’d passed it until we were in the town of Mullen, Nebraska, population roughly 500, staring at a wooden sign with yellow letters announcing its high school’s state championships in various sports. There was a gas station on our left, white, gleaming in the spotless sky. The town was even smaller than I had imagined, nowhere near big enough to kill 30 minutes in a feeble attempt to burn off our adrenaline. My friend Jason was at the wheel; we crept along the main street, past small houses and what appeared to be the lone bar in town. Earlier that morning, in North Platte, we’d visited a rail museum and talked to the curator, who was sitting on a folding lawn chair when we walked up, pecking away at his phone. He gave us the history of the two big locomotives on display and was so thorough and nice, we both dropped a donation in his box before departing. We still had two hours to kill before our tee time, but decided we’d venture toward the course, not knowing what else we could do. Few mornings have ever marched as slowly as the one before our afternoon tee time at Sand Hills Golf Club. 

The preceding day had been filled with the usual buzz of golf-trip anticipation—worry over what you’ve forgotten, relief at the sight of your clubs in baggage claim—and a warmup round near the airport in Denver. We had been planning the trip since snow was still on the ground back home in Ohio, after Jason scored an invite via Twitter—perhaps the only positive outcome to have occurred on that platform in recorded history—and asked if I wanted to tag along. I texted “Yes” back immediately, but what I wanted to do was drive the seven minutes to his house from mine, throw open his door, scream “YES!” and then offer to do any chores he needed before he changed his mind. As the trip inched closer, I asked Jason how many holes he planned to play and he said, “A hundred if they’ll let me.” 

Sand Hills seems unreachable. Geographically, it’s in Mullen, a five-hour drive from the Denver airport into a desolate ocean of grass. But Sand Hills also feels like some mythical golfing paradise that exists on another plane. You can see Pine Valley in clips of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf on YouTube, and even go there to watch tournaments. Sand Hills is equally private, but with seemingly no interest in events or even media coverage. First-person accounts of the club are rare, even though many rightfully point to its 1994 opening as the harbinger of the build-it-and-they-will-come golf travel revolution. 

Most of my golf has been played at public courses and big resorts. The majority of my rounds cost $15 down the street from the university where I teach. I still get nervous about protocol and formalities when I enter any private club, because it’s not a world I’m familiar with. And, for a long time, like a lot of golfers, I felt like there were “those guys”—the private-club guys—and the rest of us. I’ve come to see that line isn’t so stark, but it’s still there. Sand Hills seemed like one of those places with “those guys.” I never dreamed about playing it, because I never considered getting there was possible. Then it was. We found ourselves getting out of the rental to snap pictures of the iconic logo at the entrance gate, the sun shining directly above it like a celestial spotlight. 

Sand Hills Golf Club is a lesson in contrasts. It tempts you to fall into clichés about Midwestern humility and romantic, trite, often untrue aphorisms about ranchers and their way of life—that sort of “Aw shucks, we’re just doing the best we can here” attitude we like to paint around things to show how unique and special they are in spite of themselves. The truth is that everything in and around Sand Hills is more thoughtful and deliberate than it appears.

On Another Plain Sand Hills No. 24
The clubhouse and amenities at Sand Hills are more utilitarian than opulent for a reason: The golf course is meant to be the star of the show.

Mullen immediately transported me back to my Appalachian hometown. It’s smaller than where I grew up, but the similarities are evident, and I remember how outsiders leaned on stereotypes to describe us. I easily conjured the lives behind the curtains of those homes and the cinder-block walls of the local businesses. They are lives braided together by a place, where folks have come (or, more likely, were born) into a landscape that shapes their existence. Blistering summers, toe-numbing winters and the all-too-short reprieves of early fall and late spring. In a town like this, weather and landscape and isolation dictate demeanor as much as they do the days. You learn how to be self-sufficient, to rarely ask for help even when it’s needed, to give people space and to jump in when finally asked or when the ask is unspoken. People tend to overgeneralize and say things are simple here, but there is a rich complexity beneath it all. Towns like Mullen—towns like mine—can serve as salvation and, at times, feel stifling, but the people know they’re in it together.

The parking lot at Sand Hills is small. Weathered split-rail fences corral your cars, and the clubhouse looks like a a home from Mullen someone misplaced at the course. Its siding is beige and the wood trim is a chocolate brown. It is not a monolith that rises like some sort of golf beacon in the virgin prairie. My first thought wasn’t exactly This is it? as much as it was surprise at how purposefully unassuming it was. Once we got inside, the vibe was very 1990s public library: blond wood, gray carpet, few adornments. The pro shop, which features a selection of Mullen Football hats, is smaller than most “comfort stations” at the latest Build-It-Bonanza some golf developer’s press release is touting, and the showers in the guest locker room don’t boast heads the size of manhole covers. Just basic silver Moens from Lowe’s or Home Depot. It’s not so much understated as utilitarian. None of this is an accident or oversight. At Sand Hills, the golf course is meant to be the only star that catches your eye. 

After loading up the golf carts, our group of eight began the nearly 10-minute ride out to the course. Jason and I were the caboose cart, and almost as soon as we started, we jammed on the brakes, with everyone up ahead jumping out and rushing toward a man with sunglasses on and two children sitting behind him. He was grinning and accepting thank-yous and congratulations. It was Kyle Hegland, the course superintendent, who has become a minor celebrity in the golf corners of Twitter and message boards. Our group gushed over the Wisconsin native as if he were Arnie and we were paired with him for the pro-am that afternoon. That’s the kind of golf nuts we are. 

“Man, you’re a genius. I’m so happy to meet you,” one of the guys said. Hegland’s son, upon hearing this, defiantly shook his head. 

Seeing this, another guy asked, “You don’t think your dad’s a genius?”

Again, the boy shook his head, and we all laughed. 

When I returned home, I emailed Hegland about the encounter and told him how great it was to meet him and his kids. He wrote back, “I’m lucky that they get to be a part of this as well.” And they aren’t the only ones. When we first arrived, a friendly woman whose deep tan told the story of working in a place with no natural shade helped us with our bags and provided us with our cart. Later, I saw her filling range bags with balls. She is Hegland’s wife. 

From the women at the check-in desk and pro shop to the genuine cowboy decked out in blue jeans in the heat who takes your burger order at the turn and has it ready by the time you come off 18, the club feels like an extension of the little town down the road, a tight-knit community adjacent to a tight-knit community. It just happens to be at one of the world’s greatest golf courses. 

After our many hours of travel and anticipation, after much too much money spent in the pro shop and the brief interlude with Hegland, the course finally revealed itself at Ben’s Porch, named after co-designer Ben Crenshaw. The little building is the only structure you see from the golf course, and its square footage rivals studio apartments in New York City. The not-so-subtle message: Get in, order, get back out on the course. We grabbed our Gatorades and cups of ice water and walked outside to the wraparound porch. There, among the swaying brown prairie grass, dots of green gleamed like emeralds, harkening us. The view was staggering. Only then did it feel like we had truly arrived. The eight of us gathered at the first tee. We watched the first four take off and then it was our turn.

For a golf diehard, I have terrible hole memory. Some have the gift of playing a course and immediately committing its nuances to their mental scorecard. I need reps. I need time to soak it in. But in a group with strangers at a course where pace matters, I didn’t have those luxuries. Plus, the weather was suffocating. It was in the 90s with a hot wind that didn’t seem to blow as much as it pressed against our skin all afternoon, like playing golf in an exquisite convection oven. In that weather and with my fear of hitting it sideways, compounded by the overwhelming sight of everything, the opening hole is lost to me despite some saying it is one of the best opening holes in golf.

I do remember that the fairways unfurled like a sheet kicked to the foot of the bed, rolling in ways that seemed both natural and impossible. The blowouts in the dunes were magnets for my golf balls, aided by canted fairways that shot them like marbles into their bottoms. As I exited the cart in search of my errant shots, it felt as if I was traversing into a cavern, Edmund Hillary in reverse. Upon finding the ball, I was often faced with a wall of sand, and could only aim toward the sky and hope for the best. Not until the short seventh, a drivable par 4 (more theoretical than reality for me), did I begin to get comfortable. I hit a good drive and calmed down. But it was the next hole, the lion’s mouth, that unlocked Sand Hills Golf Club’s genius for me. 

On Another Plain Sand Hills No. 24
The eighth hole is a short par 4 with a relatively benign tee shot, because with a green protected by an amphitheater of bunkers, the approach is crucial. 

Jason and I both hit good drives; our playing partners hit better ones. We crested the fairway and below us was the green. Wedged into a dune, it was shaped like a kidney bean, with four bunkers carved out behind it, each about half the size of the green itself. Sitting in the crook of the kidney was a small pot bunker, miniscule compared to its brethren on this hole. A lamb that was very much a lion. 

There is much to captivate you at Sand Hills—it’s clear why it’s near the very top of every ranking—but the eighth hole became the one that embodied everything about being there for me, everything that makes Sand Hills a perfect golf experience. On first glance it appears straightforward—easy, even—with a little less drama than some of the other, more celebrated holes on the property. But as I replayed it during the three rounds of our trip, I found that it kept causing me to rethink strategy and design. After making the first of my three bogeys on it, while everyone else teed off on the ninth, I stared back over the prairie grass to its green site and pot bunker and sloping fairway, amazed at its challenge and deftness masked in a seemingly simple package, the precision it asked on the second shot. 

Our first round finished with the sun’s last light behind us and the moon rising high above the 18th green. In the gloaming, I deliberately walked up the hill to my pulled approach to make the moment last longer. A gold hue washed the world around us and brought one of those sunsets that hits harder than any well-struck iron. As we tidied up our putts and shook hands, my mind was already turning back to the eighth hole. 

Part of its charm is that it is a short hole following a short hole. Co-designer Bill Coore said they were concerned about having consecutive short holes, but they claim that No. 7, with its green “perched up on a little shelf,” and the eighth, which leads you in a different direction and plays to its “nestled” green, made them believe “this golf could be pretty interesting.” 

“Interesting” is a word Coore uses frequently, though it doesn’t nearly do justice in describing his process as he routes and builds courses with Crenshaw. Coore is a ponderer, known for his meticulous grinding in the field, walking the land again and again. It’s time consuming, he says, but the result is courses with rhythm and drama, both in the way landscapes are revealed and how holes can be played. Few architects move you through a piece of land like Coore. All that time in the field is necessary, he says, because he is always asking himself a series of subjective questions: “What works? What’s on the edge, so to speak, of acceptability—which is often some of the very best stuff that’s done? But then what’s over the edge and beyond reason? It’s just judgment call after judgment call after judgment call.” 

No 24 Sand HIlls On Another Plain
Opened in 1995, Sand Hills was only the third design for Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. It is now recognized as a turning point both for their career and the golf course architecture industry.

The sense of place one feels on a Coore & Crenshaw course is no accident. “You truly try to understand the site and let it drive the design,” Coore told me. “And so as you spend time, and particularly at Sand Hills, you start to feel a part of [the land]. You start to feel like you understand what makes it both spectacular and visual, but also what makes it inherently so interesting. And you try to play off that. We tried to build a golf course that actually complements this site, that takes the character of this site—not just the visual character, but the character of this land—and incorporates it into a situation where you play golf. When you’re playing Sand Hills, you know exactly where you are.”

Sand Hills was just Coore & Crenshaw’s third design, and it remains one of the most important for them and the golf world. The lion’s mouth eighth hole, some now argue, became a sort of modern template hole for the duo, which itself was inspired by the Road Hole, replicated at other courses they would go on to build, including Cabot Cliffs, Colorado Golf Club and Streamsong Red. 

In the clubhouse there is a “constellation” map, featuring all of the different iterations of the golf course Coore & Crenshaw came up with. They found 130 holes in that landscape before somehow determining a sequence of 18 where every tee box view makes your jaw drop. There are no bad holes at Sand Hills Golf Club. The landscape that surrounds the course is perpetual, 20,000 square miles of prairie surrounding the island oasis of a golf course. 

“I remember very distinctly [that] Ben and I played golf together by ourselves right before Sand Hills opened,” Coore said. “We were walking down the 16th hole and I asked him, because I knew no one could ever hear, ‘Ben, do you think we made the right choices?’

“And I remember him looking at me and very quickly saying, ‘Bill, I think we made the right choices. I wouldn’t have done anything different.’ That was our biggest concern—that we would go back and second-guess ourselves, knowing how gifted that site was.” 

Some golf experiences are forever even if they happen just once. I’ll never forget Mullen. I often think of the Heglands, the people working in the clubhouse, the handwritten receipts, the Irish Spring soap in the shower stalls. I continue to picture the course, the way it huffed and puffed and took my breath away. The land, expansive yet intimate, asking the golfer to engage in its overwhelming landscape, to consider its ancestral past while holding a thoroughly modern implement made of titanium and carbon and graphite, materials used to carry men and women into space. And how a tiny pot bunker in that vastness can transform itself from hazard to sanctuary, both opening its jaws and never letting go.  

On Another Plain Sand Hills No. 24