sand hills

Sand Hills Golf Club

Coore & Crenshaw’s groundbreaking course that established a new paradigm for golf architecture

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

The first impression of the trip to Middle America’s Mecca is that yours is the only car on the road, with no oncoming vehicles for miles on the ride out from North Platte. Soon the prairie begins to pulse with gentle mounds that increase in amplitude as you head north. Nary a tree to be seen—just green dunes on either side of a two-lane, 65 mph road. Along each side runs hedge-post barbed-wire fencing—four strands of parallel rusted wire mounted on weathered posts cut from not-so-straight tree limbs. Occasional stretches of three-wire wooden utility poles complete the feeling that you’re in an earlier century.

Just after passing over Dismal River, at milepost 55, the modestly signed entrance road appears.

Welcome to the Sand Hills Golf Club, the perennial top-ranked U.S. modern course since it opened 26 years ago. The club’s charm rivals the course, an outward expression of minimal self-regard befitting its presence in the seat of Hooker County (population 693). The modest clubhouse houses the dining area and pro shop. Lodging is out of view, nestled behind and below, along the banks of the Dismal among stands of eastern red cedars.

Membership is small and national—fewer than 200. Youngscap sets the tone. Club literature states, “The Sand Hills golf course is lacking trees, lakes, fountains, waterfalls, hanging tee signs and adjacent home sites. If one believes those elements are requisites for quality, this golf course is deficient.”

The course is renowned for its natural routing through the dunes, the drama of its gaping, blow-out bunkers, the firm and fast conditions and its stark beauty. Coore & Crenshaw, fresh from designing Friar’s Head on Long Island, New York, loved the terrain. They created a conceptual plan for Youngscap—a legend in architectural circles, now known as the “constellation map”—where they “found” more than 130 holes. They selected 18 that flowed together a mile away by golf-cart path from the clubhouse.

Because of the exceptional soil—perfectly round quartz sand that drained remarkably well without compacting—the course immediately met USGA specifications for greens. The greens cost $300 apiece (versus an average today stated by Tom Doak of $75,000). The total cost of the course was $1.5 million, half of which was for the irrigation system.

Youngscap is said to run the show like a benevolent dictator. It’s nearly impossible to play as an unaccompanied guest, but in the event that a written request addressed to him is honored, the lucky visitor gets one chance per lifetime. Names are kept.

Thanks to a guy-trip invitation from Nebraska native Brad Tolstedt, a member along with his father, I knew enough to rearrange my work schedule and say yes immediately. The experience met expectations: 36 holes a day, steak dinners with exceptional reds, early curfews. Repeat.

The course itself yielded fond memories from the start: The opening par 5’s tee shot is a forced carry to a fairway guarded on the right by a bunker for the timid and a yawning bunker on the left for the brave. My drive found the right bunker. I did record my favorite five strokes on a par 4: the 283-yard seventh. Two in the morning, three in the afternoon.

As for advice to visitors, permit me to tell you what not to do: Don’t show your cultural ignorance by ordering chicken at Ben’s Porch (this is beef country) or by reflexively reaching into the cart’s cooler for bottled water. You’ll only contaminate what’s meant to be dispensed into the (souvenir!) plastic cup.

Hanse put the club in perspective: “In my mind, it is the defining moment in modern golf course architecture. It established Coore & Crenshaw as the top architects in the business and paved the way for Tom Doak to follow closely behind, and then for David Kidd and myself, Mike DeVries and [others].…It made it possible for [Sand Hills member] Mike Keiser to do Bandon Dunes, and it made it acceptable to look at a piece of ground and do the bare minimum to it. It established a new paradigm for the last 25 years.”

As for Gina and me, it began nearly a dozen years of adventure where the journey has been equal to the destination, every single time.