Up in Valentine, just south of South Dakota, the topography changes. The dunes subside to less-dramatic chop-hill proportions, and ponderosa pines flourish along the banks of the Snake River. It is a tiny fraction of Cherry County, which is larger than the state of Connecticut (with a population of 6,000) and the site of The Prairie Club.
Dr. Cleve Trimble, Sand Hills Golf Club member and University of Nebraska fraternity brother of founder Dick Youngscap, acquired the overgrazed land in the mid-1980s. The trauma surgeon and emergency-medicine practitioner was lured by the spring-fed, trout-filled Snake River, reputed home of the state’s largest browns and rainbows. The river flows through a 250-foot-deep canyon, formed when the sandstone caprock beneath the dunes split, allowing water to wash away the softer sediments below.
Trimble saw the combination of dunes, pines and canyon as a striking venue for golf. South Dakota venture capitalist and fellow Sand Hills member Paul Schock fished the Snake with Trimble and agreed. Trimble agreed to sell half of his property to Schock, who developed the club.
An accomplished amateur who played in 11 USGA events, Schock admired the philosophy of Dr. Alister MacKenzie, architect of Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne. Among the principles gleaned, he emphasized that fun should be at the heart of the game. Schock raised additional funds and acquired enough land to build two-plus golf courses. He selected architects who shared his view of golf course design: Tom Lehman and Chris Brands for the Dunes course, Graham Marsh for the Pines course and Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford for the par-3 Horse course.
I joined the club when it opened in 2010—my first membership in the area—before setting foot on it. For due diligence, I spoke with two good golfers and knowledgeable sources: Peter Sneed, an ophthalmologist and course rater from Michigan, and Gus Brown, activities director for Valentine High School. Brown concluded our phone conversation by saying, “You will never regret your decision to join.” Asked if there was any reason not to, he replied, “It’s a long way from Philadelphia.” Right on both counts.
East Coast memberships at The Prairie Club are rare: one from Philadelphia and three from golf-savvy Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. The vast majority of Prairie’s 450 members come from Nebraska and South Dakota. Whenever locals ask us how we found the place, we often answer with a gesture of wide-spread arms, a silent acknowledgement of everything under the wide Sand Hills sky. The stars and Milky Way in the darkest of nights; the light shows put on by weather moving through; the song of western meadowlark and the whoosh of the prairie wind. The view of the dunes, unblocked to the horizon.
It also includes the Nebraskan natural kindness. Gina asked about riding during one early visit and soon found herself alongside Kathy Hammond, the club’s accounting manager. Her tour included the horse barn and the horse trailer equipped with lodging that Hammond and her husband tow to rodeos, where she competes in barrel racing and he in bulldogging. Last fall, we were greeted with a welcome bear-hug from Prairie Club COO Roger Brashear.
The 46 holes of golf are pretty good, too. The Prairie Club is semi-private, which means it is open to the public with stay-and-play packages that include all-day greens and cart fees. Access to the two courses alternates for public play daily, with one course reserved exclusively for members. Cocktail hour finds people on the Horse course, with its 10 consecutive holes but no set tee boxes. The winner of the previous hole selects where the next shot is played, like a game of H-O-R-S-E.
To account for the prevailing winds, the fairways are wide and the greens big, which factor into the surprisingly low slopes and ratings. The trees on the Pines provide a buffer and make the course preferable when it’s blowing hard. Each course has numerous tee boxes, which allows for both variety and playability in the wind. Under gentler breezes, the fairways encourage free swinging and reward properly aimed drives with ample speed slots.
The Dunes has been likened to Shinnecock Hills on steroids. It can be stretched to more than 8,000 yards and holds college-golf invitational tournaments. The Pines more resembles Colorado or North Carolina courses, with 10 of the holes among the ponderosa pines. The drive from the back tees on the 606-yard seventh goes through a tree-lined chute, with a distinct Pine Valley flair.
The 18th finishes in front of the lodge, a 557-yard par 5 that long hitters can hit in two if they can cut the dogleg and fly a ravine in front of the green. Its greenside doubles as a stage for Scotsman Tom Denham, who has bagpiped at sunset nearly every year. Other highlights from 18 include children making “snow” angels in the trap, and Gina reclining on the green with her girl-trip buddies to stargaze—until its watering system activated.
Asked about his favorite accolade, Schock doesn’t cite all the top-100 lists his courses have made. It’s comments from actual players, who happily report they played the same round with the same ball.