New Doak Course at Dismal River Adds to Sand Hills Reputation as Golf Destination

By: Wayne Mills

It seems rather incomprehensible that the terrain that most closely mimics the ancient golfing grounds of the British Isles is in the heartland of America 1,800 miles from the Atlantic Ocean and about 1,000 from the Pacific.

One of the Holes at Doak's New Course at Dismal River

The high prairie of western Nebraska is a vast and wild land of rolling, vegetated dunes on top of an ocean of fine sand, which in turn sits on top of one of the world's great freshwater reservoirs, the Ogalalla Aquifer.

At the time of western migration in the late-1800s, the high prairie was where great herds of buffalo roamed. Today, the place is home to huge herds of beef cattle. And, recently, some golfing pilgrims have started roaming about the dunes taking part in an experience unique in America.

The "discovery" of the Nebraska Sand Hills as a great place for golf began in 1995 with the construction of the private Coore & Crenshaw-designed Sand Hills Golf Club near Mullen (population 351). Sand Hills has gone on to be ranked as the No. 1 Modern Course in America by Golfweek Magazine several years running.

Two guys who worked for Crenshaw and Coore at Sand Hills, Dave Axland and Dan Proctor, went on to design and build the Wild Horse Club in Gothenburg and Bayside Golf Club in Ogalalla in 1999.

The Dunes Course at the Prairie Club

Since then two remote destinations have opened: Dismal River Club near Mullen and the Prairie Club in Valentine, just south of the South Dakota border. When Jack Nicklaus first visited the Dismal River site, he said, "It was like stepping back in time and seeing what the dunes of northeast Scotland must have looked like a hundred years ago."

His signature course, crafted with associate Chris Cochran, opened for play in 2006. Now, Dismal River will be opening a second course; the new Tom Doak design is set to open in July 2013.

The biggest Sand Hills resort is the Prairie Club. The golf is spectacular at the brawny Tom Lehman-designed Dunes Course, which is augmented by the more traditional Graham Marsh-designed Pines Course and Gil Hanse's par-3 Horse Course. The club also offers luxury lodging in the clubhouse, or guests can stay in four large cabins on the banks of the Snake River Canyon.

The new, as-yet unnamed Doak course at Dismal River is very impressive and is certain to raise the profile of the club in particular and the Sand Hills in general as a destination. After touring the new layout in June, I had a chance to discuss the project with Doak.

Wayne Mills: When did you first get involved in the development of the Dismal River project?

Tom Doak: Chris (Johnston, part owner and CEO) invited me to come take a look at it in the fall of 2010.

WM: Had you ever been to the site before and if so what were your impressions?

TD: I was there five to six years before, when the original owners were interviewing architects for the first course. But I hadn't had a map to play around with before I saw it, so I was somewhat disoriented, and it was flurrying snow on top of that, so I really didn't get a good impression of the land. They only showed me around the land where the Nicklaus course is today, not down by the river.

WM: What were your impressions of the site when you did visit?

Tom Doak (photo courtesy of Graham Cunningham)

TD: I knew once Chris sent the map that I would want to gravitate down toward the river. It's a unique feature that none of the other courses in the region have to use, both the river and then the giant bluff on the opposite bank. It helps orient the golfer, whereas on other courses in the area, you sometimes just feel lost among all the dunes.

WM: Were there any limitations to where on the site you could go with the routing other than the obvious physical ones?

TD: Not that I knew. Chris was reluctant to go down to the river at first, because there are some springs down there, and because he didn't know if there would be any environmental restrictions.

WM: What land-form features were you looking to utilize in the design?

TD: Most people see the land in the Sand Hills and focus on the big dunes, but a golf course designer has to focus on the valleys in between them, where the fairways can go. Our goal was not to just keep playing down the valleys, but play over them and down into them and up out of them, and give the holes as much variety as we could.

WM: Which was more difficult - finding locations for the routing or eliminating some because of the great number of possibilities?

TD: Everyone says you could find 1,000 different holes in the sand hills, but the truth is that most of them would feature blind shots, and a lot of them would run into a deadend where there wasn't another good hole to follow them. Trying to string a bunch of great holes together is a bit more difficult than we make it look, when we succeed.

WM: Obviously the Nicklaus course was there first - how much, if any, consideration did you give to designing something different, a counterpoint if you will?

TD: I always want to do something different than I've done before, and something different than the neighbors. We've worked next to several of the best courses in the world before; Pacific Dunes was next to Bandon Dunes, Sebonack was next to Shinnecock Hills and the National, and the Renaissance Club is next to Muirfield in Scotland. You're unlikely to "beat" those neighbors in the rankings, so you're better off just trying to build a course that's different and has a character of its own, and see what people think.

WM: Or, was this just the golf course you wanted to build - as you saw it on the site? Was there any input from management on the overall scope of the design?

TD: Chris gave me a lot of freedom to come up with a cool design. I asked him right off if it mattered whether the course finished where it started, since previous decisions meant it was going to be well away from the clubhouse, no matter what, and it took him a minute to understand what I was asking. But he quickly came around to the idea that the course is a journey through the property and that it was better to finish down by the river than having to play up out of there.

WM: What result were you looking to achieve from a golfers perspective, a playability standpoint?

TD: Our goal is always to build a course that's fun to play. That usually means wide playing corridors, bunkers that make you think about where you're going, a good variety of tees so you can try a new one on your next round, and greens that make it matter where the approach is coming from.

WM: What was the easiest part of the design/build and what was the most difficult?

TD: Some of the greens were just laying there; there were several of them that took less than one hour to shape! But anywhere we changed the terrain it was difficult to conceal our work so that the whole course would look like it had never been touched. I won't spoil it by telling you where.

WM: How much were you involved in the actual construction? Did you use your own crew or hire out different aspects? Who did you use for subcontractors?

TD: The course was built by three of my associates who did most of the green and bunker shaping, a crew of summer interns who wanted experience in golf course construction, an irrigation crew led by my friend Don Mahaffey, and the course superintendent, Jagger Mandrell, doing the grassing. It was a small, tight-knit crew. Nobody had a profit motive, everyone involved just wanted to be part of something special.

WM: Are you happy with the result? If so, why?

TD: I am really happy so far, but honestly, that's just my ego talking right now. I won't know how well we've done until I have played it a few times and get a sense for how well it works. We're going to have a big group out in September, including a lot of guys in the golf business; that will probably be the acid test for me.

Wayne Mills is a New England-based freelance writer who has been producing golf stories for over 20 years. He has written for national publications such as Golf Inc. and superintendent-related, regional golf-lifestyle magazines and websites in the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest and was a golf columnist for two daily newspapers. He has played over 700 golf courses from Canada to the Caribbean and from Cape Cod to California. He carries a single-digit handicap and has scored four holes-in-one.