My Quest to Check Off Golf's Best Experiences

In short, there's nothing I've experienced in golf that compares to the experience at Sand Hills.  It's more than the golf, and the golf is world class.  It really extends to the whole experience of being in the most remote location you can imagine, being secluded from the rest of the civilization, and having nothing to do other than play a magnificent golf course.  If you get the opportunity to go to Sand Hills and don't except immediately, you're making a big mistake.  You haven't seen Nebraska until you see the sand hills of Nebraska.  If you never leave I-80, you're missing the most amazing part of the state, and it all starts only about 5 miles from the highway.  Thanks to those who made this trip was an incredible experience.  You've got quite a club!

#18, Par 4, 432 Yards

A strong finishing hole to complete a tough back nine.  Another hole that plays uphill with a tee shot that must find the fairway.  A deep and penal bunker is on the left and needs to be avoided.  From there, it's a tough uphill shot to a green that sits beyond a narrow neck of fairway.  Running it up isn't much of an option, so carry it all the way there.

#17, Par 3, 150 Yards

The last one-shotter, the 17th is probably the most photographed hole at Sand Hills.  For a brief time, there was a tee box up the hill and further back, but the powers-that-be wanted this hole to be a short-to-medium distance and not a 175+ yard hole so the tee box was removed.  What's left is still plenty difficult even with the short distance.  Winds swirl and there is no room to miss.  Bunkers are all around to a green that sits higher than the player.  Selecting the correct club is tough and critical to making a good score here.

#16, Par 5, 563 Yards

Stretching all the way back to 612 yards from the Diamond Tees, the 16th is a true three-shotter, unless you get a fortunate wind and are a big hitter.  It seemed to be into the wind whenever I played it, so it was three strong shots to get there.  The key off the tee is to get it on the grass and avoid the nasty bunker on the left.  The second shot is more of the same.  A bunker sits on the left side of the fairway in what seemed to be the landing area for me each day.  Avoid it and you have a reasonable chance to play this hole well.

#15, Par 4, 453 Yards

The four remaining holes present a tough finish.  No breathers remain.  The 15th is uphill and straight-away.  Ample space exists on the left from the tee, but the best line is to carry the bunker on the right and air right at the green.  The green has plenty of room around it to miss...very fair for a long hole and a likely approach with a long iron or fairway wood for many players.

#14, Par 5, 475 Yards

The first three-shot hole since the par 5 first.  This is the easiest hole on the back nine and your best remaining chance to score as the finishing four holes at Sand Hills are a test.  This hole is definitely reachable in two for many players, and it's only 508 yards from the back tees, so it plays as a short hole even from the tips.  The key is to get your drive into the short grass, and ideally down the left side to catch a speed slot and have the best angle into the hole.  A bunker is on the right side of the green and will need to be carried if your drive is down the right.  Another bunker sits behind the green and will catch an approach that carries too far.  A fade is the best shot into the green.

#13, Par 3, 185 Yards

I'm not sure why, but I seemed to have this hole's number the weekend I played at Sand Hills.  It's uphill and to a small landing area with bunkers on both sides of the green.  The best place to miss is long or short and on a straight line.  It played into the wind seemingly every time we played it.  One of the rounds we played from the back tees (216 yards) and the wind blew hard enough that I pulled driver to get the ball pin high.

#12, Par 4, 354 Yards

Straight-away and to an exceedingly wide fairway with no bunkers.  However, choose your angle wisely to give yourself a good shot into a green that's well protected on the right side by a penal bunker.  Depending on your line off the tee, you may or may not be able to see the flag.

#11, Par 4, 348 Yards

After the long 10th, two mid length two-shotters are next.  The 11th bends to the left with one of the largest bunkers at Sand Hills awaiting a misplaced shot to the left.  You can't see the bunker, but trust me when I say, it's there!  Big hitters can consider flying the bunker to be rewarded with a short pitch into the green.  However, flair a shot out to the right and bunkers and tall grass awaits.  As is the case at many holes at Sand Hills, there is one side of the green with ample room to bail, while trouble lies on the opposite side.  In this case, bunkers are left, and short grass is right.  On the left of the 11th green is probably my favorite bunker complex on the course, with two back-to-back bunkers working their way up the bank to the green.  This reminded me of a bunker set-up on the 17th hole at Southern Hills.  Loved it.

#10, Par 4, 426 Yards

The back nine is the tougher of the two nines in my opinion.  It's about 300 yards longer, for one, and also plays to a par of 36 rather than the par of 35 on the front side.  The first hole on the back is a perfect example of the added length you'll see on the second nine.  It's one of three par 4's on the side that play longer than 420 yards from the middle tees and longer than 450 yards from the back tees.  Bunkers are staggered on either side of the fairway off of the tee, though the fairway is quite wide and provides ample room to stray a bit.  The landing zone off the tee slopes left to right, which will leave a hanging lie into a green where the trouble is on the right.  Into the green, favor the left side of the hole as there's more than enough room to bail that way.  To the right is a bunker and endless tall wispy grass.

#9, Par 4, 371 Yards

The ideal landing area is blind.  Aiming over the hill on the right side of the fairway or right at Ben's Porch in the distance is a good line and will present the best shot into this hole.  The hole bends hard to the right and the landing area is full of moguls and hillocks.  The green falls away from the player, sloping mainly from front to back, so gauge your short approach into the hole carefully or you run the risk of ending up long.  Up on the hill to the left of the hole is Ben's Porch, and after navigating this hole successfully, world class burger awaits you.

#8, Par 4, 293 Yards

The 8th heads back in the opposite direction from the 7th, so it's unlikely that both will be driveable except on days with limited wind.  Personally, I prefer the 8th to the 7th, but it's by the slimmest of margins.  I just thought it was a flawless hole.  From the back tees, the angle is different and the fairway bunkers on the right side of the fairway come into play.  However, from the middle tees, you have the option of letting it fly toward the green.  However, take the pin position into account when deciding on your strategy from the tee.  A deep and nasty lion's mouth bunker fronts the boomerang shaped green and will impact shots hit to the wrong side of the fairway when the pin is either front right or front left.  I made that mistake more than once and struggled like heck to make par.  Bunker also surround the sides and back of the green, so a precise pitch is needed.  Based on the phenomenal bunkering, this hole played a bit tougher for me in eight rounds.  Only birdied it once, and made a double once with one bogey and the rest pars.

#7, Par 4, 283 Yards

Two straight par 4's of less than 300 yards, and they're both outstanding holes.  With the 7th, you face a holes that slopes hard from the left to right in the driving area.  Left of the green is a cavernous bunker that you want no part of.  The green is on level ground, but right of it slopes hard and down into a collection area.  From short and right of the green, your pitch must be precise to keep it on the surface and avoid a ball that rolls back to your feet.  A really fun hole.  I played this hole 8 times over the course of the weekend and finished even par with 2 birdies and 2 bogeys.  So, it's a good chance to put a good number on your scorecard.

#6, Par 3, 198 Yards

The second one-shotter on the front side.  This one has another massive green, which is appropriate for its length.  A huge crater lies on the front left section, with a slope over it that will kick shots toward the middle or right side of the green.  There is more land to the left of the green than you can see and it presents a fairly reasonable up-and-down as long as you don't stray too far.  The green is so big that a sprinkler head lays right in the middle of it.  What makes it brilliant is that we stood on the green for a while trying to figure out a pin position and putt that would bring the sprinkler head into play...we couldn't do it.  You could theoretically hit the sprinkler head off the tee, but we could figure out a way that it would impact a putt, given the green's contours.

#5, Par 4, 387 Yards

The coolest thing about the 5th hole is the back tee.  Even if you have no interest in playing the course form the tips, you have to check out this tee and play it at least once.  The tee box aims you directly over the 4th green out to a fairway with a center line bunker in the middle of the fairway, and more bunkers by the landing area on the right side.  Avoid them, and it's a relatively simply shot into a sizable green.  However, you'll need to avoid a nasty blowout bunker on the right of the green.  The bunker that appears to front the green on the left is much farther away that it appears from the approach area.  It should only come into play for a miss-hit approach...although if your drive happened to end up in the center line bunker, it will DEFINITELY come into play--and that's the genius of it!

#4, Par 4, 409 Yards

This one stretches all the way back to 485 from the tee farthest back.  The hole is straight-away and downhill and presents an awesome view with the green perched on the side of a hill and right in front of a large dune out on the horizon.  To the right of the green is a large fall off down into a collection area, and to the left of the green is lots of trouble in the form of a nasty bunker short and left of the green and tall grass beyond that.  There's a chance to get a good kick off of the hill left of the green, but odds are that a ball kicking off of that mound will bound all the way through the green and down into the collection area on the opposite side.  Off the tee, a bunker pinches the likely landing area on the right side, but this hole played into the wind (just like #3) while I was there, so I had a hard time reaching it on my first shot.

#3, Par 3, 216 Yards

A huge green with a large mound on the left side of the green that will throw the ball toward any pin on the right half of the green.  Aiming at that left hill is a good line.  The hole played into the wind every day I played it, and 3 wood was usually what I pulled, with 5 wood a couple times.

#2, Par 4, 368 Yards

Arguably my favorite hole on the course, though the 8th will give it a run for it's money.  The green is fantastic with a huge swale on the front half of the green that acts something of a false front.  However, balls will stay on the green on the front edge.  The back half of the green has a shelf on the top right and a swale on the back left.  Off the back of the green is my favorite view on the course.  You can look out forever off the back of this green with nothing to get in your way.  The landing area is somewhat blind, but there is only one bunker on this hole and it should really never come into play.  As is the case everywhere, you have to avoid the tall native grass on either side, though if you hit it there, the ball is typically findable and playable.  It's tough to lose a ball at Sand Hills, which is another thing I love about it. 

#1, Par 5, 521 Yards

There are no weak holes on this golf course, so to lead off my description calling this hole awesome will become repetitive.  The first is a great opener.  It's a dogleg left with an uphill approach into the green.  The green will be reachable in two by many, though I never got there.  The key off of the tee is to avoid the trouble on the left.  From there, hit is as far as you can up toward the green.  Bunkers guard the right side of the hole if you're carrying it all the way there.  Otherwise, it's a relatively simple lay-up, and a hole that will give you ample opportunity to get off to a good start.  Enjoy this three-shotter, because you won't see another one until the 14th hole.

The Clubhouse:

Tacks on the map from everywhere members/guests have come from.

The downstairs bar.  Mr. Youngscap was holding court at the far end with a Budweiser one of the nights I hung out there.  Seems to be a great guy.

The Sand Hills Mule.  Your trip isn't complete until you've tried one.  Bacardi Limon, Lime Juice, and Ginger Beer.  All served in a copper mug that keeps the drink freezing cold.  Incredibly refreshing after a long day of golf.

The Golf Course

On the scorecard, there are three sets of tees.  The Circle (5,052 Yards), Square (6,401 Yards), and Diamond Tees (7,073 Yards).  The 2nd and 5th holes have alternate tee boxes that can shorten them from the Diamond and Square tees, and we played from all of them.  I'll quote the Square Tees below as that's probably the set of tees that most players will/should play.  We got seven full rounds in at Sand Hills over three days, with an extra 12 holes on top of that!

My morning coffee with my cart parked outside.

This map is evidence that upwards of 10 golf courses could easily be built around the club's property.  However, the problem is that there aren't enough people in the area to staff it.  It's a shame really.  If you relocated a major city to this region, there would probably be dozens of world class courses.  A few developers have followed Youngscap's lead and built courses in the area, but I'm not sure there is ample support to build too many more.  

It's funny when I tell people that I went on a golf trip to Nebraska.  The typical response is "why?"  "And, you drove five hours from the airport to get there?!?"  Oh, what all these people are missing.

So, what Coore/Crenshaw built at Sand Hills is world class and commonly thought to be the best golf course in the world built since World War II.  The course was built in a classic minimalist approach, moving very little dirt, developing many existing blow-outs into bunkers, and doing so incredibly cheaply.  A note in the book that's in your cabin explains the construction of Sand Hills.  The grains of sand here are perfectly round, and are exactly the sand that comprises the USGA-spec greens.  Building a USGA-spec green costs upwards of $40,000 at most courses, but here, they did each green for only $300.  Essentially all they did was till the existing land and plant grass on it.  Very little shaping and grading was required to build what you see before you today.  On top of the perfect sand, Mr. Youngscap knew that the Sand Hills of Nebraska were on top of the Ogallala Aquifier, a source of fantastic water for irrigation and the needs of the clubhouse and cabins.

The Cabins:  Video Tour of My Cabin

Sand Hills Golf Club

Mullen, Nebraska

Checked off the Bucket List May 23, 2014

Golf Magazine:

#12, Top 100 Courses in the World (2013)

#9, Top 100 Courses in the U.S. (2013)   

Golf Digest:

#11, America's 100 Greatest Courses (2015-2016)

#1, Best in the State of Nebraska (2013-2014)

As I make my way through the lists, there are bound to be courses I see that make other remarks I've made prior to those experiences completely ridiculous.  Experiencing Sand Hills is a perfect instance of raises the bar on almost everything, and makes many courses I've seen before it seem like a dull local muni. It's that good, and the experience has to be among the most unique in golf.

Where to start.  I thought Streamsong was remote.  Sand Hills makes Streamsong feel like an urban metropolis.  I thought I had seen some great green complexes.  The second green at Sand Hills put the rest of them to shame.  I thought I had seen some inspiring views from great courses.  Then I saw Sand Hills and stared off at miles upon miles of un-touched rolling prairie land that served as one of the most peaceful locations I've ever been.  I thought I had seen some beautiful starry nights.  Then I looked up at the stars at Sand Hills with no light pollution until a couple counties away.

I've read other people's reviews about Sand Hills being a spiritual experience and read their detailed comments on the golf course, and I'll do those too.  However, before I get to that, I wanted to write a bit on what to expect if you're ever fortunate enough to get invited to this club.

  • You'll be staying on-site in some really cool golf cabins with balconies overlooking the Dismal River.  Mine had two double beds, and one bathroom, with a shower that had fantastic water pressure.  Two CRT TV's with Dish Network, a 1980's telephone, and some of the typical amenities from a usual hotel (towels, shampoo, soap, and such).  However, not much more.  And, that's totally fine.  When you're at Sand Hills, the likely scenario is that you'll be playing lots and lots of golf, so the cabins are intended to be nothing more than a place to rest up for the next day's awesome experience.
  • Cell service and WiFi....ha ha, nope!  This is a place to get away from it all, and it can be tricky not to.  My phone actually got a signal at and around Ben's Porch, and not really much more than that.  Some folks I was with got their phones/computers to work in the clubhouse, but not for my Verizon phone.  You can receive calls at the cabins if the caller dials the club and asks for you or your cabin number.  Otherwise, figure on being off the grid for the time you're there.
  • All meals will be on the property.  Partly because they have fantastic food, and partly because it's a long haul to anything else that serves food.  Coffee can be delivered to your cabin by 6:15 in the morning if you request it at the clubhouse the night before.  Breakfast is at the clubhouse or to go; lunch at Ben's Porch (the half-way house), and dinner back at the clubhouse.
  • On lunch, the protocol is to order your lunch when you tee off so that it's ready and waiting for you when you arrive at the turn.  The burgers are world-class and are seasoned with a special Sand Hills recipe.  The brats are among the best I've had as well.  They have chips, and several types of sides available too.  Also, don't sleep on the freshly brewed iced tee that's brewed out on Ben's Porch.  It was awesome.
  • On dinner, at Sand Hills, they serve some of the best steaks there are.  Getting to the club, you'll pass tons of livestock, and many of these are the ones that will end up on your plate.
  • Some of the unique specials at Sand Hills include the famous Sand Hills Mule, served in a chilled copper mug (they're awesome and dangerous!), Guinness Ice Cream, and Tuscan Style stakes.  The club sells the Mule mugs, and I badly wanted to take one home, but for $90 a pop, I figured I'd save my money for my next Top 100 trip.
  • You'll want to walk.  And, the course is very walkable.  However, as traditional as you might be, if your choice is between walking the course and saving your energy to play an extra round, just swallow your pride and take a cart.  You'll want to play this course as many times as energy and daylight permit.  Guest fees are for the day, and are all-you-can-play, so swing-til-you-drop.
  • The golf course is about a mile from the cabins and a 5+ minute cart ride.  If you want to walk, you can just leave your cart at the first tee and pick it up when you're finished to head back to the clubhouse.
  • You can't post your score to your handicap system.  There is no slope or rating.  In fact, the scorecard specifically says "Due to varying wind conditions and direction, handicap rating is intentionally omitted."  With this in mind, we skipped around a lot and played different tee boxes throughout our rounds.  Sometimes we played one set, sometimes another set, and sometimes we mixed it up completely.
  • Keep careful track of the time zones.  North Platte is the nearest "town" to Sand Hills.  It's a town on I-80, and the former home of Buffalo Bill Cody.  It's about a 75 minute drive from the club.  North Platte is in the Central Time Zone, but Sand Hills is in the Mountain Time Zone.
  • More on travel.  If you're flying in, you'll need to fly into either Denver, Omaha, or North Platte.  Depending on where you're coming from, Denver and Omaha may be direct flights, and are both roughly a 5 hour drive from the club.  North Platte offers a few regional connecting flights and gets you closer to the club, but will probably be more expensive and require an extra connection.

So, to the background of Sand Hills.  Dick Youngscap is the idea-man here.  A Lincoln-based real estate developer, Mr. Youngscap was aware of the Sand Hills region of Nebraska, which encompasses around 20% of the state.  At about 18,000 square miles, Links Magazine compares it to the combined size of Vermont and New Hampshire and calls it the largest grass-covered dunesland in the world.  To his credit, Mr. Youngscap knew that this land was perfect for a golf course, and had the guts to take a chance.  With this bold vision in mind, Mr. Youngscap acquired an option on an 8,000 acre piece of land in 1990, and started the process of making his dream a reality.  To build his dream course, he brought in Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw to take a look.  Their original visit to the course resulted in the now-famous Constellation Map of 136 holes that could be routed on this property.  From that, the trick was to eliminate the 118 great holes and limit their course to 18 outstanding ones!  The map is hung in the clubhouse today.