Monday, July 28, 2014

12 (World) / 9 (U.S.) Sand Hills Golf Course

July 9, 2014

Back in March, I received an invitation to play Sand Hills Golf Course in Mullen, NE. I was so excited the few months until my trip arrived that I could barely stand it. For those that don't know, not only is Sand Hills the 12th rated golf course in the world, but it is also an ultra-exclusive, private club. To receive an invite to play without previously knowing one of the 175 world-wide members was a special treat.  The hour after I received confirmation of invitation, I immediately booked my airfare and rental car.

In previous blogs, I had mentioned how remote I thought the journeys to both Barnbougle Dunes and Bandon Dunes were. They hold nothing on the very remote journey to Mullen, NE, via Nebraska State Highway 2.

A Hwy 2 sign prominently displays the stagecoaches from yesteryear.
The closest major airport is Denver. It's a five hour drive from Denver to Mullen through some of the most remote country in the U.S. outside of the Mojave Desert and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Three hours into my drive, I pulled off the road (though there wasn't a need because I hadn't seen any type of vehicle in an hour) and took the photo below. As has been said by other people, the quiet of the place was deafening. I turned off the rental car and just sat their for about ten minutes listening to the wind rustle the tall grass. There was nothing but the land, the wind, and me for likely 30 miles.

A panoramic photo of state Hwy 2 north 60 miles outside of Arthur, NE. 
A photo of the entire town of Arthur, NE.
After a long, but relaxing drive, I finally arrived in Mullen and found the turn off road that leads to Sand Hills Golf Club.

The entrance sign at the unnamed road that leads to the golf club. 
Looking past the entrance sign to the unnamed road, I still saw nothing. I wasn't sure how much farther I had to drive but I am sure glad I fueled up back in Arthur, NE.

A look down the road just past the entrance sign.

The entrance of Sand Hills Golf Club
A close up of the logos mounted on top of the gates. 
After driving another five miles or so, I finally came to twin gates with the Sand Hills logo affixed on top. A short drive to the bottom of the hill brings you to the main building that houses the clubhouse, restaurant, proshop, and lodging check-in. I was initially confused because I didn't see a golf course anywhere around. The nice lady at the front desk quickly alleviated any concerns I had.
A look at the main building from the top of the entrance hill.
After securing my key, providing my invitation letter, and confirming my information, I was handed a key. They did not collect any credit card information at the desk, advising they would bill me at the end of the month for all my charges, including golf, food and beverages. The friendliness and trust they exhibited was amazing and made me feel like a truly welcome visitor. I was provided a personal golf cart to use for the duration of my stay since the cabins can be located as far away as a quarter mile and the golf course as far as a mile and a half depending on which cabin you are assigned. My cabin overlooked a creek that ran by it. During my stay, I saw several large deer wander in and around the creek, grazing on the local vegetation. It was all very peaceful and it was a good cleansing of the soul from all the stress at work and life in general.
A look at my cabin for the few days I visited Sand Hills
After unpacking and looking around the spacious cabin, I made my way to what is affectionately called the 'Back Porch." It serves as the course snack shack and starter area. It overlooks most of the course. One nice touch is they have a BBQ grill on the back porch and grill up hamburgers, hotdogs, or chicken for your lunch at the turn or between rounds. I decided to settle in with a microbrew beer from Oregon and watch the sun go down, soaking in what was going to be two awesome rounds of golf in 12 hours. One note if you are joined at the hip to your phone, computer, iPad, or other internet device. My iPad only received 3G service about an eighth of the time. Wifi is only available in the lobby of the main building. And my cell phone never had service. When you come to Sand Hills, it truly is all about the golf and getting away from the things that tend to stress you out in the normal course of every day life.
A look out onto the course from the corner of the 'back porch"
Beer at sunset!
According to the Lodging Information booklet found in each cabin, in August 1990 an option on 8,000 acres was secured, including the valley in which the golf course is located; the property was purchased in 1991. In September 1990, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw made their first site visit and shortly thereafter, they were retained as golf course architects. Over the next two years, Bill and Ben made numerous visits. By the spring of 1993, they had discovered over 130 holes, from which 18 were selected and a routing plan finalized. During 1993, most of the work was concentrated on the irrigation system, which comprises about 85% of the total golf course construction cost. Fairways, greens and tees were developed in 1994, using the following procedure: 1) mowing existing vegetation to ground level; 2) tilling all areas to a depth of 6′; 3) doing some minor finish grading on the greens – rough grading expense was less than $7,000 – primarily with a small power rake; and, 4) applying seed fertilizer and water.

The Lodging Information booklet points out that because of the excellent sand particles, the cost per Sand Hills green was $300 as neither drain tile/gravel under the greens nor special greens mix were required. Put in perspective, the average cost of a USGA specification green is approximately $40,000.

The next morning, I woke up early. There is no clock in the room but my wake-up call was exactly on the minute I had requested. They had also delivered coffee to outside of my door. After sitting on the back porch of my cabin, watching the sunrise, sipping coffee, and taking in the quiet sounds of the creek and the wind rustling the grasses, I showered, dressed, and set off for the golf course in my private golf cart. A half hour stretch and warm-up on the range and I was ready to head out.
At the back porch, I met the starter who also introduced me to my caddie. My caddie was a young college kid who grew up on a cattle ranch nearby. He didn't have a lot of knowledge about the course, but was good conversation for both rounds. I learned it takes nearly 17 acres a year to feed a cow and her calf among other interesting cattle-raising facts. I also learned most of the staff are cattle ranch or farmer families, or local teachers, that are employees at Sand Hills on a part time basis since it is only open five months out of the year. I think this is definitely a bonus as most people I met are down-to-earth and very friendly folks. After a short chat with my caddie, we set off for the first round of the day.

Sand Hills appears in Fifty Places to Play Golf Before You Die,as well as numerous times throughout  The World's 500 Greatest Golf Holes and receives quite a few accolades. Among them are:
  • Hole 7 is listed as one of the top 100 holes in the world.
  • Hole 7 is listed as one of the best par 4s anywhere on the planet.
  • Hole 7 is listed as one of the best short par 4s in the world.
  • Hole 7 is listed as one of the best designed holes since 1970.
  • Hole 17 is listed as one of the best 500 holes in the world.

I played the first round from the middle tees that play to 6276 total yards. The back tees play to almost 7000 yards, and with the winds that were starting to pick up, I wanted to have a better round.  If the winds died down by the end of the first round, I could always play the second round from the back tees.

A look down the fairway from the 1st tee box.
The round starts off with the long test of a 521 yard par 5. The view from the elevated tee of the broad sixty-five yard wide fairway and jagged bunkers contrasted against the tan and brown grasses makes for an exceptional start to the round.

 Once you find the fairway, you see that it dips down before rising steadily up towards the green.

A look into the 1st green from 175 yards out.
The green is sloped downhill from right to left so you likely want to hit your approach shot into the green to the right side and let it roll down towards the pin.
A look into the 1st green from 70 yards out.

The second hole is a 368 yard par 4. The drive is across some scrub brush to another wide fairway. The fairway runs left to right towards the green.

A look down the fairway from the 2nd tee box.
Once you find the fairway, the approach shot is uphill towards the undulating green. It is a two-tiered green that runs mostly right to left. On this day, the pin was in the bottom of the slope, allowing the ball to roll towards the pin from either the right or left edge.

A look into the 2nd green from 100 yards out.
The third hole is a par 3 that plays to 216 yards. It has a massive green that I was advised is approximately 10,000 square feet! It also runs from left to back right so can make some interesting putts depending on how you choose to attack the green.

A look into the green from the 3rd tee box.
A look down onto the 3rd green from the hill behind it.

The fourth hole is a 409 yard par 4. As it runs downhill for a large majority of the fairway, a chance to have an exceptionally long drive with a well struck tee shot is a very real possibility.

A look down the fairway from the 4th tee box.
To the right of the elevated green, there is a 30-40 yard wide area. A variety of recovery shots exists, from a bunker shot that must climb into the air to get over the ridge, to a bump and run up a hill. If the flag is located to the right, you may also consider missing the green short to avoid a potentially difficult shot to a short-sided hole location.  

A look into the 4th green from 100 yards out.
The one thing you do not want to do is hit your tee shot wide left. The "crater of doom" is over there as I found out during round two. My photo came out blurry but you can see a good photo of it Here.

The fifth hole is a 376 yard par 4. The middle tee is not as challenging as the back tee on this hole due to the angle of approach to the green. From the back tee, you are hitting at an angle of almost 45 degrees. From the middle tee, it is a fairly straightforward tee shot to the fairway.

A look down the fairway from the 5th tee box.
Once out on the fairway, there are some bunkers to dodge, but particular attention should be paid to the deep bunkers on either side of the green. If you find yourself in there, it may take a few shots to get out and into a good position for a reasonable putt.

A look into the 5th green from 75 yards out.
The sixth hole is a 198 yard par 3.  One thing to note is you can not see the left side of the green. If the pin position is tucked in on the left third, you are likely not going to be able to see it, thus leading to a blind tee shot. The ridge that is fifty yards in front of the 6th green obscures the left side.

A look into the green from the 6th tee box.
The seventh hole is a 283 yard par 4. A long hitter can drive the green and be rewarded with a low score here.  However, there are some dangers involved with going for the green in one.

A look down the fairway from the 7th tee box.
If you hit your drive down the left side of the fairway, you are left with a 70 yard lob shot over an 8-10 foot deep, green-side bunker to the narrow part of the green that falls sharply away. Being able to hold that shot on the green for a decent putt for birdie or par is a tough task.

The large, left-side bunker in front of the 7th green.

The short par 4 at the seventh is followed up by another short par 4 at the eighth. It plays from 293 yards and gives you a chance to make up for any mistakes made through the first six holes.

According to my caddie, the only man made bunker on the entire course is situated in the front center of the green. The rest of the green sits in what is affectionately dubbed an amphitheatre. There are bunkers all around so a good approach shot is a must.
A look into the 8th green from 60 yards out.

A look down the fairway from the 9th tee box.

The ninth hole is a 356 yard par 4. Even though not one of the "stand out" holes of the course, it presents challenges tee to green. First, I don't think I found a flat spot on it. That in turn leads to hitting a second shot that is almost always going to be either above or below your feet. Second, the green is so small it is very difficult to land it and have the ball stay up on it. 

A look into the 9th green from 100 yards out.
Below is my shot from the previous day when I was sitting on the back porch enjoying a beer. From the photo, you are better abel to see the spine that runs down the middle of the fairway and feeds onto and into the 9th green.

A look down the 9th fairway from the back porch.

The 426 yard par 4 10th hole is an interesting test to begin the back nine. When Coore and Crenshaw designed the course, they tried to keep the lay of the land as close to what was found before it turned into a golf course. The hole demonstrates what I think is lay of the land architecture at its best.  

A look down the fairway from the 10th tee box.
A shot down the center feeds the ball to the rolling side slope. If you hit to the center of the fairway, your may find that you can hit you approach shot short of the green and watch as it and rolls right and onto the green. 

A look into the 10th green from 140 yards out.

The 11th hole is a 348 yard par 4 is a dogleg left that plays from an elevated tee. As you can see below, you don't get a good look at the dogleg or the rest of the hole from the middle tee box. From the back tee box, you can see the green and the bunkers that guard the left side.
A look down the fairway from the 11th tee box.
On the drive, you definitely want to stay to the right side of the fairway.  Just over the left hill is a crater filled with sand. This crater is so large, it may have been the area where the asteroid hit that led to the dinosaurs demise.

A look into the 80 yard long bunker on the left side of the fairway at the turn of the dogleg.

Once you clear the crater and find yourself in the center of the fairway at the turn of the dogleg, you are faced with an uphill approach to a hidden green. It is a relatively flat green so landing a good shot up there will hold the ball for a follow up putt. Keep in mind, there are deep bunkers on the left of the side of the green so stay right if possible. 

A look up to the green from the turn of the dogleg.  
A look at the 11th fairway and green from the edge of the crater.

The 12th hole is a 354 yard par 4. From the tee box, you get a great view of the widest fairway on the course. It is 90 yards wide, has no bunkers, and the green straight ahead. You want to resist the urge swing away however. The middle of the fairway has a spine that runs for much of the hole. To either side of the spine are twenty foot deep bowls, down in which the sight of the green is blocked. If you find yourself down in either of them, you are likely not making par for this hole.

A look down the fairway from the 12th tee.

A look into the 12th green from 120 yards out.

The 13th hole is a 185 yard par 3. The tee box is on top of one dune and plays to the green on top of another dune. The green is severely contoured but can aid you if you are down wind and allow you to hold the shot on the green.

A look into the green from the 13th tee box.
A closer look at the 13th green.

 The 14th hole is a short par 5 that plays to 475 yards. The contour of the fairway will allow a ball driven to the center, to roll towards the right side of the green, leaving a good look into the green.

A look down the fairway from the 14th tee box.
The 14th hole has the smallest green on the course at 2,800 square feet. Both the green’s angle at the base of a dune and its severe pitch from back to front can very easily put your ball into the bunker on the front. A shot to the back should allow the ball to roll towards the pin while keeping it in play for a decent looking putt.

A look into the 14th green from 100 yards out.
A look into the 14th green from 75 yards out.

The 15th hole is a 422 yard par 5. For the best look into the green on the next shot, you want to make sure your drive is down the right side. Be careful of the bunkers on that side, though, because the difficulty of the shot to the green will increase tenfold.

A look down the fairway from the 15th tee box.

Make sure to be careful with the placement of the approach shot into the partially hidden green. There is a deep bunker thirty yards short of the green on the left side. You can see it very well from the fairway but it is there waiting for you.

A look into the 15th green from 120 yards out.

The 16th hole is the longest par 5 on the course, playing 563 yards from the center tees. There is a ton of room on the right and with hazards on the left, the smart play is to probably hit over there. However, it is so tempting to try to hit down the left side to shorten the hole that it is a masterful design and probably my favorite hole on the course.

A look down the fairway from the 16th tee box.

A closer look at the trouble on the left side. 

Note that there are no bunkers around the green. This is likely to compensate for the more than 600 yards you have to play from the back tees. It also gives you a break if you are playing when the winds are up.
A look into the small 16th green from 80 yards out.

The 17th hole is a par 3 that plays from 101 yards from the middle tees and serves as the signature hole at Sand Hills. It is guarded everywhere by sand. It is not so difficult that even the most average of players can't find the green off the tee. However, the green is only 3200 square feet so it will take an accurate shot to land it.
A look into the green from the 17th tee box.

The 382 yard par 4 caps off what is likely to be a terrific round of golf. You play across scrub brush to a fairway that slopes upwards towards the green. There is a very deep ravine filled with sand on the left that is 40-50 feet high in places so you definitely want to stay right.
A look down the fairway from the 18th tee box. 

A look at the deep bunker on the left side, as well as the only windmill on the course.
The green is a fairly straightforward affair when compared to the other greens throughout the course. As long as you steer clear of bunkers, you should have a good finish to your round. 

A look into the 18th green from 75 yards out.
There are no swimming pools, no ostentatious club house, and very few amenities outside of golf and a very nice restaurant that lacks any kind of real view. The low cost of building the course and the few facilities most likely led to very little debt, thus the need to have the very small membership of 175. Rounds are limited to less than 75 a day, with some days seeing less than 50 total rounds played.  This allows the course to remain in pristine condition five or so months it is open. 

There are no housing developments to detract from the course. At times, you feel you are the only golfer on the course. It's a unique experience in an uncrowded, natural environment undiluted by outside interferences. The staff is top notch, not only offering friendly interaction each and every time you encounter them no matter where on the property you are, but making sure you are happy and fulfilled with your experience.  There is no part of the visit to Sand Hills that would degrade it from the #12 ranking in the world that it has received. I highly recommend the experience to anyone lucky enough to have an invitation extended and I hope to one day be able to return and experience it again.