Wild Horse Golf Club
(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: MARCH/APRIL 2007)
Jackrabbits aren’t bad, as golfing companions go. When a ball bounces into their home in the tall grass, the rabbits tuck their airplane-propeller ears flat against their backs and politely wait for you to play through.
Tumbleweeds, on the other hand, are remorseless flaunters of golf etiquette. When the wind is up at a course like central Nebraska’s Wild Horse Golf Club (and it’s always up in this area 200 miles west of Lincoln on Interstate-80) the dried-out bushes roll arro-gantly down fairways and scandalously bounce across your putting line. Focusing intently on your ball is begging to get blindsided by a 5-foot tumbleweed bowling through a bunker.
But tumbleweeds are small concerns for golfers eager to play Nebraska’s Sandhills, an undulating region of ancient sand dunes thinly covered by native grasses and tiny towns. Golf architects consider the region nearly perfect golf terrain, reminiscent of the game's ancestral courses in the British Isles. Great Plains "links-style" golf is characterized by an absence of trees and water hazards, notoriously shaggy rough, massive bunkers and layouts that follow Earth’s natural contours. Golfers come to these courses to taste the game’s roots as much as the unique technical challenges (and they find such play almost exclusively in the Midwest).
"I’ve said before and written before that the Great Plains is sort of the last great frontier of golf in America, " says Ron Whitten, a Kansas resident and Golf Digest’s senior editor on architecture. Such enticing topography explains why well-heeled golfers fly here in private jets to play the celebrated Sand Hills Golf Club, why Jack Nicklaus just opened the private Dismal River Club here and why golfers nationwide know about the public Wild Horse Golf Club in Gothenburg (population: 3,681).
What Whitten calls the "prairie earth course" trend took off with the opening of the exclusive Sand Hills Golf Club near Mullen, Nebraska, in 1995. The course, which pro golfer Ben Crenshaw designed with Bill Coore, is closer to a dozen lonely ranches than any town you’ve heard of, but it caters to the likes of celebrities and business magnates, and Golfweek ranks it America’s best course built since 1960. Golf Digest ranks it America’s 12th-best course.