As promised, the fairways save my puniest drives. Golf balls bounce like they hit a cart path, then race like tumbleweeds along the ground. After his drive on No. 7, my playing partner, Dave Beckner, has walked nearly all the way back to the cart when we notice the white speck of his ball still rolling, working toward the pin as if it has sprouted a tiny engine.
Of course, all that speed has its downside. A bad bounce-and-run is punitive, sending the ball through the narrow first cut and into the jackrabbits’ enclave of shin-high native grasses. Locals call this rough "wooga, " which derives from the name of a grass and now doubles as a swear word. It makes sense, considering the rough tends to grab club heads, deposit sandburs in socks and look way too much like rattlesnake habitat for my comfort.
On the back nine of my round, the prairie wind arrives in full force, gusting to more than 30 mph. High shots into the wind are a suicide mission, slapped down by winds acting like an unseen wall. On the 18th green, I’m studying my putt when a gust actually sends the ball rolling back toward me.
Wild Horse winds leave nowhere to hide. "By the end of the round, you have faced every kind of wind direction, " Whitten says. "Those are the kinds of tests that architects doing these prairie earth links courses use. "
It’s a game almost totally different from the usual forgiving rough, huge landing zones and wind-killing trees that rescue marginal shots. And that’s precisely why more golfers keep grabbing maps to find out how long it takes to drive to places like Gothenburg.
Where to play links-style golf
WHISTLING STRAITS Kohler, Wisconsin. Winner of numerous honors, including the No. 4 spot on Golfweek’s list of greatest American courses. www.destinationkohler.com
THE LINKS OF NORTH DAKOTA Williston, North Dakota. Ranked on Golfweek’s modern course list and on Golf Digest’s list of public courses. www.thelinksofnorthdakota.com
ERIN HILLS Erin, Wisconsin. This course, opened in 2006, is earning high praise, and hosted the 2008 USGA Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. www.erinhills.com
HIGHLANDS GOLF COURSE Lincoln, Nebraska. This city-owned course was built rather than sculpted from nature, but it’s an affordable taste of links-style play. www.highlandsgolfcourse.net
WILD HORSE GOLF CLUB. Gothenburg, Nebraska www.playwildhorse.com