Great Plains Golf
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.
Golfers of more modest means got a chance at Sandhills golf with Wild Horse's 1999 opening. It began with a simple question. Wild Horse pro Don Graham says Gothenburg investors were planning a new course when they looked at the Sand Hills Golf Club 90 miles away and asked, "Why can't we have a course like that? " They hired course architects Dan Proctor and Dave Axland, fresh off the crew building the Mullen course, and went to work.
Farmers brought tractors to form tee boxes and greens. Fifty people showed up to raise the clubhouse. Their efforts created one of golf's biggest bargains. Because Wild Horse relied on naturally sandy soil for greens, laid fairways where hills dictated and left natural bunkers in place, its construction required about 10 percent of the soil-moving used on most courses.
"It was kind of a barn-raising party, " Graham says. "It's just a very nice small town coming together to build something spectacular. "
Typical courses, Whitten says, cost upward of $3 million. One green can cost more than $30,000. Wild Horse's price tag (land and clubhouse included) was $1.5 million. That's one reason golfers pay only about $50 to enjoy a course that has grabbed a fistful of awards, including a No. 25 ranking on Golfweek's list of best courses built since 1960 and No. 8 on Golf & Travel's 2001 list of best daily fee courses.
Out on the course, Wild Horse feels like it would be equally comfortable for kilt-wearing Scottish highlanders or sun-baked cowboys. The landscape echoes the spirit of ancestral courses, but horseshoes mark tees, cow skulls indicate yardage along fairways and a windmill creaks away in the middle of the layout.
As I step to the first tee, I review Whitten's advice about prairie courses. The fairways look impeccably green, but Whitten warned they'd be hard and fast in the arid West. "Average golfers feel like they're hitting the ball farther than ever before because of all the roll, " he says. "You may be 200 yards out, but a 160-yard shot will bounce and roll onto the green. "
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