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Dismal River Club: The Nebraska sandhills lend rustic charm to a modern golf course

David R. HollandBy David R. Holland,
Senior Writer
Dismal River Club in Nebraska - hole 18
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A massive blowout waste area hugs the fairway on No. 18 at Dismal River, a 580-yard par 5. (David R. Holland/WorldGolf.com)

MULLEN, Neb. - Looking out the window of my rustic cabin on the "North 40," resplendent with the cowboy architecture of Dismal River Club, one can almost imagine a couple of Lonesome Dove characters on horseback - Augustus McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call - driving cattle on the Texas Trail to Ogallala and a visit with Clara Allen.

Please allow this moment of "poetic license." Dismal River Club is a golf course northeast of Ogallala, and Gus and Capt. Call would have never come this way, which is near Mullen, 94 miles from the closest Wal-Mart in North Platte, population 554. Dismal River Club is boondocks minimalist sand hills golf - a place where cell phones struggle, high-handicappers toil, and stressed executives come to unwind and decompress.

When course designer Jack Nicklaus first drove the 17 one-lane paved miles to the property he said: "The experience arriving at the Dismal River site was like stepping back in time and seeing what the dunes of Northeast Scotland must have looked like a hundred years ago. In every direction I looked, I saw great golf holes."

Tom Watson, who has already routed another 18 holes (construction contingent on economic recovery), echoed the same sentiment after playing the first round this season - in 45-degree weather with winds of 40 miles per hour. He shot an even par.

Dismal River Club: Getting away from the hustle and bustle

Golf in the sandhills areas of the Great Plains was born from an idea that produced nearby Sand Hills Golf Club in 1995. The theory was that a private golf experience, with plenty of upscale members, would work in the wild, off-the-beaten-path areas, but a public course would not.

Nicklaus' 250th design, and his first in Nebraska golf course, included 3,000 acres, and with design associate Chris Cochran, he chose the best 220 acres for this 7,433-yard, par-72 track. The golf course's general design is traditional, but with cutting-edge technology. The porous sands of the plains, coupled with the massive Ogallala aquifer, make a winning combination for growing turf - here, fescue fairways and rough and bent grass greens. Only one percent of that acreage - in fact, one hole - was touched by a bulldozer.

Jeff Beier, the PGA certified director of membership, said Nicklaus Design strived to create a golf experience that the member wouldn't see back home. Take for instance No. 4, a 578-yard par 5. A remnant of the cattle-ranch days, the site included a windmill and stock pond.

"Initially they designed it with the green 20 yards left of the windmill, but when Jack came out, he said move the green directly behind the windmill, thus creating the only water hazard on the course," Beier explained. "The hole also has the largest natural blowout area, which was perfect for a risk-reward route to the green."

Another hole golfers tend to gaze at in amazement is the 190-yard, par-3 10th.

"There's a blowout bunker in the middle of the green - certainly the most talked about hole in the evenings at the clubhouse saloon," Beier said. Slopes and hollows on this green create multitudes of hole-in-one chances.

Dismal River Club: The verdict

Dismal River is classic Nicklaus golf - difficult for the average hack, with numerous elevated greens demanding a high, soft fade, and huge blowout bunkers cascading downward from the putting surfaces.

But if you play from the correct tees, you will have a blast. And the "commune" with nature is priceless; late afternoon with a gentle sun and a billion grasshoppers the only sound.

More good news: Nicklaus and Cochran have visited "with the goal to improve pace of play by making the course five to eight shots easier for a mid-handicapper," said general manager Rocky Papachek. "Mowing areas which were native, to a height where players are able to find their golf ball and advance it, will help speed up play." Closer white tees have been added on 1, 2, 11 and 13, and more "softening" changes are on the way.

Dismal River Club's amenities: From rustic to futuristic

After playing in the hundreds of bunkers all day in the Nebraska sand hills, you'll welcome a visit to the splendid clubhouse located on a lofty bluff overlooking the Dismal River. It has high ceilings and spacious areas for its golf shop, poker and pool rooms, theater, saloon and horseshoe pits. Cowboy and farming collectibles live side-by-side with upscale dining and accommodations, reminiscent of the lodges built by pioneers who once inhabited the valley - but with luxuries like down pillows, king-sized beds, flat-screen TVs, high-speed WiFi and minibars.

There are two practice areas, one a huge complex next to the clubhouse, and the other a mile away by cart next to the snack bar (Jack's Shack) and the No. 1 tee.

Golfweek included Dismal River Club on its best new courses list in 2007, but this golf course offers fishing as well, in two ponds - one stocked with bass, the other with trout.

Currently, there are 180 members, and the course aims for 350 to 400. Among other benefits, members have the option of chartering the club's Cessna Caravan, an eight-passenger aircraft that flies from Denver, Lincoln, Omaha, Grand Island, Kearney, Rapid City, North Platte or Kansas City. For more information about golf at the Dismal River Club, visit www.dismalriver.com.

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David R. Holland is an award-winning former sportswriter for The Dallas Morning News, football magazine publisher, and author of The Colorado Golf Bible. Before launching a career as a travel/golf writer, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force reserve, serving during the Vietnam and Desert Storm eras. Follow Dave on Twitter at @David_R_Holland.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

 
Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Elliott going down

    Tommy Rob wrote on: Jun 14, 2012

    I am coming to Dismal on June 22 to completely annihilate Matt Elliott and his fancy new clubs. The boy can't handle pressure and in this tranquility he'll be worthless.

    Reply

  • Not a bit Dismal

    John La Puma wrote on: Oct 11, 2009

    Have made the pilgrimage to Dismal several times now, and found it to be challenging and life-affirming in every way.
    You would never guess that in the middle of Sand Dunes there are great wines and great vistas...and way more than a billion grasshoppers.
    John La Puma

    Reply

  • Always wanted

    Dean Bennett wrote on: Sep 29, 2009

    I have wanted to play golf in Nebraska ever since I heard about Sand Hills. Just appears to be something a purist of the game would enjoy. Thanks.

    Reply


 
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