Feature Interview with Chris Johnston
1. Please discuss the original history of Dismal River and why you become involved.
Dismal River Golf Club was started by a group of guys from Denver, Colorado – college buddies who love the game and the Sand Hills. I think the goal was to build a “next great place”, with a better amenity base for members. The club was started with a group of 49 Founder members who saw the vision and wanted to join the new venture. The Founders are a great group and, together, they played a big role in getting the club off the ground. The facilities at Dismal River are modern and well done, with high-end cabins and a fantastic clubhouse sited on a promontory overlooking a beautiful river valley, now home to the new Doak Course. The “theme” of the property reminds of an old prairie settlement, or even an old Army cavalry outpost. Everything built fits well into the natural environment.
The original owners chose Jack Nicklaus to design the first course. Jack was specifically charged with building a “championship” type course and he delivered one of his most unique works, the timing closely following collaboration with Tom at Sebonack. Jack had freedom to choose the land he wanted to use and his course is the most unique Nicklaus design I’ve seen. A good friend in Jack’s company calls it Jack “unplugged”. A very talented guy, Chris Cochran, was the lead design associate for the project.
The club was then purchased by four of the original Founder members, really special guys who remain friends. I’m not sure they fully knew nor wanted the work involved owning and running a club, and they certainly didn’t know the economy was soon going to crater. Each of these four are very successful, and I think they simply came to the realization it was more fun to be members than sweat the day-to-day details. That’s when we stepped in.
Why did we step in? First, we saw an opportunity. Some of our group had previously been involved in the ownership group at Teton Pines in Jackson Hole and included my Father (Dick), Charlie Mechem (the highly respected LPGA Chairman), and Greg Dennis. We had a good bit of experience in this side of golf but it’s probably an understatement to say we stepped in at a very challenging time for the golf industry.
Dismal River is located in Hooker County, Nebraska (population less than 1,000) and the club is a very important employer and community member. The Sandhills are cattle country and there is little in terms of traditional industry up this way. Hooker County the most vibrant of the 7 surrounding Counties, owing in good part to golf. It’s hard to believe, but Dismal River is among the top 5 taxpayers here. As a Sand Hills member (#21, I think), I had heard about Dismal River but wasn’t particularly attentive to the new course being built. I actually learned that the owners of Dismal might be considering selling the club while at, and on a visit to, Sand Hills – I had stopped by for a few days with my oldest son, Ian, on our way to Freshman orientation at Notre Dame.
I’d been coming out to the Sandhills to golf for 16 rewarding years, really had come to love the area, and also made many good friends along the way. I never would have thought to build a club out here (I already had one), but this was one that we thought we could help. We didn’t view Sand Hills as anything but the friends they were, they were well established and the membership was full. I learned after the fact that relations between the two clubs hadn’t been warm at all. As one of the very early (pre any ratings and accolades) member of Sand Hills, it never dawned on me Dismal River would cost me my membership at a place I truly loved.
2. What is your role at Dismal River? What do you do?
I’m one of a handful of owners, and am also the CEO of the club. I live on the property during the season a take few short trips home to see my family 10 hours away. We have a very “flat” and efficient operating structure with a terrific team of people empowered to contribute to the “soul” of the experience. The difference between vision and soul is you have to live soul – you have to walk the walk. Steve Jobs lived soul.
Daily, I visit with members, speak with prospects, check in with every department head & the admin staff, and pitch in most everywhere, including mowing if needed – pretty hands on stuff. I’m at the clubhouse every evening and try to personally visit with every member and guest. Our reward is getting to meet people from almost everywhere and hearing great stories at the bar and/or firepit. The hands-on approach is important in making Dismal River work. I also learned early on not to play pool for a friendly wager (I stink), and I’m a way too “easy a mark” at the poker table. My job is to manage the circus, to ensure that we do what we can to make every experience memorable.
3. The old adage is the third owner makes money in the golf business. You’re the third owner of Dismal. What have you learned from the experiences of the first two owners? For instance, your strategy for Dismal differs from the original plan in that instead of pursuing the high end/CEO club route, you’re appealing to a more affordable membership who wants a second club that likes to have fun. How did you decide on that model?
I don’t know about the making money part but, as the third owner, we were able to begin our journey with a solid balance sheet, little debt, and that was very important. We learned a ton from the previous groups and we needed some good fortune, good people, and focus to make Dismal River prosper in the now battered economy. We already knew it would take hard work and a good part of ourselves to realize success – these days, people want to get to know you, look you in the eye, and know you are present, engaged, and committed. Fortunately, I had observed and interacted with guys like Dick Youngscap, Frank Hilsabeck, Jimmy Kidd, Clint and Barb Svoboda, and that group for 15 years as a member – they already had a successful path and we didn’t need or want to reinvent the wheel. The keys for us are simplicity, the experience, and executing that which you do well. We are pretty low key, and not a place that “crawls all over you”.
Dismal River started out with very ambitious plans, probably easily achievable when the economy was booming. When we arrived, the economic conditions were completely different, and our plan actually followed the very early days over at Sand Hills. One of the more difficult challenges we faced was getting buy-in from (very good) people who were “promised the world before the world ended” – they had been through some “whipsawing” in a short time including resets of lofty expectations, and then we arrived with our own restructuring plans focused on golf and simplicity. Fortunately, almost all of these guys really wanted the club to work and understood and supported our efforts to build a more simple and successful Dismal River. The same can be said with the local community. Today, we have a wonderful group of Nebraska and Colorado guys, and guys (and gals) from across the country and overseas who, like me years ago, have come to love the experience and the place.
Quality and value are more important than ever these days, and we want the club to be within reach of as many people as possible. We look for people who share a respect the game, who want to join and be part of something cool in a special place, and who want to help us build a great club.
4. Please detail the significant tweaks that the Nicklaus course has undergone since first opening.
Before we arrived, several original greens were softened – I’m told internal contours were wild and not a good match given the 10-1/2 to 11 green speeds delivered each day. This softening made the greens more fun for everyone. The 13th hole was redesigned as well – really difficult was made better by (that word again) simplicity. The beautiful third green was rebuild following a major irrigation break that “ate” much of the green itself.
Since we arrived, aside with widening a few fairways, we have changed only one thing in the routing. The 18th green was moved 60 yards towards the tee making it a wonderful match play hole. It’s now a 515 yard, uphill par 5 and Mr. Youngscap generously came out and offered advice as to drainage. For the second round of the day, some guys also play 18 from the forward tees as a 430ish yard, longer par 4. Either way, it’s a better finish.
The most meaningful tweaks we made were the reset and calibration of irrigation to fit the property, and a steadfast commitment to firm and fast. Early on, the native rough was over irrigated, making anything off the fairway lost, or near impossible to advance. Fairways were also over fertilized. This (and the wild greens) were a big source of, probably then well deserved, early criticism. Today, there is an almost seamless transition into the native and the course is much more playable and enjoyable. Folks who may have visited in the first few years will find a more fun course – good holes were there but the product was too complicated! Having heard of the early challenges and difficulty, most people are pleasantly surprised that lost balls are now rare and Jack’s course is a very enjoyable experience.
5. Are other tweaks planed this year or next?
We are very happy with the Nicklaus routing as she sits today. Over time, we will need to reshape some of the more exposed greens as the natural wind and sand combination actually changes them – in some cases making intended slopes more severe and pin areas smaller. We may add, or eliminate a tee or two, and we always deal with the basics like drainage and settlement issues out here.
6. When Dismal River was being constructed, you were a member at Sand Hills. Please compare and contrast the Nicklaus course of today versus Coore & Crenshaw’s work in a similar wind.
Boy, it really is hard to compare anything to Sand Hills – it’s such a special place in golf and was an important place for me. I guess it’s to be expected since we are the closest place to Sand Hills. I left Sand Hills “involuntarily”, but that’s enough of that story. Sand Hills started it all out here, it had its own early struggles, and its accolades today are well earned and deserved. Dick Youngscap may be responsible for some great golf in addition to Sand Hills. I doubt Dismal River, Sutton Bay, Ballyneal, the Prairie Club, and maybe even Bandon Dunes would have been done without Dick’s pioneering efforts. All of these except (I think) Ballyneal are directly related to Sand Hills.
Remember, Sand Hills has been at it for 20 years, far longer than Dismal River. The environment here is very unique – Kyle and his crew over there have so much “institutional knowledge” where we are continually reminded what we don’t know, every day. The superintendents who read this will likely agree – there really is no normal in golf and optimal is sometimes an elusive goal, as each day usually brings something different. Heat, cold, wind, rain, drought, lightening, disease, bugs, stray cows, family commitments, members, committees, and a budget – my hat is off to all who have chosen this vocation.
Comparisons: Both courses are a blast to play, and the holes were “found” rather than “built”. The routings feel different but the courses are far more similar than most will acknowledge. Both are firm and fast, similarly walkable, have blind shots, and the two have significant elevation change through the routings. Both are astoundingly natural with carries over the prairie, and both have and some very unique and beautiful holes. At each, you want to play the right tees and (like most anywhere) you benefit by having a bit of local knowledge and must execute a good shot. Both are rated with the #1: Sand Hills is #1 and, a mere seven miles away and Dismal River claims #201! There are great people at both clubs, and the two actually share more than a handful of members in common.
Contrasts: Sand Hills came first and literally changed the landscape of golf. The Nicklaus course wasn’t designed to copy Sand Hills and I would definitely agree Jack’s is a whisker more vertical through the routing. Bill and Ben were more restrained at Sand Hills, owing to the fact they spent significantly more time on the project during a period when they had the time to do it. To their credit, Jack and Chris Cochran went for something completely different – their own vision of golf out here. Over the years, Sand Hills has evolved using a mix of fairway grasses where Dismal Nicklaus remains almost 100% fescue, but that will probably change for us over the next 15 years too. This may shock some but, for me, Sand Hills is harder than Jack’s course today. The Nicklaus course has several punchbowl greens, where Sand Hills are more exposed and defended by a combination of size, slope, speed, and/or false fronts. Jack’s punchbowls are more forgiving for the average guy while still challenging for the better player – you can be more creative, and “non optimal” shots probably tend to turn out better than they otherwise would. Like Sand Hills earlier on, Dismal is probably the more relaxed of the two today. Dismal River has the better facilities and systems, as I believe Sand Hills (originally and may still) irrigate from a generator. I would guess Sand Hills cost less to build and they are further along the journey.
7. What is the playing season at Dismal River? What is your favorite times to play there?
Our season is late May to early October, almost the same as our neighbor. The course is the consistent during the season but the prevailing wind and colors vary from Spring, to Summer, to Fall. I love both the July and August heat, and the cooler mornings and evenings in June and September. Like most in the golf industry, I don’t get to play as much as I’d like. There is always more to be done.
8. What kind of playing surfaces do your fescue fairways provide? How do the fescue fairways hold up through the summer months?
Fairways are firm and fast, with the ball going where your eyes tell you. Many courses use deception as part of the routing – out here, scale, quiet and variable wind help defend the course. For those who aren’t accustomed to believe their eyes, this can be very challenging. Like Ireland and Scotland, you seldom play a shot to the indicated yardage. Out here, you have to think and familiarity is your friend.
The fescue fairways hold up very well. If too hot or dry, areas may go dormant and turn a very acceptable yellow. At most clubs this would cause a riot, but out here, it fits right in to the environment. We favor playability over look and actually prefer a yellowish tint.
9. How do you get revenue to exceed expenditures for a private club in a remote area with a limited season?
By providing a great experience every day, to everyone. Treat guests like guests in your home, and be sure employees know you care. Know “what” you are and be “who” you are. Do what you do well, and don’t do anything you can’t do well. Mike Young and I agree that this is a “nickels and dimes” business and we have to keep a mindful eye on costs. Dismal River is fortunate to have 78 guest beds for the busier days, and more fortunate have some very loyal Corporate and other members who bring larger groups out during the week. In terms of scale, our clubhouse is large with two dining areas – providing us the ability to accommodate a larger group at the same time as several smaller member groups on the property. In most any business, there is nothing worse than a constraint. On the average, a member will come out 2-4 times a year, for 2- 4 nights at a time, and bring 3 to 7 friends along. A good amount of new members come via existing members visits or referrals. Once they visit, some people just get “it” and want to be a part of the tribe.
10. You made a bold decision in 2012 to add a second course when both rounds and golf course construction were down. What pushed you to proceed? For instance, how many more rounds (and therefore room nights/meals/etc.) do you hope the second course will drive per annum?
In the Sand Hills, building a course is pretty straighforward, it’s finding the routing and finishing that are the challenge. Quite literally, there are holes everywhere. You are working on sand and the costs to do so are far more moderate. Plus, sitting on 3,000 acres, we already had the land.
All the courses out here are very special in their own right. With the scale of our existing facilities and the unique land on the property, it seemed a perfect time to add a new course, if all involved thought it would be great. With two courses, we hope that members and guests will extend their stay by a day, maybe two allowing us to preserve a very uncrowded vibe. Overall, we believe the new Doak Course will increase usage, and also bring in a whole new group of members who hadn’t previously considered Dismal River.
While there is abundant land, I don’t believe there will be a ton of courses built out here in the future. In golf, the costs to build all the facilities are where the big costs reside. Even with an ocean underneath us, I’m also convinced access to water will become a bigger issue. Dismal River already have clubhouse, cabins, water purification, and a wastewater facility scaled to easily accommodate an additional course. Our maintenance facility is very large, and we also have on-site employee housing for 70+ staff members allowing us to bring in talent if and where we need it. We are in a county with less than 1,000 residents – between Dismal and Sand Hills, if both are full, the population in Hooker County increases by more than 15%! Not many golf facilities have that kind of impact.
11. Discuss the architect selection process for the second course. Is it true that you walked the property one cold December day with Tiger Woods?
We looked at “player” designers, and “non player” designers (sorry, Tom) separately, and Tiger was our player finalist for the new course – Tiger and team presented a very good routing. We strongly considered partnering with Tiger, as Dismal would then have been the only club in the world credited to the top two Major’s champions – I’m pretty confident Jack and Tiger will be the top two for a while. We did visit and tour a bit for a few days and it was enjoyable. TW was perfectly normal, cool, funny, smart, organized, and very energetic. I really wish we could see more of that side of him. Jack Nicklaus is like that too – a good very guy.
12. Did Tiger’s knowledge of golf course architecture impress you that day?
Very much. Tiger sees shots, is well versed in what a hole is and isn’t, was very well prepared, and the canvas out here was a very good fit. He’s played, even dominated, many of the great courses so he has, I believe, a unique understanding. Obviously, he isn’t as experienced as some in the art of the routing, but he has surrounded himself with very talented people. Beyond the image, he just gets golf.
13. You ultimately choose Tom Doak as the architect. What led you to his selection? Why not just hire Nicklaus again?
Tom Doak is a master at his craft and has become a good friend. He was the perfect fit for what we wanted, even if we didn’t fully realize it at the time. I believe there were several hurdles for Tom to clear for himself. He also brought us Don Mahaffey who is a throwback guy in terms of efficient irrigation, grassing, and maintenance.
Here’s the thing most don’t consider – you might “pick” Tom, but most don’t realize Tom also gets to “pick” you. With Sand Hills seven miles away, and Tom’s own Ballyneal not too far away in the next state, the site, routing, and project really had to be “that good”. If the new course couldn’t be outstanding, I’m certain Tom would have politely declined – it took me a long time to grasp, trust, and really understand this and him. Knowing how Tom (and team) do what they do, this made an otherwise hard decision, easy.
Jack Nicklaus did a great course out here and we are thrilled with his work. I’m of the rather strong opinion that Jack’s course at Dismal River is ridiculously underrated by the trades. On the facts, it’s astonishing that a unique course on similar land, only 7 miles west of the (very well deserved) #1/#8 rated course, isn’t regarded more highly. Jack’s course has come into its own in many ways, and there is little debate it is architecturally unique. I didn’t want Jack to have the pressure of doing the second course – what if it was better, or worse? In the end, I believe two different designers, and designs, would be better for Dismal River.
14. Compare and contrast the positives and negatives of the raw Nicklaus site to the raw Doak site.
The Nicklaus site is more “traditional” Sandhills – in, around, on top of, and through the “dunes”. It provided very unique vertical golf opportunities with elevation changes and wonderful viewscapes. The only negative is it was going to be a hilly walk, actually not much more than Sand Hills, but hilly nonetheless – the “hill” is Sandhills is true!
The Doak site is completely unique from the Nicklaus site and anything else in the Sandhills, yet it is only a few hundred yards from the Nicklaus site at one point. Tom’s routing plays across a pretty dramatic grade change all way down to and along the Dismal River. Outstanding views of the river open up in many places. Across the river are some very prominent steep hills looming 300 feet or more above Tom’s finishing holes. There are 3 historic natural features across the river… Big Horseshoe and Little Horseshoe hills, and a centuries old Buffalo Run that was the way bison chose to cross the Dismal River and into steep hills. All are involved in and meaningful to the routing.
15. The Doak course is growing in with play scheduled for summer, 2013. You obviously have a great sense as to how it has turned out. What are your thoughts on how it will play on a daily basis versus the Nicklaus course? Which course is a) more interesting off the tee, b) more varied in its approach shots to the green and c) has more interior green contours? Does one course play better in a high wind than the other?
Tom is probably better to ask the question.
For me, the Doak course is in a word, incredible, with a totally different feel when compared to the Jack’s course. It will feel softer than the Nicklaus course and it has some astonishing holes. By design, the Doak course transitions seamlessly, both between holes and into the native, and fairways feel more wide. The Nicklaus course has more blind shots, but the Doak has the single most-blind shot and probably the most unique (#17) hole. Both courses are very interesting off the tee, but many holes on Tom’s course utilize a prominent feature as a backdrop, an existing blowout or landform framed in the distance – I’ve never seen anything quite like that before. Both courses have a nice variety of approach shots. Jack’s is more vertical up and down while Tom’s is more across. This is hard to put into words but, to me, Tom’s course transcended golf and he created something more.
Here’s a surprise! The Nicklaus greens (even after softening) have more internal contours than the Doak – like Sand Hills, Tom and team used great restraint on his course and I recall Tom mentioning at least 12 greens (2,3,4,5,6,8,9,10,11,13,14, 15, 16, and 18 = now 14!), were already there with not much more (intentionally understated) than finish shaping required – they too, fit seamlessly. The new course is also (thankfully) not over bunkered, then again, Tom also get’s the deepest bunker award on the par 3 #5. As most would expect, Tom gave more room to miss a green but you will need to be creative to recover.
As far as high wind, each will be a challenge and it really depends on what direction the wind comes, but Tom’s course isn’t as long (not much over 6,900 yards from the tips if you stretch it) and is more wide. Both allow for some fun ground game.
16. Is it fair to say that the Doak course was less expensive to build than the Nicklaus course? What impressed you about Doak’s approach to building a course? What did you think of his crew?
Remember, I wasn’t here when the Nicklaus course was built, but it was built at a different time and infrastructure wasn’t then in place. Apples to apples, yes, it is fair to say the cost for the Doak was less expensive. Tom designed the course in conjunction with a very innovative irrigation system, designed and installed by Don Mahaffey, using less than half the total heads deployed on the Nicklaus course. Alone, that created material savings. Looking back, the new course required innovation along the way. I think Tom and crew, and Don, may have learned some cool things that may become part of the future. Even being at the top of their respective games today, both guys retained intellectual curiosity and embraced learning. That’s pretty cool.
I think Tom had a good idea of the routing he wanted when he arrived (a story in itself about Tom suffering a fool), and I think he really allowed the land do the work. I don’t think he fought the land much, if at all. Like the land, Tom also designed the course to embrace turf rather than fight it – green, yellow, and brown are all part of the design. Tom’s course is very natural and he and his guys spent considerable time on a million little things that mattered. Brian Schneider, Eric Iverson, and Brian Slawnik, all contributed the course, and every member of the crew also participated in some part of the design. To a man (too many guys to individually mention here), they all really cared about building a great course, and all were very engaged and focused. It was fun to watch, they were good guys, and we had a lot of fun.
17. Are the grassing schemes similar at the Nicklaus and Doak course?
Yes. We used fescue for the fairways on both course (five different types blended, I think) and bentgrass on the greens. Greens on the Nicklaus are A1-A4 and the Tom’s are Dominant. The look will be very different by design, but we expect very similar play conditions.
18. You come from a golf family, having been the CEO of Royal Precision golf shaft company. What is your take of the overall health of the golf equipment business and golf in general?
It’s no secret golf has really suffered in this economy, all of courses, equipment, and good people. The good news – it is a buyers market for memberships, value is very important, and it may actually help the game to recover. I share the view of many that the game needs to return to efficiency and the pursuit of length has been an impediment.
I love really enjoy people who focus on quality, and companies like Renaissance Golf Design, MacKenzie Bags, Miura clubs, Lamkin grips, Josh (new dad!) Smith, and Rob’s bunch at True Linkswear, among others, are terrific smaller companies doing really cool and world-class stuff.
On the equipment side, the bigger guys are still big, but volumes have suffered. I never would have guessed the prominent brands that have changed ownership in the last several years including Titleist, Cobra, Cleveland, and Adams. I sure hope Callaway gets its swagger back and they have some really great people there, and I love what Ping has done. TaylorMade, Nike, and Mizuno just seemingly chug along doing what they do well. With volumes down across the industry, the component makers (our old stomping grounds – shafts and grips) and assemblers have had a tough go along with increased pricing pressure – probably not much fun. Almost all castings are made, and almost all clubs are now assembled, overseas. That’s not bad in itself, but passing along a bit of the savings to the rest of us might not be a bad idea for the game.
Again, value matters.
Please note: The photographs used throughout this Feature Interview are courtesy of Jaeger Kovich and Zach Varty.