Wild Horse Golf Club
by Richard Daley
The Wild Horse Golf Club, located in Gothenburg, Nebraska is on the edge. It is on the northwest edge of a tiny Union Pacific RR whistle stop village; on the southeast edge of the vast sand hills territory of western Nebraska; and on the edge of golf architecture greatness compared and related to its neighboring highly acclaimed sister course, the Sand Hills Golf Club up the road in Mullen, Nebraska.
The undisputed king of pure sand hills, links style, wide open prairie golf is in deed the exclusively private Sand Hills Golf Club of Mullen, Nebraska, designed by the reknowned architect/designer partnership of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. In their typically generous and humble style, the C&C enterprise often gives credit and refers to their construction associates as ‘the boys’, who are a network of various landscape construction craftsman that translate the C&C visions into world class golf courses. Two of ‘the boys’ that worked on the Sand Hills GC as general contractors were a pair of prairie schooners that sometimes work as their own design/construction entity known as ‘Bunkerhill’. They are Dave Axeland and Dan Proctor.
After the Sand Hills GC opened and was quickly recognized by golf course architecture conoscenti as one of America’s greatest new courses, a group of people in the little town of Gothenburg, NE formed a community effort and desired to build a course of similar characteristics of their own. Through a State resident only share offering and golf course lot sales effort, the very modest sum of approximately 1.6 million dollars was raised to buy the land and build a minimalist prairie links style golf course. The Gothenburg Links Inc., had the good sense to hire the Bunkerhill boys (Dave and Dan) to design and build their little course on perfectly rolling native grassland – sand hill terrain. The result was a golf course to be named ‘Wild Horse Golf Club’ that in two short years of opening rose in the Golfweek Rankings of best Modern courses to 44th, in the company of many exclusive and very costly golf course design efforts.
The Wild Horse course was laid out in a similar minimalist fashion as its famous soul sister Sand Hills Golf Club. While the land at Gothenburg is not as remote and purely sand hills character, there was enough pure terrain to emulate much of the flavor and feel of the more famous predecessor links neighbor in Mullen. Everything at Wild Horse GC is a bit more understated than at Sand Hills GC. The terrain has more grassy prairie and less immense sand hills vastness to the overall landscape. The scope of the routing of the course and the features of fairway heaves and rolls and sprawling blowout bunkers are also just a little less wild and remote feeling at WH than SH. However, WH is a more comfortable walk. Forced carries off of tees are of less intimidating distance at WH than the carries off of virtually every tee at SH. One thing that is relatively the same at both courses is the likelihood of a stiff Nebraska wind. And, in consideration of the frequent wind, the course designs are oriented to wider fairways and more strategic choices of shot placement to fairways and green angle approaches. Routing varies to all compass directions and therefore gives the full measure of wind considerations while playing the course no matter which way it is blowing on your day to play. Blowout style native grass lipped bunkering (a Bunkerhill specialty) can be found within many fairway fields of play at WH giving effect to depth perception challenges and favored fairway positional options. Greens and surrounds construction at both courses are also naturally draped over ideal sites with exciting internal contouring of variety and putting challenge on the always firm and fast pure sand based structures. The green surrounds design and maintenance of both courses offer the ground running game to those who like to utilize that strategy of attack when coping with often high winds. The wide surrounds are apron height cut and seeded in fine fescues. Wild Horse’s yardage is also a little less than Sand Hills GC, with the back tees measuring 6805. There are a number of holes where there are ample set-back areas for construction of ‘Tiger tees’ should that become desirable. However, with a course/slope of 73.0/125 this course will never be a pushover for even the best players, and will challenge ones creative golf skills relentlessly particularly in the frequent Nebraska wind.
The Wild Horse facility is a public course, and has an ‘open to all’ atmosphere that is homespun and as welcoming as a Mayberry Sunday social, due to an eager and helpful staff. The clubhouse offers essential merchandise and has a refreshments and sandwich grill for the golfer’s retreat. The practice facility is also extraordinary with a complex of a wild putting oval course around a native prairie center landscape; a large pitching and chipping green with bunker complex; and a generous driving range.
Golf hole descriptions from back tees; predominant wind out of South to Southwest:
#1, par 4, 365 yards. A dogleg left, tee’s north, with a top shot bunker at end of native grass forced carry area about 120 yards, followed by a left fairway bunker at landing area turn of dogleg. Tee shot from wider and easier right side LZ to carry a right side approach bunker, and avoid back left side roll-through bunker. The green is well contoured with backside and right-rear fine fescue chipping/puttable surrounds.
#2, par 4, 431 yards. The tee shot is west, over a top shot bunker, with native OB straight up right side on beeline to green, with a bunker also guarding the right side near LZ. A wide landing area is a shared field of play with hole #3, with #2s fairway stretching to the left. The left portion of the #2 fairway is guarded within the shared field of play with a complex of three bunkers. One of those bunkers is visible from the #2 tee, while the other two BUNKERS are facing #3 tee. The pushed-up green site is wide open for the bounding run-up and back to front sloped with multiple internal putting humps to negotiate.
#3, par 5, 537 yards. The tee shot is back east towards the shared field of play fairway, with 2 large looming carry bunkers within the 3 bunker complex on the left. The carry distance is not great at about 180 yards to the favored angle for second shot. The right side of first LZ is open with native grass up right side all the way to the green area.
#3 second shot turns slightly to right, must negotiate a mid fairway bunker, and a green guarding bunker, with an open avenue to a severely sloped green, coming from right or left of fronting bunker.
#4, par 3, 171 yards. This reverse short redan plays northwest, has a wide bounce in area on left side, and a hogsback running from apex of bunkering to back left, with a far back right tucked pin position. A fading shot to front left of green can have nice roll to the tucked back right area.
#5, par 4, 370 yards. The tee plays northwest and slightly doglegs left. A short par 4 that usually plays with the wind. A bunker within the fairway LZ guarding the left side and straightest line to green can be carried, or there some room on left side of bunker to most favored approach to the green. A safer tee shot to right side of fairway must then approach the green with a blind to green surface shot over a convex native and sand laced bunker.
#6, par 5, 548 yards. The tee shot is into a crested fairway into the prevailing wind, southeast. The far right shortest route to green tee shot is semi-blind over a rise. The second shot sweeps down right into a valley, before a sweep up to a bunkerless natural knoll green site of severe contour that slopes high back to down front with mid-green natural humps. As with all Wild Horse green sites, there is wide fine fescue surrounds.
#7, par 4, 365 yards. Tee off north with prevailing wind on this shortish hole. The writer once put a tee ball in greenside front bunker in 30mph+ wind from mid tees playing at 345 yards. A mid fairway, LZ area bunker causes the player to have choices of a fairway wood or long iron off tee, or drive over or to either side of LZ bunker, depending on pin position.
#8, par 4, 451 yards. This tee shot is into prevailing wind, and hardest rated hole on the course. The tee shot is into a well defined saddle, with a generously wide landing area draped upon a naturally wavy terrain. A huge blowout style bunker equal to the fiercest at Sand Hills Golf Club guards the left side of the fairway landing zone. A long iron or wood second shot is best played towards the left side of the green for a kick right down and onto the putting surface. A low right short side approach is guarded at the green by another bunker to where the green slopes.
#9, par 3, 155 yards. This hole plays northwest and the back left 1/3 of the green is guarded by bunkers on left greenside. On the right front side of green there is a severe false front.
#10, par 4, 410 yards. Tee shot is southeast, with dogleg right. A longer forced carry, wide open on left, with the short right side route semi-blind and guarded by a bunker on inside corner. The second shot is to a bunkerless green on a knoll of nice natural countouring, with wide fine fescue surrounds.
#11, par 3, 130yards. The tee faces into the east, up into a bowl on this short one shot pitching hole sited between two natural hummocks with bunkers dug into the left side and direct approaches. There is a third bunker through the green on right and the green has large collection area at the rear. The green is large and very contoured in multiple areas.
#12, par 4, 442 yards. One of the writer’s favorite driving holes tees off north with prevailing wind behind. An ideal direction to a favored landing zone is framed between two bunkers in the distance beyond the aiming bunker in foreground. The tee shot is downhill and down wind with semi blind over the crest of right side. The second shot should approach from left side but needs to avoid a smallish pot bunker from left front of green, a large bunker short right of green for dubbed shots and back right of green for shots running through. There is a generous second shot lay-up area for shorter hitters front left.
#13 par 3, 210 yards. A long shot of a redan like nature playing south, made very difficult when playing into a prevailing wind. The two redan bunkers have a middle zone that if the ball lands between them and short of the green will result in the ball rolling down right either into bunker #1, or well down in front of the bunkers. A kick mound is on the right approach, and a large collection chipping area to left rear for balls coming in too hot and rolling through.
#14, par 5, 525 yards. The tee shot heads northwest with helping prevailing winds. The tee ball travels over crest of hill and down to first landing area. The second shot has two distinct options to approach the green from either side of a mid fairway bunker at forefront of second LZ. The larger second shot lay-up area is guarded at the green by a pot bunker, while the right side approach is more open. A rear bunker catches many run-through shots.
#16 second shot from over beyond carry bunker approach from left or flirt with this on right side of crowned green approach
#17, par 5, 505 yards. This par 5 plays northwest with prevailing wind at your back and dares you to go for the green in two shots. The drive crests a hill through a saddle. What appears to be trouble in native left rough, can get a favorable bounce on back side of hill to roll down right towards the middle of the fairway. There is a mid fairway bunker long in the first landing area, not visible from the tee. A left side favored lay-up shot is closely guarded by tight greenside pot bunkers from the left, and through the green back right. The lay-up area is also guarded by a fairway bunker from its right side approach. The green is target and is contoured.
#18, par 4, 418 yards. This is a very strong finishing hole south into prevailing wind. The tee shot is once again challenged by a mid fairway bunker that can be carried when wind is down and can’t be reached in high wind. There is room beyond, left and right of the carry bunker. Also, the shorter route up the right side of the hole is guarded by an ominous bunker and native rough intimidating one to take the lesser of two dangerous shots by favoring the left. If one has to lay-up, not being able to reach the green in two, there is another mid fairway bunker guarding the fore green, and an open side is offered to the green’s right, with greenside bunkers front left and back.
One can not leave the Wild Horse Golf Club without paying tribute to the talent of the superintendent Josh Mahar, who works in a very modest maintenance facility with a small crew, and keeps the course in fast and firm conditions that is the equal of the best golf clubs of the world.
This writer is so enamored with the Wild Horse Golf Club, that I bought a lot behind the 2nd green. While the I have no specific plans to take up residence there, I feel it is my spiritual home. Home is where the heart is and that is where my heart tells me the best golf course in America for my higher handicap and purist links golf tastes can be easily accessed.