Dismal River Golf Club (White Course)
Nebraska, United States of America

Pre-golf, this portion of the property captivated Jack Nicklaus’s eye, ultimately leading to the creation of the fourth hole in the foreground and the drivable eighth in the distance.

For feature rich land the primary challenge of the golf architect comes down to the routing. Get it right – find eighteen engaging holes that utilize the site’s natural attributes in varied ways that are connected via short green-to-tee walks – the world celebrates. Get it wrong – squander nature’s bounty – be condemned to failure because no renovation can remedy a poor routing.

In 2003, Jack Nicklaus and his Senior Design Associate Chris Cochran toured 3,000 acres of rolling farm land outside of Mullen in the Sand Hills of Nebraska.  As they drove onto the property they were presented a most impressive view of Big Horseshoe Hill and the sinewy Dismal River at its base. The occupants of the truck were duly impressed (!) but Nicklaus remarked to the owners that such could also be found in Montana, Wyoming and even parts of Kansas. So, they drove on and after two hours of bouncing around, came upon a lovely, shallow valley surrounded by choppy dunes possessing more abrupt vertical movement than the rolling sand hills seen earlier.  Nicklaus and Cochran were intrigued and as enunciated by Nicklaus in his Feature Interview ‘… if somebody was going to travel three or four hours in a car to get to Dismal River, why would they do that and leave their course in Denver, or Minneapolis, or Omaha, or wherever it might be, to play something they have at home. So, my feeling was that the golf course should be totally different than anything they’ve seen.’

What would become 16, 17 and 18 were spotted later that afternoon and the team left that initial visit with a sense that something remarkable could be had. An ideal section had been identified for the opportunity of a lifetime – to build a unique golf course in a sublime setting with no real environmental issues, water table worries, or residential constraint. 16, 17 and 18 were set and seemed so good that siting the clubhouse behind the 16th or high up on the 17th or 18th holes was contemplated.  Ultimately, the owners located the clubhouse a few thousand yards away, along a beautiful bluff overlooking the Dismal River.  Importantly, they were content that the golf need not commence or end there.

Nicklaus Design acquired a highly accurate topography map and Cochran progressed the routing. Unhampered by the need for returning nines, Nicklaus Design’s task was to find the best sequence of holes. Today’s 1st soon presented itself, wrapped around the shoulder of a hill to a green in a natural depression. Options abounded and debate ensued about the 2nd and 3rd as to which hole would be a 3 and a 4. The 4th in the aforementioned valley was a ‘no-brainer’ according to Cochran and Nicklaus himself drove the placement of that green low in the dunes where a functioning windmill added interest.

On the next site visit, Nicklaus spotted the location for the elevated fifth green high in a saddle. This was a key moment as the next six holes fell into place like dominoes.  Ideas of building something in one of the low valleys were bunted about for the 6th with Nicklaus eventually taking the hole high up into the dunes and placing the green in a natural volcanic depression that he had found.

The 7th was there and the 8th was an easy find because an eroded gulley begged to be incorporated as a natural hazard.  Next came the 9th, one of Cochran’s favorite holes because it is so different and where the course’s widest fairway falls across a unique broad cross-slope on the property. At the 10th, a natural dell was quickly identified for a green site, especially as a sandy pit fronted it that could be formalized into a bunker with ease.

From the 10th green Nicklaus suggested playing across the valley and the striking up-and-down 11th was born but it presented another routing dilemma. Where to go now?! Eventually, in an eureka moment, Cochran found the 12th playing corridor.  The rest fell into place, aided by the knowledge of where 16-18 had been established. The only sacrifice made in the entire routing process was at the 15th where a dune was altered in order to connect the 14th and 16th holes. In Nicklaus’s own words:

The original design at Dismal River reflects probably the least amount of dirt that I have ever moved on a golf course. Basically, we did zero.  Often times irrigation was put-in after the prairie was mowed down before a yard of dirt was moved. The greens were located and put exactly right on the ground that was there. We simply softened any features in them to get pinnable pitches in them. The only dirt we moved at Dismal River was on the par-3 15th hole. There was a little nose of a hill that stuck out that blinded a par-3 from where I wanted to put the tees. We knocked that nose off—maybe a thousand yards worth of dirt is what we knocked off. We never shaped it to anything; we just knocked it off. That’s all the dirt we moved.

The beautiful one shot connector 15th.

So very much hangs on the routing process and having two sets of eyes was hugely beneficial. Nicklaus and Cochran overcome all challenges. Their biggest routing hurdles were the 5th and 6th on the front nine and the 11th and 12th on the back. Who knows how not finding just one of them could have altered the outcome?

With eighteen playing corridors determined, fine-tuning began to ensure the course’s equilibrium. The uphill and downhill shots were balanced, as was the requirement to shape the ball both ways. Most importantly, the superlative routing produced a top draw set of diverse green complexes; bowls (1st, 6th, 10th), plateaus  (3rd, 7th, 14th) and those benched into the dunes (8th, 13th, 15th). As Cochran notes, ‘Old Tom Morris was fond of placing his greens in hollows as he knew that grasses fared well when sheltered from the wind and where moisture was retained. We followed his lead.’  These distinctive green sites require a complete array of shotmaking. Frequently, the experienced golfer will land his ball near spot A to have it finish by spot B and the hole. Favorites of the author include using the back bank at the 9th and the side bank at the 15th.

Nature rules the Sand Hills and man’s hand seems woefully out of place here. Acknowledging the primordial allure of the region, Nicklaus Design was loath to disturb the pristine landforms.  Throughout the construction process they opted to move less rather than more and thereby crafted a minimalist course including non-USGA push-up greens akin to how courses were built a century ago. Frankly, this style is not the norm for Nicklaus Design. Even more mysteriously, critics have been reluctant to acknowledge the achievement and bestow upon this effort the proper praise it is due. This course profile questions why that is so.

This view from behind the sixteenth exemplifies how a well routed hole can nestle into landforms without disturbing much earth.

When the course opened in 2006, eight of the greens were significantly more severe but those greens have been softened since 2010. Two other greens (the 13th and 18th) were pulled forward by ~60 yards and now offer needed scoring opportunities on the second nine. The course as it is in 2015 is the sort of design that everyone craves – it rests beautifully on the land and is rife with high quality golf shots. Despite a choppy beginning born from being a brute on windy days, the course has evolved in one decade (a pittance of time, especially here!) into something eminently pleasurable to play in all winds.  To appreciate the routing and what Nicklaus Design accomplished, let’s tour the eighteen holes. Try finding a weak or indifferent one. While there are a few controversial features, the author thinks that these should be embraced, not rebuked.

As seen from the ninth tee, long views exacerbate the thrill of playing in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Over half of the flags on the front can be seen from this vantage point. Contused clouds and approaching storms are evident as well!

Holes to Note

Please note: the yardages below pertain to the 6,640 yard course but few members are so obstinate as to shackle themselves to one set of tees on a windy day.

First hole, 410 yards; An ideal opening hole has several attributes: make the golfer itch to play, get the game away in an orderly manner, and be true to what is to come. This starter excels admirably on all counts.

From the commanding tee position all is revealed: a wide fairway that swings left around the shoulder of a hill and finishes at a punchbowl green.

As seen from behind, the gathering green complex is conducive to a smooth start.

Second hole, 410 yards; The White Course at Dismal River obliterates all preconceived notions that the golfer might have of Nicklaus Design. In his Feature Interview Nicklaus noted that he learned from Pete Dye that  ‘golf is a far more pleasant game when played downhill’ yet here we encounter a daunting uphill tee shot to a blind landing area. However, this is the Sand Hills of Nebraska and a design without the occasional uphill tee ball would do a disservice to the landscape – and cheat the golfer of variety. Courses that test the golfer in every possible way are the most satisfying to play. So too are courses that make the golfer think. At the second, the golfer who flirts with the trouble down the right is rewarded with a view of the sunken green ahead. The less risk the golfer accepts off the tee, the progressively more difficult his second shot becomes. Only when they were imbuing holes with strategy did Nicklaus Design modify landforms to any meaningful degree. In this case, they reduced a corner of a hill so that the golfer down the right was afforded a good look at the green.

While the up and down topography always meant that the White Course would be a strenuous walk, the walking trails makes the trek reasonable. Above is the one at the second.

Since there is no prevailing wind at Dismal River the holes need to be elastic and play well downwind, upwind, or in a crosswind. This has been enabled by the creation of green entrances that accept all variety of shots. On the author’s first play in benign conditions this hole was a little flick down the hill with a 7 iron but the following day required a blind three wood approach! Fortunately, the open green accommodated both with equal aplomb.

Third hole, 145 yards; Dismal’s fiery group of one shot holes holds the key to a good round. Disaster lurks especially at the fifth and tenth where playing features can throw a fragile golfer off stride. In many ways, the third is the simplest – and maybe the best. It plays across low dunes to a natural plateau where Nicklaus Design created a front right puff in the putting surface and shallow depressions left and back to provide interesting hole locations without the appearance of the architect trying too hard.

When it first opened, the green sat on top a wall of sand. However, managing the flow of water from Nebraska’s famously powerful thunderstorms dictated extending turf down the front wall to prevent deep ruts from routinely reoccurring.

Both natural and uncompromising, the bunkers at Dismal River make the hazards on most courses look namby-pamby.

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