Sand Hills Golf Club

Green Keeper: Justin White

Sand Hills Golf Club Coore & Crenshaw

The great Sand Hills of Nebraska – no hype required.

Steeped in history, The Old Course at St. Andrews has a spirtual hold unlike any other, with golfers leaving there more reinvigorated than ever by the joys of the game of golf. For many, the course in the United States that offers a similar reconnectionto all the game’s best attributes is – ironically -just over ten years old.

How can this possibly be, one asks?To understand how, one must appreciate the expansive sand hills range in north central Nebraska where the Sand Hills Golf Club is located. As with the Old Course, the land was shaped by the elements and was largely untouched by man for thousands upon thousands of years. The overall result is that a game at Sand Hills Golf Club immerses the golfer in nature like few courses anywhere in the world.

The credit for finding and providing this primal reunion with nature belongs to Dick Youngs cap and his partners. Youngscap had previously worked with Pete Dye in the eastern part of the state when he founded the Firethorne Golf Club in 1986. Long aware of the great sand hills range and of the Ogallala aquifer, Youngscap searched this unique area for several years looking for property with land forms that might yield holes of high golfing quality.

As Youngscap notes, ‘Not all sand hills are created equally’ and the particular parcel of land that was eventually settled upon was brought to Youngs cap’s attention because of its poor grazing qualities: the sandy soil lacked humus and thus much vegetation, requiring 25 acres to support each cattle.Excellent grazing land consists of soil/vegetation conditions that allow cattle to be supported on just 5 acres per head.

According to the Lodging Information booklet found in each cabin,

In August 1990 an option on 8,000 acres was secured, including the valley in which the golf course is located; the property was purchased in 1991. In September 1990, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw made their first site visit and shortly thereafter, they were retained as golf course architects. Over the next two years, Bill and Ben made numerous visits. By the spring of 1993, they had discovered over 130 holes, from which 18 were selected and a routing plan finalized. During 1993, most of the work was concentrated on the irrigation system, which comprises about 85% of the total golf course construction cost. Fairways, greens and tees were developed in 1994, using the following procedure: 1) mowing existing vegetation to ground level; 2) tilling all areas to a depth of 6′; 3) doing some minor finish grading on the greens – rough grading expense was less than $7,000 – primarily with a small power rake; and, 4) applying seed fertilizer and water.

The Lodging Information booklet points out that because of the excellent sand particles, the cost per Sand Hills green was $300 as neither drain tile/gravel under the greens nor special greens mix were required. Put in perspective, the average cost of a USGA specification green is approximately $40,000.

When the course opened in June, 1995, the most natural course built in the United States since World War I had opened.

Consistent with the huge scale of the place, the course enjoys massive fifty to ninety yard wide fairways that weave in and out and over and around the sand hills in every possible manner, much more satisfactorily than the fairways at Royal Birkdale for instance that repeatedly play through valleys. The fairways were seeded with a blend of four fine-blade fescues, which makes for a stunning contrast against the bunkers and the native tan andbrowngrasses blowing in the breeze.

Course critics say that Sand Hills was waiting to be ‘discovered.’ Certainly, Perry Maxwell’s comment re:Prairie Dunes about eliminating one hundred holes applies to Sand Hills. However, these comments are dismissive of the fact that the monumental challenge was to route eighteen consecutive holes that play well together in all wind conditions.

Many architects could find several dozen great holes scattered over the 8,000 acres. However, hole D’s tee might require a three hundred yard walk from Hole C’s green. Or perhaps the architect finds a fine string of six or seven holes only to become boxed into a less appealing portion of the property. Or, lacking the patience to follow nature’s lead, an architect resorts to bulldozing landforms to force a conventional set of holes upon the landscape.

Simply put, routing a course to incorporate as many natural landforms as possibleis an art form that is largely lost on many modern architects, many of whom have frankly never had the chance to develop such a skill set as their work is confined to housing development courses on modest property. Without selecting the right architect, there was no guarantee at all that a great course would be built here. Youngscap and his partners felt it imperative that as many of the natural landforms as possible be included in the design and understood that the right architect would need to spend weeks upon weeks on the property trying to find just such a routing.

Patience would be required by both the owners and the architect. In the case of Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, they walked the property for over 24 months before settling on a routing that yielded the best 18 hole sequence. As Coore modestly states in his November 1999 Feature Interview on this site, ‘The Sand Hills site was ideal. The challenge there was to create a course equal to the potential of the land – a daunting task to say the least! To have constructed anything less than an extraordinary golf course on that site would have been a failure.’

Coore & Crenshaw’s patience and sensitivity to the land is a hallmark of their design work and sets them apart from all other architects. At one point when they weren’t making headway toward a final routing, Ben Crenshaw stepped over the then boundary fence (roughly where 11 green and 16 tee are today) and reported back to Coore to come see this next door parcel of land. Shortly thereafter, Youngscap swapped the land owner some land for that parcel and holes 12 through 15 were allowed to be created.

Certainly some of the great sand blow-out areas guided Coore & Crenshaw in the routing process. Among other things,a walk around Sand Hills is a study in hazards, both in bunker placement and bunker construction. Of the courses with which the author is familiar, onlythose at Pine Valley, Royal Melbourne and Royal County Down begin to compare. To even term parkland course bunkers as ‘hazards’ seems to do the word an injustice based on the four photographs below.

This blow-out to the right of what became the 1st green helped Bill Coore find the hole rightaway. Coore & Crenshaw’s talented crew scraped back and exposed more sand to create the bunker of today.

The variety of hazards at Sand Hills is astonishing, ranging from the pits around the 17th green in the foreground to the massive blow-outs up the 18th fairway in the distance…

…to this view of a trench bunker 170 yards from the 16th green… a shallow bunker full of ruts 300 yards off the middle markers at the 12th that is in play off the tee in certain wind conditions. Though thirty times (!) shallower than the crater bunker to the left of the 4th green, it is equally as dangerous.

In the foreword to Robert Hunter’s The Links, Bill Coore writes, ‘I have never encountered a more perfect description of the artistic construction of bunkers than the following: [quoting from Robert Hunter] They should have the appearance of being made with carelessness and abandon with which a brook tears down the banks which confine it, or the wind tosses about the sand of the dunes…forming depressions or elevations broken into irregular lines. Here the bank overhangs, where there it has crumbled away.’ The golfer sees from the photographs above that Coore & Crenshaw have employed this philosophy to great success.

With the routing done,another crucial task was getting the detail work right around the greens. Indeed, as diverse and eye catching as the hazards are, they divert attention and praise away from the heart and soul of the design: the green complexes. The diversity found within the greens is of the highest order and is comparable to those of The Old Course at St. Andrews and the West Course at Royal Melbourne.

Coore & Crenshaw re-introduced the all important (and all but dead) art form of tying the entrances of the greens to the greens themselves. The majority of the greens are open in front to allow for the wind, regardless of its direction. However, it is the subtle pitch and roll of the terrain just prior to the greens that give each hole much of its unique playing characteristics. For instance, a slight knob of less than a foot in height lies eight pacesshy ofthe leftpart the 8th green.Its randomness can perhaps propel a ball forward but far more likely than not, it has the habit of kicking balls right into a small gathering central greenside bunker.

The stunning beauty late in the day at Sand Hills is what first registers. At some point, though, the golfer begins to take in and appreciate the variety and joy offered by the green complexes. Pictured above is the 6th putting surface.

Holes to Note

Firsthole, 550 yards; Right at the top with the opening holes at Pine Valley, Machrihanish, National Golf Links of America, Garden City and The Old Course at St. Andrews, the view from the elevated tee of the broad sixty-five yard wide fairway and jagged bunkers contrasted against the tan, rust and brown grasses makesone itch to play. While Coore eventually foundover 130 holes amongst the rolling sand hills, the first three that he immediately ‘saw’ whenhe initially walked the property where the 1st,18th and 17th. The rest of the holes/routing eventually radiated away from these three holes.All three holes enjoy natural green sites, with the 1st and 18th in their own little amphitheaters.

The great sweep of the 1st fairway winds the golfer up toward…

…the green nestled between dunes in the left center of the photograph above.

Second hole, 460 yards; The back marker was added a year after the course opened and stretched the hole from its initial length of 420 yards. As the member tells his guests, there is no prevailing wind at Sand Hills. Thus, one of the challenges that Coore & Crenshaw faced was to create a string of holes that played well in all wind directions. Apart from providing playing width (which they emphatically did), the only way to do so is to provide genuine ground game options for the player. Downwind and the golfer maytry toland the ball ten to thirty yards shy of the putting surface and have it bound up. Into the wind and the player may hit a lower runner that chases the finally thirty or forty yards.Case in point is the second green complex which is as appealing as any green complex that the author has ever seen.

The closely mown high bank to the right of the 2nd green allows the upper plateau to play bigger than it actually is. The sight of golfers at the base of the false front is a common one.

The striking 2nd green and its contours as seen in the early morning.

Third hole, 215 yards; A recent gathering at Sand Hills of ten golf architecture fans failed to produce a consensus as to the favourite one shotter here. Indeed, the group was almost evenly split between the four holes. The defining attribute of the 3rd is the way the green complex was integrated in with a dune on its left. The mammoth 10,000 square foot green yields an untold number of interesting hole locations.

The 3rd green is angled from front left to back right.

How best way to get close to this hole location? Decisions range from going straight at it to banking a ball from near the man in the pink shirt and feeding it left to right toward the hole.

Forthhole, 485 yards; Afine example of how to bunker – and not bunker – a green. Coore & Crenshaw dug out the huge bunker (more like a 30 foot crater) to the left of the green and used that fill to build up the green complex directly beside it. To the right of the elevated green, the architects provide a tightly mown 40 yard wide area. Thus, a huge range ofrecovery shots exists, from a bunker shot that must quickly climb thirty feet in the air to a bump and run up a hill. If the flag is located to the right, the golfer may also consider missing the green short to avoid a potentially ticklish bump and run shot to a short-sided hole location. Too many modern architects bunker both sides of a green and in front, thus actually forcing the golfer to take dead aim at the green – where isthe strategy in that?? The art of bunkering but one side of a greenis one of the reasons that Royal Melbourne’s design as long been considered amongst the finest in the world.

The heroic 4th, as seen from the back markers, as it tumbles sixty feet downhill. The elevated tee means there is no place to hide from the wind on the tee ball.

This view from 160 yards out provides a full view of the tightly mown area right of the built-up green but only the top 1/3 of the course’s deepest bunker is visible to the left of the green.

There is no good reason for missing the 4th green to the left, as this picture suggests. Just the act of getting in and out of this crater can break the spirit of a good man.

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