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

Twelfth hole, 535 yards; This free flowing hole exemplifies the lack of linear lines throughout the course. Its fairway shrugs right then left before finishing at a green angled to the fairway. The axis of the long green rewards the golfer who progresses his first two shots some ~450 yards up the fairway.

On this beautifully twisting hole the golfer who gets tangled up on either of his first two shots is hugely disadvantaged. Conversely, two good shots and the golfer enjoys a good look down the length of the green. Note the day’s vicious back right hole location.

Thirteenth hole, 380 yards; Why the White Course isn’t widely celebrated as Nicklaus’s best design in the United States is a mystery. Certainly, it was unsurpassed property and no allowance had to be made for housing. Yet, the course unexplainably has fared poorly in the magazine rankings. Course critics (especially those who write much better than they play) voiced harsh words early on. Perhaps panelists remember only the early version when, for instance, this 475 yard brute required a blind approach of some 200 yards over a dune. For the author, the original hole sounds like a winner (!) along the lines of 13 at Rye Golf Club or 14 at Royal West Norfolk. The rub is that it was followed by the course’s hardest hole and in sequence the pair overwhelmed most golfers. In 2010, the thirteenth green was pulled forward, transforming this hole into an attractive medium two-shotter. The incoming nine remains longer but this conversion to a sub-400 yarder makes it more manageable, varied and most importantly, fun.

Reasonable people disagree about how to tackle the thirteenth. Some prefer the high right side as it puts them on the same level as the green for their approach. Others …

…. head left of the central fairway bunker to approach the green head on. Only 18 paces deep, the green is the narrowest target on the property. Similar to the fourteenth at Muirfield Village, underestimate this modest length hole at your peril.

Fourteenth hole, 440 yards; All architects seemingly parrot the same, “We are sensitive to nature, we follow nature’s lead,” etc. etc. blah blah blah. How can you tell when it is true? Stand on this tee and you’ll know. Why? This bruiser is visually intimidating and yet the golfer is given precious little view of the fairway. In another place with a different set of circumstances the author believes that Nicklaus Design would have altered the land to provide better optics. Most golfers would consider that ‘fair’ as this is the longest par 4 on the course. In actuality, the fairway is bowled and plays quite wide as it runs down its own valley. Yet, the first timer is likely disconcerted on the tee and this visual intimidation is just another challenge that the good golfer needs to overcome for a successful round. It follows Alister MacKenzie’s time-honored concept of making a hole look harder than it plays so that the golfer can leave with a sense of heightened accomplishment.

Placed directly on top of the biggest and steepest greenside slope, the fourteenth green complex is both daunting and handsome. Importantly, it functions well for all golfers courtesy of the copious amount of short grass left of the green – no need exists to ever visit the deepest hazard on the property!

Fifteenth hole, 160 yards; Fans of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor will be delighted when they step on the tee and soak in this modified Redan. Here the strategy is clear (at least in most winds) – hit a draw that utilizes the green’s right to left slopes to feed the ball toward the day’s hole location. On the very next hole, the golfer might not even be afforded the sight of the flag! The best designs alternate between visuals that entice and visuals that confuse. In that manner, they remain fresh to play, time and time again.

Standing on the tee, a right to left shot pattern readily – and intoxicatingly – suggests itself.

At the highest level, golf is a ground game and watching the ball roll slowly right to left across this putting surface is one of the round’s joys.

Sixteenth hole, 385 yards; A superb hole at every level. First, the tee is placed at a diagonal to the fairway. Second, the hole runs through an irregular valley where shoulders of short and long hills extend well into the fairway. Third, a fronting left bunker is perfectly cut into a hill thirty yards shy of the green, making some left hole locations blind. The tension between the short left greenside bunker and the two scar bunkers high on the short hill right off the tee provide this natural hole its enduring merit.

The early morning light reveals how the fairway snuggles seamlessly into the landscape.

The golfer skilled enough to shape a tee ball around the near bunkers in the hillside …

… enjoys this open view of left hole locations.

The flag becomes invisible for the golfer who is 20 yards left in the fairway, precisely where the less risky line from the tee leaves him.

As seen from behind, the putting surface gracefully cascades from front left to back right. Considered by some to be overwrought initially, the greens at Dismal River as they exist today are praiseworthy.

Seventeenth hole, 415 yards; The quip that Nicklaus built holes that only he could play (i.e. shots that favored a high fade) was rendered rubbish over two decades ago. Indeed, a penetrating draw is oft times the preferred shape at Dismal River, highlighted at this corker of a hole. The fairway is generous, over fifty yards wide, unless the golfer becomes greedy and tries to fit his tee ball within 150 yards or less of the green where the fairway narrows in half.

A bullet draw that follows the graceful bend of the fairway and then tumbles down into its narrow neck is a shot of great beauty and one that lingers in the mind long after.

Eighteenth hole, 505 yards; The author’s favorite type of finishing hole is a half par hole on the easy side. Be it the Home hole at St. Andrews, Pebble Beach, Castle Stuart or Cabot Cliffs, such holes leave the golfer wanting more – not less! In 2006 eighteen was a half par on the hard side. In fairness to Nicklaus Design, Nicklaus always intended the low tee just off the seventeenth green for regular play but over time, a high tee (as in 100 feet (!) higher in elevation and only reached by cart) became the more popular. Though sharply downhill, the hole played longer than Nicklaus originally envisaged from the upper tee. After Chris Johnson acquired Dismal River in 2009, he brought Nicklaus Design in to review the bully finisher. Wisely, the green was pulled forward ~60 yards. Triples can still be had, but so too can eagles and flocks of birdies.

Nearly 200 yards in length, the largest hazard on the course hugs the left side of the eighteenth fairway and provides a distinctive exclamation point upon which to end the course. Much of the sandy blow out was there and this natural attribute leaves for shame the contrived features found on so many made for television modern courses.

As seen from high above on the right, holes positioned in front are tough to approach, especially downwind. A false front is just a few paces from this hole location, yet above the flag is three putt territory on the sharply sloped green. Finesse, as opposed to brute power, now plays a crucial role in the final outcome.

Great sites for golf come along rarely, and when they do, they offer great opportunity and great peril. Should the architect come up short and not produce a course of lasting merit, he most surely fails the property, the owner and his profession. So it is, but the rare modern architect blessed with great land accepts such risk in the firm belief that he will triumph by creating something extraordinary – that’s exactly what happened here, if not at first then surely within its scant first few years.

Even better for the members, those rolling dunes and the area near the Dismal River that Nicklaus Design eschewed for the chance to work in the choppier stuff was made into a course by Tom Doak and his team in 2013. Since the two sites are wildly different (Doak’s more graceful, Nicklaus’ more rugged), so are the courses. Indeed, this author has never seen two courses at a private club so different and yet so complimentary to their respective sites. Though no ocean is present, the luxury of two entirely different top-drawer courses is hard to match.

The End