Monday 8 April 2013

Dismal River Club (Part 1)

Last June, I headed down to Nebraska in order to play in a tournament dubbed "The 5th Major" at the Dismal River Club in Mullen.  The tournament was organized by Eric Smith, who as a member of the esteemed discussion group, filled the brackets of the match play event with a bunch of golf architecture enthusiasts.  Not surprisingly, our meal time conversations tended to focus on the architectural minutiae of Dismal River and the many other courses discussed by the well travelled group.  It was great.  The club staff, including hardworking CEO Chris Johnston, did an amazing job at making us feel welcome, treating us to exceptional food, cold beer and comfortable lodgings.  Again, everything was great.  The tournament ran very smoothly, and I was fortunate to share second place along with my partner Matt Bosela from St. Catherines, Ontario - the victims of a net eagle on the 4th playoff hole.  My partner made life easier on me by constantly bisecting the fairway with solid drives.  It was a great format, and I was pleased that both of us contributed by holing lots of putts, although Matt deserves extra credit for the 110 footer holed on No. 16!!
The 60-man field of the 2012 "5th Major" with the rustic clubhouse in the background. (Photo: Eric Smith)
Dismal River Club was designed by Jack Nicklaus, and was completed shortly after his work at Sebonack on Long Island which was done in collaboration with Tom Doak.  It is clear that that experience influenced Nicklaus and his crew, and Dismal River represents a leap outside of the traditional Nicklaus design box.  The course is situated in the Nebraska Sandhills which is as perfect golf terrain as you could find in North America, sandy soil and rolling terrain.  The golf course is rugged, with natural looking bunkers, tall fescue roughs and heavily contoured green contours all in keeping with the surrounding landscape.  Most greens feature a combination of backstops and side banks which can be used to funnel balls close to the hole, and provide a plethora of option when attempting recovery shots around the green. The holes are routed through very hilly property and at times, tackle some rather bold terrain, meaning sometimes only slightly missed shots are heavily penalized while in other spots, indifferent shots can end up side-by-side with those well executed.  The front nine is relatively compact while the back nine runs in a big loop back to Jack's Shack - the perfect spot to grab lunch and some respite from the ever-present prairie sun and wind.  The clubhouse is located nearly 2.5 kilometres from the 1st tee and 18th green, with a practice green and tee located at the clubhouse, and simpler warm-up green and tee at the course.  I regret not walking the course, but expect that it would provide an excellent workout.  The real detriment to walking would be the distance between greens and tees, which in a few spots are fairly long.  Perhaps it is more noticeable at Dismal River because the closest tee to the previous green is frequently the 7,500+ yard tees which are seldom used, therefore most of us need to hike an additional 30-40 yards to the regular tees.

The main practice range, notice the heaving mound in the middle of the tee (mid-picture), allowing players to practice the variety of stances they will encounter on the golf course.
When Dismal River Club opened, it received plenty of criticism (overly contoured greens, heavily irrigated rough, too narrow in spots) and has since been toned down in a number of spots by Nicklaus.  Personally, I found the course to be extremely fun, an ideal spot to get together with a group of friends for a weekend of golf.  There are many bowls throughout the course that can lead to indifferent shots ending up in the middle of the fairway or close to the pin.  Perhaps this effect is slightly overdone, but recognizing that Dismal River is a weekend retreat and not a PGA Tour venue, it enhances the experience rather than detracts by ratcheting up the "fun factor".  

Dismal River Club is opening a second course in 2013, designed by Tom Doak who was on-site during our weekend and gave the assembled group a tour of the course under construction.  One of his associates, Brian Schneider spoke to group while taking a break from shaping the 17th green.  It was a great to meet Tom and learn about his design process,  a positive experience that will influence me in the future.  I can't wait to get back to Dismal River Club to play the new course, which is sure to be another masterpiece, but I also look forward to getting re-acquanited with Nicklaus' course.  In tandem, these two courses will present two very different playing experiences, not only due to the differing design philosophies of the architects, but also because of the unique setting where each course was built.  The future of Dismal River Club looks bright.
An aggressive opening drive over the left bunker at the corner will gain substantial yards, ending in a bowl leaving a short approach.
The trade-off being the approach is visible from above the bowl, but blind from within.  The green itself is a punchbowl, funnelling shots closer to the hole.
The drive at No. 2 plays uphill and diagonally into this fairway.  While the pin is visible to the right, the ideal line here is over the fairway bunker 65 yards short of the green, using a big slope short to run the ball onto the green.
No. 3 is a straightforward par three, but distance control is important as internal contours aren't readily apparent from the tee.  Note the wonderful natural blowout bunkers in the distance, and the cattle which outnumber golfers.
The drive at No. 4 must thread itself between fescue right and waste area left to have a chance to reach the par five in two, although that does not guarantee a birdie as the heavily sloped green is a challenge.
A polarizing hole, that slope is as steep as it looks!!  The very back tee at No. 5 is from much further left of this angle and longer, and from there not my cup of tea.
The short par four sixth requires a long-iron into the heaving fairway, before an uphill approach into a green located artfully in a saddle. 
Another blind, punchbowl green at No. 6 creates anticipation as golfers ascend the hill to the green to see whether their approach is as close as they hoped. 
The reverse-camber nature of the seventh fairway makes hugging the inside bunkers with the drive difficult.
The approach into No. 7 must contend with two menacing bunkers right, but a generous bank left of the green can be used for those playing from further away.  Beware of leaving it short!!
The green at the drivable eighth is just visible left of the large ridge right.  Laying-up left of the huge waste area is safer, but the approach plays uphill into a shallow target to a green with plenty of back-to-front slope.
The line from the 9th tee is not apparent and requires a confident swing.  A deep natural blowout resides left and must be avoided and most players hedge right from the tee here (the club has thankfully cut down the fescue right, as it is blind from the tee making finding the ball more difficult).
The approach into the par 5 ninth requires a running approach which must flirt with the right side bunkers on the high side of the fairway.
No. 10 is a short par three played to a wild, three-tiered green featuring a central bunker.  This would be the type of green complex I'de build in my backyard, it is just plain fun.
From behind the 10th green, this back tier is accessible from both the lower front right and higher front left sections.  Add the side banks and options for putting and chipping are limitless.


  1. Awesome photos Tyler and great recap. Looking forward to the rest of the back nine pics!

    1. Thanks Matt, the photos of the back nine are up (I actually posted them first so that it would be more seamless on the blog). Hope spring has finally arrived in Southern Ontario, we are still waiting here!! I had already played a few games by this time last year, but I still have 2-3 feet of snow in my front yard as I write.