Tuesday 11 June 2013

Sand Hills Golf Club (Front Nine)

Last year I was fortunate to play Sand Hills Golf Club in the Nebraska Sandhills, a course designed by the talented team of Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw.  The golf course is remote, residing 515 kilometres from both Denver to the west, and Omaha to the east, meaning those venturing to the course by means other than private plane endure a long car ride full of great anticipation.  I had seen hundreds of photographs of the golf course beforehand, but once I turned onto Highway 97 in Valentine, Nebraska, I began to see the magical landscape of the Nebarska Sandhills unfold before me.

Sand Hills Golf Club is an important golf course in the evolution of golf course architecture.  When in opened in 1995, it ushered in a second Golden Age of golf course design, an era that has been described as 'the age of minimalism'.  The term is a bit misleading because while golf architects given the label minimalist strive to find rather than build golf holes, they are not shy about moving dirt when the landscape is not conducive to a less invasive approach.  The goal is to make that work melt into the existing landscape, so that golfers would be hard-pressed to pick out where the landscape had been manipulated.  Sand Hills was built for less than $1 million (including irrigation), an astonishing compliment to the perfect nature of the soil and terrain for golf.  In fact, a healthy majority of the greens were uncovered in the following manner; mow existing vegetation to ground level, till to a depth of 6 inches, complete minor finish grading with a small power rake, apply seed, fertilizer and water.  Average cost per green was approximately $300!  While every golf architect relishes a site such as Sand Hills, which comprised over 8,000 acres, the real difficulty lies not in finding golf holes, but finding a contiguous eighteen that flow together seamlessly and require little in terms of earthwork.  In fact, even with such a massive acreage at their disposal, Coore & Crenshaw had to ask Dick Youngscap for more land to complete their ideal routing.  A map that hangs in the clubhouse illustrates the 130 holes the architectural duo found while exploring the property around the current course.  While Coore & Crenshaw had to make many difficult decisions during the routing process that meant some brilliant holes were not included, that is were the skill of the golf architect lies, in finding the best eighteen and seeing the course as a single unit and not eighteen individual pieces.

The clubhouse and cabins are located in a valley along the Dismal River, while the golf course sits nearly a mile away on the other side of a high ridge, therefore, the only bit of civilization to be seen from the golf course is Ben's Porch, the halfway house at the turn.  The course features very wide fairways to accommodate play in the strong prairie winds that frequent this part of the country.  These strong winds have created some of the most unique and beautiful features on the course, the blowout bunkers, formed by wind erosion after the existing vegetation had been disturbed by cattle.  The greens are generally flatter than I would have imagined, especially after playing at neighbouring Dismal River (Nicklaus) previously, again, a design decision made in due consideration of the ever-present wind.  The surrounds are mow tight to allow players to option of running the ball along the ground, a necessity in strong winds and provide plenty of decisions for golfers attempting to recover from errant approaches.  The golf course is a very manageable walk, featuring short distances between greens and tees, adding to the peaceful nature of the experience.

The opening tee shot asks players to flirt with the left hand side fairway bunker if they want to try and reach the par five in two shots.
The first green sits in a saddle between dunes, protected by deep bunkers and a false front.
The tee shot at No. 2 is nearly blind to a fairway that pinches in at the landing area, an intimidating start.
The skyline second green is the most heavily contoured on the course, featuring a strong false front and high right side that demands deftly played approaches and exciting putts.
The long par three third features a bold shoulder that protrudes into the left side of the green, enabling running shots to funnel onto the green.
The long fourth plays downhill before playing up to a plateau green.  Note the roof of the maintenance building in the distance, a shame it couldn't have been moved to hid it from view.
The approach to No. 4 demands accuracy as this 30 foot deep blowout bunker guards the left side and short grass surrounds repel shots to the right of the green.
The very back tee on No. 5 plays over the preceding green.  Drives veering into the safer left side of the fairway (nearer the central bunker), face an angled and obscured approach.
The subtle nature of the fifth green is complicated by a spine running through it.
The fairway is hidden at the par three sixth, but plenty of room exists for a low running approach to be hit under the wind.
The sixth green is dominated by a bowl in the front left corner of the green.
The drivable par four seventh is tempting, although a more prudent play is nearer the fairway bunkers right, leaving a straight forward pitch up the length and slope of the green.
From left of No. 7 green, we can see how playing across the slope from either side is more complicated than an approach played into the slope, especially to a hole cut in the narrow back section.

Back-to-back short par fours provide for a few birdie chances, here the drive on No. 8 plays into a banked fairway for those laying back.
The preferred side of the fairway is best determined by the hole location, the above picture illustrating a tougher approach than one that hugged the right side fairway bunkers.
The front side ends with a dogleg right par four that in certain wind conditions asks you to carry further right than you may feel comfortable in order to shorten the approach shot.  
The fairway features some nice rolling terrain and generous width but is not as inspiring as the rest of the holes on the front nine, perhaps owing to the requisite to have two loops of nine holes.
The back nine and closing comments will be posted in the next few days.

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