It has been almost 90 years since Dr. Alister MacKenzie the architect of Augusta National, Cypress Point and Royal Melbourne set down his now famous 13 principles for creating an ideal golf course. The Doc's seventh commandment states: "The course should have beautiful surroundings, and all the artificial features should have so natural an appearance that a stranger is unable to distinguish them from nature itself."
Several modern clubs meet this criteria, notably Pacific Dunes in Oregon and Friar's Head in New York. But by the consensus of Golf Magazine's World Top 100 Course Ranking Panel, the course that best rises to the standard set by MacKenzie sits in Mullen, Neb., miles from anywhere. The greatest course of the past half-century is Sand Hills Golf Club.
Currently ranked No. 8 in the U.S. and No. 11 in the world, Sand Hills is a private 1994 creation of architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw. Almost as soon as it opened Sand Hills ushered in two trends that have flourished since: minimalist course design, and the Field of Dreams theory, which holds that if you build a truly great golf course, people will come see it, no matter how remote the location.
The minimalist movement in golf course architecture is the practice of "least disturbance," a throwback to the ancient Scottish principle of using the land as you found it. In the construction of Sand Hills, less than 3,000 cubic yards of material was moved. Compare that to the more than one million cubic yards dislodged at most top modern layouts. Plus, only $1.2 million was spent to build the course. Shadow Creek, hewn from the barren desert of Las Vegas five years earlier, cost $40 million.
Of course, Coore and Crenshaw had terrain that was a lot more engaging. By the spring of 1993, two years into their site visits, the pair had discovered 130 possible golf holes on the property. According to architect Tom Doak, the Sand Hills site was "so perfect that they moved dirt in spoonfuls to create greens and tees, and in fact so perfect that they didn't even have to contour half the greens. This course was, literally, already there. It cost practically nothing to physically build it."
The utter lack of bells and whistles no lakes, no trees, no flowers and barely any signage stood in stark contrast to the mega-designs of the day. At Sand Hills, golf was the star. As with the classic links courses across the Atlantic, the Coore-Crenshaw team, along with developer Dick Youngscap, felt that the necessary ingredients for great golf were firm turf, tons of sand and relentless wind. All that was missing was an ocean, but it didn't matter. In landlocked Nebraska, the formula worked perfectly.
The Field of Dreams concept has an irresistible allure, especially for ambitious developers. Sand Hills is located in Mullen (pop. 497), and is more than 60 miles from the nearest commercial airport, in North Platte. The closest major city is Denver, and that's more than 350 miles away. How do you sell national memberships to a club this remote? Simple. Create a course so pure, so varied in its shot demands and so stunning in its aesthetics that serious golfers will take to trains, planes and automobiles and any other means necessary to get here.
Some of the most impressive, isolated courses built since Sand Hills' debut surely owe their existence to the success of this remote masterpiece, among them Ballyneal in Colorado, South Dakota's Sutton Bay, Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers in New Zealand, Australia's Barnbougle Dunes, and the finest golf destination in America: Bandon Dunes Resort in Oregon.
From the heaving terrain, to the firm, fescue fairways, to the natural "blowout" bunkers in the dunes, to the boldly contoured green complexes that allow for endless variety in chipping and putting, Sand Hills is the most natural site for golf in the U.S. Throw in the persistent breezes and the endless solitude that defines westcentral Nebraska, and you have a golf experience that is second to none.
The tone is set with the 550-yard, par-5 opening hole. The elevated tee takes in a wide, rumpled fairway, bunkers that appear to have evolved rather than been designed, and a green that's tucked snugly into an amphitheater. Almost 10 years ago, Golf Magazine declared the 285-yard, par-4 seventh to be one of the world's Top 100 holes. Credit Coore and Crenshaw for their restraint in building such a petite two-shotter on this massive 8,000-acre property. They had sufficient room to stretch the hole to 485 yards, but wisely went the shorter route. Factoring in the wind, the terrain and a massive bunker etched into a slope short and left of the elevated green, a classic risk/reward dilemma presents itself: go for the green and you have a chance at eagle glory; miss your target and disaster looms.
The 150-yard 17th is the final jewel in a brilliant quartet of par-3s. The tiny, 3,200- square-foot green is encircled by steeplipped bunkers and native grasses, the only such forced carry on the course. Since almost every other green is accessible via a low runup shot, the contrast is memorable.
Sand Hills is difficult to get to and even more difficult to get on. However, the layout's virtues and influence can't be underestimated. This is the greatest course of the last 50 years.