The Greatest Course of the Last 50 Years – Sand Hills

August 23, 2009

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.