One of the early champions of the Coore and Crenshaw masterpiece at the Sand Hills Club, designer Tom Doak once described the rolling duneland of the Nebraska sandhills as, “no less than one of the great wonders of the golf world”. It must have been a career highlight, therefore, when Doak was given the opportunity to leave his own design legacy through this remote, untouched section of central United States.
-- This review of Dismal River appears in the new edition of Planet Golf USA (2020) --
The Dismal River Golf Club was established in 2006, with the opening of its Jack Nicklaus–designed White Course. An hour’s winding drive from Sand Hills, as the crow flies the club is actually less than eight miles removed from that modern marvel. It was founded on a similar premise; to provide high-end private club golfers with an exclusive retreat away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. For any club like that to succeed, the golf needs to be world-class and although the Nicklaus course shared sand dunes and a zipcode with Sand Hills, it failed to win the same sort of critical acclaim.
The White Course has been modified since opening and is much more impressive when compared to other Nicklaus courses, than to esteemed neighbors like Sand Hills. Regardless, when the decision was made by developers to add a second course at Dismal River, it was clear they needed to impress the critics and to create something more sympathetic to the landscape. They needed a genuine minimalist with genuine commercial appeal. They needed Tom Doak.
Doak’s course at Dismal opened in 2013, and as much as one would like to compare it to the Coore and Crenshaw creation, the truth is they are very different. For a start, the routing is less intimate here, with the early holes backtracking a little on each other and the 18th not returning to anywhere near the 1st tee. As a designer, Doak is unafraid to take chances, yet in some ways this was his most daring routing. It was born of a desire to finish alongside the Dismal River, and a giant sand bluff that towers directly above the water and gives the layout a physical full stop, in terms of usable land. This is where the course differs most from Sand Hills, which has that endless, rolling feel and sense that the holes could be arranged anywhere. The opening eight-hole loop here has that same feeling, but the back 10 are very much confined to the valley beside the river.
As one would expect of a Tom Doak course on sand, the design and shaping is strategically sound and quite sophisticated. With the exception of the pushed-up greens, most are heavily contoured but relatively straightforward to pitch and chip around. The variety of targets, whether on natural saddles or crests, against hill shoulders or down in dells, is impressive. The chunky bunker edges are another feature, and blend nicely with the landscape to provide for some attractive sightlines. Like all good courses, though, it’s ultimately about great holes and there are a number here than stand out for special mention.
On the opening nine, better holes include the likes of the mid-length 4th, with its wild drive, wild approach and wild green site, and the two cross-valley par threes, the 3rd onto a broad ledge and the 5th dramatically up and into an oblique swale. The undulating par five 8th is another glorious hole. Less effective are consecutive par fours at the 6th and 7th. The conservative play seems your only sensible option on the shorter 6th, while the opposite is true on the 7th, where unless able to smash a driver across a bunkered dune, you are left an almost impossible approach uphill and into a particularly nasty green.
Moving into the northern section, and the finishing holes nearest the river are exceptional and the clear back nine standouts. The 16th is an exquisite par three, followed by a quirky sidehill hole with a blind drive and a strong closing par four that tiptoes along the valley floor. Although the driveable 15th lacks strategic options for shorter hitters, the rest of the two-shot holes across the inward side are very sound.
What Sand Hills did for this part of Nebraska was open the eyes of the golfing world to the prospects of inland dunes and the joy of linkslike golf away from the sea. It also promoted the false promise of remote golf, and the notion that simply building a course out here would attract a sustainable membership. Golfers are a little more discerning than we sometimes give them credit, as clubs like Dismal River quickly found. It wasn’t until the opening of the Red Course that Dismal was able to differentiate itself from 18-hole competitors in the general area, and offer the sort of quality golfing product needed to attract a mature, passionate membership.
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