Dismal River, Tom Doak further the mystique of golf in the Sandhills

By Brandon TuckerOctober 2, 2012, 11:09 pm

MULLEN, Neb. – According to the book 'True Links' by George Peper and Malcolm Campbell, there are only four true links courses in the United States, and by definition, they're all on the ocean. But if you want to find the next closest thing to playing authentic links golf in this country, a trip about as far as you can get from our oceans will reveal just that.

It started with the private Sand Hills Golf Club near Mullen, Neb., a Bill Coore-Ben Crenshaw design that opened in 1995 to wide acclaim. Right next door, as the crow flies, is Dismal River Club, which features one of the most atypical Jack Nicklaus designs you'll ever play. Soon, there will be another course at Dismal River, this one designed by someone who's had a little success routing courses through sand dunes: Tom Doak.

This isn't Doak's first foray in the region. A little more than three hours west by car, in the northeast corner of Colorado is Ballyneal Golf & Hunt Club, an American top-50 course that measures up in every way to Doak's more famous and highly lauded Pacific Dunes, except, of course, there is no ocean. While Ballyneal isn't a links course, it is a links experience in almost every sense. Doak routed this course through the sandy chop hills the same way they did in Scotland and Ireland centuries ago. Throw in a little wind and imagination and you've got it, bouncing the ball off the naturally occurring contours, whether they be on the fairways or the greens. Ballyneal is also walking only, which adds to the mystique.

Those who have played Ballyneal rave about it. One of my contemporaries said it was the purest golf experience in his life, and I can't quibble with that assessment. If you loves links golf, you'll agree. It's a special place.

The Doak Course at Dismal River, which should be ready for play by mid-summer next year (members can actually play the front nine right now), will also be special, but it's completely different. Like Ballyneal, it still follows the Doak philosophy of building it where it lies.

Mullen, Nebraska: A remote, unlikely golf mecca


The Nicklaus Course at Dismal River

If you're not familiar with the Sandhills region of Nebraska, it's harsh and remote – and charming. The nearest town, Mullen, has a population of 509. It has one gas station, a café and place to grab a burger and ice cream. If the town has any ties to the great golf a few miles away, there's little evidence and certainly no signs.

A little more than hour to the south is North Platte, Neb., where you can catch a puddle jumper or private jet if you don't feel like making the 6 ½-hour drive from Denver or Omaha, Neb. It's also where the legendary Buffalo Bill Cody made his home for much of his life. In fact, the Sandhills are still littered with arrowheads and plenty of other artifacts from the Wild West.

'The Sandhills is almost a spiritual place,' said Chris Johnston, the majority owner and CEO of Dismal River.

It's the perfect place to build a golf course. Like the coastal regions of Scotland and Ireland, the deep sand base makes it easy to carve out golf holes and perhaps even easier to grow grass. The sand base is what most courses use on their greens, so you can imagine what it's like to have it through the entire golf course.

It's also what makes it possible to basically have the same firmness and even grasses throughout the course, whether it be on greens or fairways, and why on links courses it's not uncommon to putt from 100 feet or more off the green.

The new Doak Course at Dismal River, however, doesn't quite stick to that model. While the fairways are fescue, the greens are bentgrass, but you can still putt from well off the green when the shot calls for it , or play any other number of options around this 7,000-yard layout.

Doak's Dismal River plan edges out Tiger Woods

Interestingly enough, Doak's Renaissance Golf design firm wasn't the only candidate for the job. Another big name was also considered – Tiger Woods.

Johnston said Woods' team presented a terrific design, but Doak, as he often does, went outside the box, or in this case, on the other side of the road, and it was too much too resist.

While Johnston figured the course would be laid out away from Dismal River, Doak had no problem crossing the road that leads to the property and routing most of the back nine along the small spring-fed Dismal River, remarking that many of the world's great golf courses have holes that cross roads. The ninth hole, in fact, does just that, but given the amount of traffic, both on the golf courses and on the road, it's hardly a problem.

It also means that the back nine and front nine are completely different. The front is in the Sandhills, which has much of those links characteristics we talked about earlier. The back nine plays along and near a valley with more lush vegetation and the backdrop of Big and Little Horseshoe, two uniquely shaped hills that define this course.

Doak, of course, moved very little earth. The course pretty much follows the contours of the land. Many of the tee boxes and bunkers were already there, created by Mother Mature and nurtured by man. There are long par 4s, drivable par 4s, a 250-yard par 3 and a few blind shots.

'This is more than a golf course,' Johnston said. 'I think it's supposed to bring out some emotion.'

The Nicklaus Course at Dismal River

Best of all, this course is the perfect complement the already existing course there, the 7,433-yard Nicklaus Signature Course. It's unlike any other Nicklaus Course in the world, combining design elements from many different styles, including links golf. There's even a bunker in the middle of one green, but it's nothing like Riviera.

The perfect A-1/A-4 bentgrass greens have some interesting contours, some of which were tweaked by Nicklaus after construction. Great views abound from many points on the golf course. And the course will certainly keep your interest with no two holes remotely alike.

How to play Dismal River and Ballyneal

As a one-two punch, the courses at Dismal River will be hard to beat, even from its outstanding neighbors, nearby Sand Hills and Colorado's Ballyneal. The club also has an expansive, rustic clubhouse with incredible views of the golf courses, Sand Hills and the Dismal River from its magnificent deck and outdoor fire pit.

And while Dismal River and Ballyneal are private clubs, they're not totally inaccessible to outside play (Sand Hills is much tougher). Both clubs are still trying to build membership, so they're open to outsiders through petition, which means writing a letter or making a phone call to set up a round. If you belong to a private club, an endorsement from your pro will help.

Dismal River has some 78 beds; more intimate Ballyneal accommodates less than half of that number. Both offer fine dining in a casual atmosphere (the pork chop at Dismal River is the best I've ever tasted, and Ballyneal has fabulous pork green chile soup). Rooms and green fees for guests at both Dismal River and Ballyneal start in the $200 range for each, all well worth it for a trip you'd never forget.

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Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff

By Jason CrookJanuary 22, 2018, 9:45 pm

Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.

While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.

The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.

So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.

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Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over

By Randall MellJanuary 22, 2018, 9:36 pm

The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.

As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.

Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.

And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.

And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.

McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.

The Ryder Cup topped his list.

Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.

When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.

“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.

Or similar assertions from TV analysts.

“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”

European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.

And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.

The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.

And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.

Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.

The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.

The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.

More bulletin board material, too.

Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.

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Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions

By Rex HoggardJanuary 22, 2018, 9:14 pm

Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.

The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.

It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.

The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”

Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.

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Ortiz leads LAAC through 54; Niemann, Gana one back

By Nick MentaJanuary 22, 2018, 8:15 pm

Mexico's Alvaro Ortiz shot a 1-under 70 Monday to take the 54-hole lead at the Latin America Amateur Championship in Chile.

At 4 under for the week, he leads by one over over Argentina's Jaime Lopez Rivarola, Chile's Toto Gana and Joaquin Niemann, and Guatemala's Dnaiel Gurtner.

Ortiz is the younger brother of three-time Web.com winner Carlos. Alvaro, a senior at Arkansas, finished tied for third at the LAAC in 2016 and lost in a three-way playoff last year that included Niemann and Gana, the champion.

Ortiz shared the 54-hole lead with Gana last year and they will once again play in the final group on Tuesday, along with Gurtner, a redshirt junior at TCU.

“Literally, I've been thinking about [winning] all year long," Ortiz said Monday. "Yes, I am a very emotional player, but tomorrow I want to go out calm and with a lot of patience. I don't want the emotions to get the better of me. What I've learned this past year, especially in the tournaments I’ve played for my university, is that I have become more mature and that I have learned how to control myself on the inside on the golf course.”

In the group behind, Niemann is the top-ranked amateur in the world who is poised to turn professional, unless of course he walks away with the title.

“I feel a lot of motivation at the moment, especially because I am the only player in the field that shot seven under (during the second round), and I am actually just one shot off the lead," he said. "So I believe that tomorrow I can shoot another very low round."

Tuesday's winner will earn an invitation to this year's Masters and exemptions into the The Amateur Championship, the U.S. Amateur, sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open, and final qualifying for The Open.