Denver is 262 miles to the west, Omaha 263 miles to the east. In between is a place roamed by cowboys, where cars are forced to the side of the road by cattle drives.
Its a lonely, desolate landscape perhaps best known as the vast expanse where media mogul Ted Turner established a 450-square-mile reserve thats home to more than 9,000 buffalo.
But if things go according to Jack Nicklaus plan, the area will become a premier golf destination. His vision is for highway 97 to become a trail connecting the acclaimed Sand Hills Club with two new projects, the Dismal River Club and the Prairie Club.
Its so stark, its beautiful, Nicklaus said. If youre not a golfer, then you think theres nothing there. If you are a golfer, you look at the way the land rolls, you picture the grass and high fescues, and you say, Man, this is neat.
Ben Crenshaw was the first golf architect drawn here. His Sand Hills Club, which opened in 1995, ranks No. 12 on Golf Digests list of 100 Greatest American Golf Courses and is No. 1 among those built after 1960.
Nicklaus first visited the area two years ago when he signed on with four Denver businessmen to design Dismal River Club, which is scheduled to open next June.
About 60 miles north, near the town of Valentine, Prairie Club is in the planning stages on land owned and developed by retired surgeon Cleve Trimble. Gil Hanse is designing and building the course, which has a scheduled opening in May 2007.
If you had a city of a million people in the middle of the Sandhills, this would be the golf mecca of the world, in my opinion, said Chris Cochran, senior design associate for Florida-based Nicklaus Design.
The fact is, these courses are in the middle of the Sandhills, which arent far from the middle of nowhere.
Thats the beauty of it, Trimble said.
I see this part of the United States becoming a remote destination for high-quality golf, especially with the likelihood that terrorism is never going to abate in our lifetime, he said. The hundreds of thousands of people who seek a pure golf experience who now to go the British Isles are going to look for something safe and central.
Sand Hills Club was the creation of Dick Youngscap, a Nebraska golf developer who began laying the groundwork for his remote course in 1990. Construction on the Nicklaus course is underway only 6 miles to the west.
Youngscap doesnt accuse Nicklaus of horning in on his enterprise.
Its not like were short of room up here, Youngscap said.
Nicklaus credits Youngscap and Crenshaw for being the risk-takers in Sandhills golf.
Because Sand Hills Club became popular, adding other golf courses makes it more of a destination, Nicklaus said. The only thing Dismal River will do to Sand Hills is make it more popular. Because of Sand Hills, ours will be a popular place to play.
The Sand Hills Club boasts a national membership, and Dismal River and Prairie Club plan for the same. The courses are for the well-heeled, with a charter membership at Dismal River costing $50,000. Trimble hasnt set prices for Prairie Club.
Many Dismal River patrons will fly by private jet into North Platte, 60 miles south, and make the final leg of the journey by helicopter. High-end lodging, spas and other amenities are planned for the new courses.
The emergence of golf brings some diversity to an economy tied to ranching in Hooker County, population 737.
Locals are far more likely to work at the courses than play them. Many of the 100 people who applied for construction jobs at Dismal River or to work at the course when it is completed are from the area, course superintendent Kyle Jacobsen said.
Donna Reynolds, who is leaving her job of 25 years at Mackes Deli Corner in Mullen to become Dismal Rivers head cook, said a lot of people in the area need jobs and that the courses provide an economic boon.
Id rather see the golf courses go in than Ted Turner buying some more land out here, she said.
The courses are relatively cheap to build, as is the land on which they sit.
Bill Martin of Denver, one of Dismal Rivers owners, said his group paid $250 an acre in 2003. Trimble, according to Cherry County records, paid less than $75 an acre when he bought his land in 1986.
Minimal earth movement is required because of the natural golf landscape, Cochran said. For the fairways, reseeding is done after native prairie grasses are scraped off. The rough is left as it is.
Even the sand traps are natural. They are created out of blowouts'sandy depressions formed by the wind and the wear and tear caused by cattle'and are groomed to suit hole designs.
The sandy soil means there are no serious drainage issues, Cochran said. All courses tap into irrigation groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer, which sits under the Sandhills.
Cochran said its the best golf land he has encountered in 21 years of course construction.
All you have to do is not mess it up, he said.
Nicklaus, who said the area reminds him of the Scottish Highlands, said there are thousands of potential holes in the Sandhills.
You have to find the 18 you want to use, he said. You have an excuse to play golf no matter which way you look.
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