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.