The golden bear has become an endangered species in his native habitat: the golf course. It has become increasingly rare to see Jack Nicklaus play, whether in tournaments or at course openings. Now 71, Nicklaus tees it up primarily for pleasure, and one of the courses that he looks forward to visiting regularly is his masterpiece in the heart of the Nebraska Sand Hills, the Dismal River Golf Club.
In addition to being the course designer, Nicklaus is a close friend of former LPGA commissioner Charlie Mechem, who is part of an ownership group headed by the father-son team of Richard and Chris Johnston. As the majority owner, the younger Johnston runs the club’s operations with Director of Golf Greg Dennis. Johnston and Dennis—along with the “Dismal Dogs,” a pair of Bernese Mountain dogs named Dizzy and General Hooker—enthusiastically greet visitors, no matter how many majors they have won. “We treat everyone as if they were guests of our home,” says Johnston.
Prospective members are always welcome, and visitors especially appreciate the hospitality considering Dismal River’s remote location—a little more than an hour from North Platte and at the end of a one-lane road that winds for 17 miles from mile marker 64 on Route 97. (In his directions, Dennis implores: “Don’t give up!”)
Waiting at the clubhouse are drinks, a hearty meal and a fire pit, followed by a night in one of four comfortable cabins or 36 spacious rooms overlooking the namesake river. In the morning, guests are ready to tackle the epic course that Nicklaus routed over and between massive dunes.
Dismal River sits on 3,000 acres, and the immense size of the property is evident during the ride from the clubhouse to the first tee, a mile away. Driving through the dunes, some of which are more than 100 feet tall, whets the appetite for a unique experience: golf in the Sand Hills.
This area’s wild, pure golf is just 15 years old, and Dismal River certainly owes much to Sand Hills Golf Club, just six miles away. But despite their proximity, Dismal River and Sand Hills represent complementary, rather than comparable, golf experiences. On a site with much larger landforms, Dismal River offers a course that is less tamed and more rugged than its predecessor.
Big, well-designed holes like the 480-yard 7th and the 587-yard 12th are in ideal proportion with the grand landscape. In addition to possessing visually appealing features like blowout bunkers, ragged edges and plenty of elevation changes, the holes offer a chance to play the kind of imaginative golf that attracts golf purists. Players must factor in the wind as well as the ground game, making the course a suitable substitute for a links-golf experience.
For many, Dismal’s location is not a liability but a major asset. For a surprisingly modest investment, new members have the opportunity to get away from it all while being with friends and family and teeing it up with like-minded souls who love and respect the game.
Nicklaus has returned to make several tweaks, and his latest change has made the finishing hole even stronger. A new green has shortened the hole from 591 to 520 yards, allowing every player to hit from an elevated tee atop a large dune down to the fairway, which sits 100 feet below.
The tee offers a great perspective of the huge scale of the Nebraska dunescape, upon which the club is considering the building of a second course. On another hill overlooking the new 18th green, Jack’s Shack offers post-round refreshments, as well as panoramic reminders of both the seemingly endless Sand Hills and the pure, rewarding golf available in the heartland of America.