Modern Classics: Sand Hills

Kudos to the course that cleared the way for what we think of as architecture today

Some twenty-five years later, I still remember the sense of wonder that overcame me when I first saw Sand Hills. The drive out there, six hours from Omaha, was mesmerizing, especially the last hour through the namesake Sand Hills—19,000 square miles of native grassland, the largest such stand of untouched rolling terrain in North America.

The journey was not some unfortunate impediment that violated the standard marketing mantra of “location, location.” The path to Mullen, Neb., was part of the experience that made the golf course so magical.

Sand Hills
18th hole (photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

At a period when every new course seemed to be touted for its championship quality and telegenic features, here was the simplest possible presentation, devoid of trees, water, out-of-bounds, or signature holes. No palatial clubhouse towered over the 18th green. All the structural elements to the club—reception, pro shop, restaurant, bar, and overnight cabins—sat a mile away, overlooking the appropriately named Dismal River.

The team led by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw had teased the holes out of the wind-blown land, assembling a walkable composition from among 137 potential holes they uncovered on the site. The trick was connecting them across existing contours while using native blowouts for bunkers and natural shelves for green sites. The same could be said for the fairways; they needed to occupy settled ground and not look or feel as if they had been mechanically fabricated by a bulldozer.

Sand Hills cost only $1.1 million, three quarters of it for the irrigation system. They moved only 5,000 cubic yards.

Sand Hills
11th hole (photo by L.C. Lambrecht)

There was a naturalness to the flow that might have been disarming had the landforms not been so compelling. Inspiration came from some classic-era courses. The short, par-four 7th, only 283 yards from the back, evoked the 9th at Cypress Point. The 150-yard, par-three 17th felt a lot like something out of Prairie Dunes.

But there was a power and grandeur to these holes that was entirely site specific. You got that sense from the very first hole, a 549-yard par five that revealed everything from afar but got more intense in terms of contours as you progressed from tee to green. There were times when you were not quite certain of what lay ahead, such as the fallaway slope of a fairway or section of a green. The architects were not afraid to rely upon some blindness as a classic design trick.

Every once in a while they let the site overtake things, like at the long, sinewy 16th hole, 612 yards from what seems like the highest point for miles around. A diagonal array of bunkers on the inside left provides perfect strategic guidance; bite off what you can handle or play safely out right. The problem is judging distances on a three-dimensional scale of this order, compounded by winds that can blow so hard the scorecard—par 71, stretching to 7,089 yards—dispenses with slope and rating because conditions can vary so dramatically from day to day.

Also, in the face of the ambient winds, the ball rolled with such intensity across the fescue fairways and surrounds that the ground game became something of a semi-hazard.

Sand Hills validated the virtues of classical links design and showed its aptness in the middle of landlocked country. Along the way it made celebrities of its architects and paved the way for a new generation of low-impact design as would be practiced by Tom Doak, Gil Hanse, David McLay Kidd, Mike DeVries, and others. Without the financial and critical success of Sand Hills—it appeared at or near the top of every national ratings list the moment it was eligible—there would have been no Bandon Dunes, Ballyneal, Streamsong, Sand Valley, Barnbougle, or Cabot Links.