FOUR TIME ZONES, 5 545 KILOMETRES, 13 STATES, 12 DAYS.
That was my drive across the United States, coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.The highlight was a two-day stop in central Nebraska to play a golf course built in 1995 in one of the most sparsely populated areas of America. Sand Hills is so special that it has been ranked in the top 10 of Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest Courses.
In a state renowned for featureless at terrain and endless elds of corn, the Sandhills region comprises prairie grasslands and thousands of sand dunes, home to half a million beef cattle.The area, 50 000 square kilometres, is a geological anomaly, believed to have been formed at the end of the last ice age when sand was blown into large dunes during a drought.
Sand Hills Golf Club is a private members club situated 21 kilometres from the nearest town, Mullen, which has a population of 554.The course wasn’t so much designed as discovered. Renowned architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore spent almost two years investigating how to route the 18 holes, set within an expansive valley surrounded by dune structures similar in height to those found at the great links of the United Kingdom and Ireland.They initially had a routing map of 136 holes, eventually whittling them down to 18.
Darius Oliver, author of Planet Golf, was so mesmerised by Sand Hills he called it “Arguably the most important American golf course since Augusta National,” and since opening, “singlehandedly lead to a rebirth of classic golf architecture in this country.”
The story of how I got to play Sand Hills began in July 2013 while sitting in a Manhattan hotel lobby reading the New York Times. As part of the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway – the
rst transcontinental roadway in the world – a travel writer had made the journey, which resonated with me. I had previously travelled the West Coast of the US, through Florida and large parts of the East Coast, but was yet to see Middle America. In 2014 I had the opportunity to take a mini-sabbatical from Golf Digest, missing my rst monthly deadline in 10 years to drive across America with an Australian friend. Drew and I spent three days in New York before taking delivery of a BMW X4 to begin our cross-country journey.
The Lincoln Highway was conceived in 1912 by Carl Fisher, an Indiana entrepreneur, and it was America’s
rst national memorial to President Abraham Lincoln and the rst automobile road across the vast nation. It affectionately became known as ‘The Main Street Across America,’ bringing prosperity to hundreds of towns and villages along the way.
This wasn’t a golf trip, but while planning the journey I traced the route on a map and discovered that Sand Hills was just 112km away from North Platte, a town along the Lincoln Highway on Interstate 80. It would be the greatest detour a golfer could ever take. I contacted the club, who in turn contacted Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten to
‘vouch for me.’ Sand Hills is strictly private with very little outside play allowed. Membership quickly topped at 170 – three-quarters of them from outside Nebraska – who can bring up to seven guests at a time and can sponsor a fourball for a one-time visit. There are only 8 000 rounds a year, over a ve-month season which usually ends in October.
▶ FIELD OF DREAMS
In the 1989 fantasy movie Field of Dreams, an Iowa corn farmer played by Kevin Costner hears voices telling him:“If you build it, they will come” – which he did, a baseball diamond cut out of his corn eld, whereupon the 1919 Chicago White Sox team magically appear to play.Although I never met the Nebraskan visionary and developer DickYoungscap, who approved my visit, I suspect he might have had a similar epiphany when 3 200 hectares of prairieland became available to buy in the early ’90s, and he was the only person who imagined it would suit a golf course.
Car travel was a dusty, muddy a air when Fisher hatched his idea for the Lincoln Highway over a century ago.Although the thought of driving more than 5 000km sounds daunting, it never felt like a slog. Interstate 80 is a two-lane dual-highway so, unlike our national highways, you never face oncoming tra c. Shared driving in our comfortable and spacious X4 with SatNav and satellite radio stations saw time pass quickly.We had overnight stops in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), South Bend (Indiana), Chicago (Illinois) and Omaha (Warren Bu et-country in Nebraska) before arriving at Sand Hills.
We didn’t see another car on the last 50km on Route 97 from North Platte. Nor a single house, shop, petrol station or another human being as we sliced through farmland to a golf course that I was beginning to doubt even existed.You have to look carefully for a small wooden sign south of Mullen – which we initially missed – turn left and then drive a few kilometres further, arriving at an understated clubhouse with a full parking lot of golf carts. But there was still no sign of a golf course.
We checked in, booked a table for dinner, and drove a cart with our bags to the modest cabins on top of a hill overlooking the Dismal River.There were no keys for the cabin and a notice tells you not to be alarmed if you hear strange noises at night. Deer often bed down under the structure and wild turkeys roost on the balcony railings. There is no cell phone coverage and only limited WiFi in the clubhouse lobby.
A kilometre from the clubhouse, over a ridge and through a private farm,
we arrived at Ben’s Porch, an outdoor halfway house adjacent to a large, undulating practice putting green – nally signs of golf! I rarely ride in a golf cart unless it’s compulsory, and usually always travel with my own clubs. But the nature of our journey meant we hired clubs, and the heavy bags required a cart – there were no caddies at this remote destination.
From the starter’s cabin your northerly view of the vast landscape sees a few mown strips running in different directions, interrupted with massive rugged bunkers, referred to as ‘blowouts’ (shaped by the wind) as very little earth movement took place during construction. Simple and inexpensive was Crenshaw and Coore’s Sand Hills mantra; holes were designed to accommodate the Nebraskan Plains winds with spacious fairways and target areas to encourage ‘chase-in’ approach shots.The exquisite greens, however, are incredibly quick and diverse in their structure.
2 700KM FOR THIS?
The par 5 rst is the nest opening hole I have ever played. From an elevated tee box – without ball washers, signs or any other objects detracting from the natural beauty of the environment – you face a fairway below that angles away from you,
anked by bunkers and glorious tall native grasses and sun owers.We both found the small platform green in regulation, elevated with a wicked false front, nestled in a natural amphitheatre.
Drew, a low-handicap who learnt the game on Western Australia’s nest championship courses, had a downhill 20-footer which wasn’t moving very quickly at all when it passed the hole. But it didn’t stop and rolled o the front of the green, coming to rest 30 metres down the fairway. I didn’t say a word, but I imagined a giant text bubble above his head as he strode down the green and then out of sight with a wedge in his hand.‘We drove 2 700 kilometres for this?!’
We are both competitive golfers but quickly realised that if we worried about score on a windy day at Sand Hills, the experience would be tainted.This was not a cliché – it really was a oncein-a-lifetime opportunity. I could compare it to playing Fancourt Links for the rst time in a two-club wind.You need a couple of rounds to know where you are going, and most importantly, where to miss it, particularly on approach shots.
On the fourth you get the impression you are the only group on the course. From the raised tee box you can see in every direction but only a single fairway is visible, which tumbles 450 metres to a green perched on a shelf protected by a massive blowout on the left and sharp fall o on the right. The seventh and eighth are short par fours with clever greens complexes.The closer you drive it to the green, the tougher it is to hold your pitch shot.
At halfway we met Dan Daly, a leather-faced MidWesterner who grills your hamburger or hot dog on Ben’s Porch. He’s from Mullen and works at the club in the summer. I had four of his cheese burgers during our 24 hours at Sand Hills.
The back nine made for dramatic photography as thunderstorm clouds began to build, contrasting beautifully with lush fairways framed by the golden dunes. Crenshaw called the short 17th a “neat little hole” – only 135 metres, but requiring a precise short iron to a tiny postage-stamp green, guarded by a whale-mouth bunker on the left and deep grass beyond. I took a photo from the tee which was posted to Instagram when we reached the clubhouse. Golf Digest USA saw the image and re-posted it, which quickly went viral – our location was now known, and proven!
RIB EYE AND RED WINE
Dinner was an extravagant indulgence, knowing we were unlikely to pass this way again. A 600-gram, bone-in, Nebraskan rib eye, complimented with a 1999 Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most celebrated wine.The dining room was packed, big tables of ‘old money’ sharing tales
“IF WE WORRIED ABOUT SCORES ON A WINDY DAY AT SAND HILLS, THE EXPERIENCE WOULD BE TAINTED.”
of their day on the links, and probably discussing hedge fund options and private equity deals. Our waitress, also from Mullen, suggested we save some steak for the morning; the kitchen would slice it up for breakfast with eggs and co ee.
But we headed straight for the tee the next morning, second o at 07h15. I did call the kitchen from the cabin asking to keep my beef, which would make for delicious ‘padkos’ later. There wasn’t a sound on the
rst, the wind had dropped overnight and the September light was sharp as the end of summer approached.
There are no professional sports teams in Nebraska, making college football (gridiron) the number one religion in the state. It was opening day of the season and The University of Nebraska Cornhuskers were playing 450km away in the state capital of Lincoln. Overnight, the black-and-white pin ags had been changed to ‘Huskers’ scarlet and cream, as was the main agpole at the clubhouse.This only happens on Game Day.
The second round was an even better experience. Dead calm with only dew-prints from the group ahead a sign of other life. There are no weak holes at Sand Hills, and no strokes or course rating printed on the simple scorecard, just boxes for four scores – with a note on the back stating:‘Due to varying wind conditions and direction, handicap rating is intentionally omitted.’“We just want people to come out and have fun, not worry about score and handicap,” Director of Golf Cameron Werner told us afterwards.
A quick stop was made at the pro shop for souvenirs before we hit the road for Cheyenne, Wyoming. Drew quickly nodded o and I kept thinking of the ‘Constellation Map’ hanging in the clubhouse – the original plan of 136 holes. Oh yes, the clubhouse, where I forgot my steak! My expletive woke Drew, but we were already 45 minutes down the road and on to the next adventure.
The New Jersey number plates on our red X4 looked more impressive the further west we travelled; through Wyoming, Utah and Nevada before reaching California. The only other golf course we stopped at was Lincoln Park GC, a public layout with views of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
This is where the concrete marker for the western terminus of the Lincoln Highway lies, in a parking lot overlooking the undulating layout framed by cypress trees.We asked a passer-by to capture the moment, and he joked that we could only pose for a photo if we had a similar one taken in Times Square. I replied with a smile, “We do, from 12 days ago.”
Sand Hills’ par 4 18th exemplifies why it has been ranked Sand Hills co-designer Ben Crensihnatwhecatollped10thoef sGholrftD1i7gtehsta’s‘n1e0a0t GlitrteleatheoslteC’. ourses.
Clockwise from top le : Opened in 1995, Sand Hills is a modern classic; Dan Daly grills burgers on Ben’s Porch; It’s easy to miss the Sand Hills turnoff; Heading west towards San Francisco; Flags are changed to scarlet and cream in support of the University of Nebraska; The ANC is prominent in Mullen; Prime Nebraskan beef paired with Australia’s finest wine.
The BMW X4 resembled Nebraskan Cornhuskers Scarlet for Game Day.
Sand Hills’ par-4 18th exemplifies why it has been ranked in the top 10 of Golf Digest’s 100 Greatest Courses.
2 700km from New York, Sand Hills is right in the centre of the United States.