Golf Digest (South Africa) - - US Open Oakmont -

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.


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.


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!


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


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.

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