Nebraska was something of a golfing backwater before the acclaimed Coore & Crenshaw course at Sand Hills opened for play in the mid-1990s. This world-class layout was followed soon after by 36-hole offerings at Dismal River and The Prairie Club, both of which brought further attention to the extraordinary landscape found in the sandy chop hills of the Cornhusker State.
Situated to the southwest of Valentine and just a few miles north of The Prairie Club, CapRock Ranch is destined to be the next great private golfing destination located in the sand hills. It features the same Snake River Canyon that appears on the Pines course at The Prairie Club, with almost half the holes routed along the rim of this natural ravine.
The property was scoped out back at the start of the new millennium by rancher and retired surgeon Cleve Trimble, who brought in Gil Hanse to create a routing for a proposed new course. Unfortunately, ill health forced Trimble to sell some of the land to Paul Schock, who went on to develop The Prairie Club with Tom Lehman and Graham Marsh as course architects.
In 2018, John Schuele, president and CEO of the Waitt investment company, was keen to revitalise the old project which had been on hold for more than fifteen years so he reached out to Trimble with a view to raising interest in the stalled venture, bringing in a group of founding investors to finance the development of the golf course and associated infrastructure.
After reaching an agreement, it was decided to bring back Hanse and his construction crew to build the layout. Schuele then bought back some land back from Schock, allowing the architect to set out the holes in a figure of eight; ten draped across the sand hills chop and the remainder laid out next to the canyon in a routing similar to the original 2001 plan, apart from the closing hole now which is now a par three.
CapRock Ranch has a total of only 180 members, consisting of around a dozen founders then approximately 60 regional members and 120 national members.
Caprock Ranch is one of the top ten courses in the United States at the moment in terms of design, routing, and sheer beauty. It doesn't have the early iteration of Chicago, the tournament history of Oakmont, the template holes of the National, the ocean views of Cypress, or the swimming pool of Seminole; but it holds its own against those illustrious courses and it makes me think squarely of Harry Crump and Dick Youngscap. It’s truly a pioneering place unlike any other.
Yes, it is that good, but you may be asking if I am just a mere shill or a golf nerd. You can make that decision on your own. This is Mr. Hanse’s piece de resistance worldwide, and I include his amazing restorations such as LACC, Merion, and Winged Foot as well as his new builds such as Rio and Castle Stuart. I cannot yet comment on Les Bordes, nor can I intimate Mr. Hanse's thoughts verbatim, but it’s been said he chose Caprock Ranch as his homesite because of the beauty of the area and that this course is his baby. I would like to think that Mr. Hanse’s course opinions are pretty accurate. Who are we to disagree with the golden boy of golf architecture?
Like Cypress, you are greeted with three distinct landscapes beyond the much-loved Jekyll and Hyde that you might find at Somerset. The first several holes route through the sand hills before heading into the canyon followed by a return to the sand hills with a finish at the canyon. Added to that are transitional holes with Pinehurst-esque conifers. Three regions: dunes, canyon, and pines -- all perfectly balanced. This is not a place where each hole looks alike and feels the same, similar to that famous place with pines, dunes, and water south of San Fran.
The par threes, fours, and fives all play in different directions and require entirely different shots in terms of distance, shot shape, and shot type. Two of the par fives are reachable, the par threes require anything from a sand wedge to a three wood and the par fours are evenly split between short and long and longer. By my count you have 1.5 more doglegs to the right than to the left. The green-to-tee walks are fabulous as are Hogan’s Alleys after tee boxes. Good basic stuff to judge the bones of a course, as they say. But that’s the simplistic analysis of someone at their first rodeo.
Hole 1. If you like classic golf, that is to say Scottish or Irish golf where land takes front and center, then you’re in for a treat. The first hole (420) is a slight dogleg right where you might be fooled that you want to hit up the right side to cut the corner, but you need to play to the left to have a better approach. This idea of playing doglegs in the opposite fashion comes into play elsewhere (e.g. 14), much like you might play Pikewood #8. The green has the patois of a punchbowl where you look around and see everything funneling. This gives you a taste for classic elements you’ll see throughout because of Hanse’s work with the classics as well as the idiosyncrasies of playing the course. It makes for a gentle handshake.
Hole 2: the first par five and double dogleg that gets narrower. I previously thought that TPC Sawgrass hole nine was the best double dogleg in the country. Even though Tilly who took credit for it at SFGC (erudite readers will know the dubious history of Bethpage and hole four), its genesis may be Royal Dornoch hole fourteen. This hole may even be better. Impulse compels you to go right over the massive waste area—just another completely natural element—but actually the right side is the best for hitters with less than a 110mph swing speed. The approach then confronts you with two bunkers that you either clear or find yourself with a long approach to the green. There's a level of risk and reward that’s off the charts fun and really challenges your first two shots. The pin placement changes the hole entirely with its rolling slopes (but nothing as severe as Sweetens Cove). Pin placement changes the strategy to the 83rd degree where back left is the ultimate “Sunday” placement. Those knowledgeable about Long Island golf will be reminded of Shinnecock #18. It’s an orgy for the golf course architecture nerd.
Hole 3: a 170 yarder. Welcome to the jungle, er I mean canyon, baby. Because that’s what you’re hitting over. You might think, this reminds me of a hole at Pine Valley or Gozzer because of the beautiful pines and distinctive green. I would agree with an enthusiastic nod. The genius of this hole is the bunker on the left. Like many of the greens it has single-sided bunkering much like you might see at Prairie Dunes on seventeen or Sand Hills. That bunkering style is much more sophisticated and tricky rather than greens totally surrounded by bunkering because one is faced with a more difficult shot and more difficult recovery stance. Dear reader, look at the bunker and go at it right either short of long of it if you’re as poor of a ball-striker like me (9.0 index). Better players can go at the pin, but if there’s any sort of draw for the southpaw it’ll be really hard to hold the green. The greens everywhere are FAST AND FIRM. Excuse me for not mentioning that earlier. Be sure to grab a transfusion at the halfway house around the corner, especially if you've missed the green and blown up your score.
Hole 4: Here’s a par five where you can’t see the pin on the tee box. But don’t fear, the mowing lines will show you exactly where the center of the fairway is. Hit it there, I dare ya. Here’s your ball-striking test under a little pressure where you can imagine you’re at Royal County Down. Like hole two, your second shot is everything and will determine how and if you can approach the infinity like green. You’ll also have to contend with a bunker on both the left and right if you are struggling to advance the ball significantly. And the approach to the green again lets you know that this course will not be like anything you’ve ever seen. You are greeted with spectacular vistas of the Snake River canyon. Like holes one and two, you have an opportunity to run the ball up or fly it there. Since these are the great plains, you’ll need both shots in your bag depending on the wind which fluctuates hourly.
Hole 5:This hole is FUN! You walk a dozen paces from green to tee box and crush your TopFlight XL over the canyon to a fairway that could be over two hundred yards wide from certain angles. Aim at the tree and take delight in hitting a piece of urethane soaring over the canyons. You are then hitting to an infinity green, and if you like Lancaster CC hole two, you’ll love it. But that infinity green, like Caprock's hole fifteen, makes it intimidating to go directly at the pin. The bailout is on the right side because bunkers solely defend the left and there’s actually more forgiveness on the back. This can be a good scoring hole.
Hole 6: Two clubs shorter less hole three and directly over a canyon. Short left is the miss and by “your” I mean mine since I always seem to hit the tree. By this time, you’ll be thinking, “Where the heck am I? I thought Nebraska was a bunch of cornfields.” Welcome to golfing in a national park, mon frère. Beautiful, eh?
Hole 7: Back from the canyon to the sand hills. This was probably the hole that took the longest to grow on me presumably because I always tried to hit a draw off the tee since it’s a dogleg left. The sightline was a bit blind but that is being softened, which I think will be a tremendous boon to ensure more distinctiveness between seven and eight. Aim towards the bunker on the right and don’t be afraid to change tee boxes to something where you can come in with something pitching wedge-ish. The bunker cants hard from right to left, with a large bunker larboard. You have ample room to get up and down from the right should you fail to hold the green as is often the case.
Hole 8: Like hole seven it’s one of the longer par fours, unlike the shorter one and five. Astute readers know the importance of having differing par four lengths, and how one’s second shot should be anything from a wood to a wedge. The bunker is being slightly moved as your play is just left or just right of the fairway bunker. I find its location very fun because if you thread the needle on the right you can drop the mic. The green is again defended by a single bunker where anything from a low runner to a flier is in play. Note that it faces a different direction than the other holes that provide the same variety of shot approaches. This hole boasts one of the largest greens that run up into the dunes that tower over you as you putt.
Hole 9: One of the most enjoyable par threes and again right out of Shinnecock. Be sure to play it from both the one and the two/three tee boxes as I can assure you these are two very, very different par threes. It’s likely one club or more shorter than hole six. The green runs off in every direction, except the dune into which it was built. Atop the green, get a view of hole three and the nearby halfway house should you be in need of additional swing lube or celebratory drink because this hole presents a good chance for birdie.
Hole 10: This is one of the short par fives at a little over 500 yards. Like the rest of the course, the fairways are firm and fast and so you’ll get plenty of run out with ample opportunity to reach it. The green is elevated and firm. Unlike the greens on two and twelve and fourteen, the green is flatter and more subtle, so those missed putts look like they should have dropped. Last year, I was long of the green on two and managed to five putt and I consider myself a decent putter. Clearly I’m delusional.
Hole 11: The hole design is straight out of Sand Hills. Like identical. You’re challenged to clear the ridge on the right side—not an easy feat—while watching out for the speed slot on the left that might funnel to the green side bunker. I feel like 80% of the people I’ve played with take driver and then a pitching wedge over the right side, but if you can thread the driving needle you’ll have a great chance to implement your signature birdie ritual. The views from this green may be the most spectacular among the sand dune holes. Views for days. Like the front, there is a healthy balance between short and long par fours, and this is the first of three short par fours. The other two are longer.
Hole 12: The fourth par five on the course and a really fun one at that. The one tree that might actually come into play will come into play on the right with a fade. Aim directly at the marker and watch it funnel right instead. The slight dogleg right seems best played slightly as a dogleg left as the trouble is on the right. Leave your green shot a tad short as there’s a bit of “redan”, i.e. a big hump in front of the green where the ball can run through the green. Vicious bunkers defend the right side, as they do in hole thirteen. Careful readers will note that bunkers defend the left opposite the run off on holes five, seven and eight while this hole as well as thirteen have bunkers defending from the right into the run off. Very well balanced. Touche, that’s some clever thinking, Mr. Hanse, but since you’ve been working on this project for two decades and live here, I’m not totally surprised.
Hole 13: A severe dogleg right where a well struck ball down the center has a wonderful approach. The longest hitters will not be permitted to cut the corner as there’s a bunker on the other side of the fairway punishing the bombers. First time guests would do well to walk this hole in particular as the green complex is perhaps the finest green I know of in the U.S. A pretty big claim, right?
Hole 14: The second short par four with a shared bunker from hole two near the green. We all know about the shared green of Old Town Club, but this is a shared bunker. The volcano green begs you to go straight at it, but like many holes the aiming line is towards the fairway bunker on the right. Because it’s a short par four, less than 400 yards, a careful approach is critical because the run-off on this hole is not only north and south, but also east and west.
Hole 15: Back to the canyon, my patient reader. Because the tee box is elevated and you can see the flag in the distance hanging over the canyon it looks shorter than it is. Well, hit a bomb and you might still have a 7 iron in and the green is tough and runs toward the canyon. You also need to watch out for the canyon on the left and if you push it too far right you might end up behind a tiny mound. Like four, you are greeted with an infinity style green and bunkering on both sides.
Hole 16: These are the closing holes and where the money changes hands. Perhaps you have heard that Mr. Hanse is pretty knowledgeable about match play with a very fine course down in Georgia? A short par three. Unlike three (175), six (155), and nine (120-150 depending), this hole plays even shorter. It sits directly on a canyon with a very challenging green to hold. Go long or come up short and bogey will be a nice score. A safer but decidedly wimpier approach is to play it short and to the right. Depending on how your competition is going, that will determine how aggressive you want to be. This is the time to win that $5 Nassau and buy your kids some presents.
Hole 17: The first and only drivable par 4 with a very steep green. I say pull out driver and see what happens. I’ve hit an iron to a hundred yards and that shot may be harder than the drive. Spectacularly fun with trouble on the left for an errant drive. Excuse my language, but I say “Life is too darn short to lay up.” Look for the tip of the hat to Pete Dye and Scottish golf where there are railroad ties here and there.
Hole 18: A drivable par three from the back. This will likely end up being the most known hole because of its proximity to the clubhouse. As an aside, it’s just a fabulous idea to end the round on a par three like Pasatiempo. You hit over a gigantic canyon and if you’re fortunate enough to hit a slight draw to the slope that funnels to the hole you may have a good look at birdie. The clubhouse is a few steps away so like Merion, people might be watching you tee off. Observant types should take note of where all the tee boxes for this hole are as forward tees provide the same thrill for shorter hitters. To build actual tee boxes throughout where everyone can have the same thrill and the same approach shots is very special to the egalitarian in me.
It’s an otherworldly design that takes rounds to appreciate everything. That’s not to say it’s subtle, because it confronts you viscerally with beauty and sophisticated design. If you like Yellowstone or virtually any of the other 63 National Parks then you’re in for a special treat.
The more I’ve played it and the more I’ve talked about it with other knowledgable players, I end up wondering what the best par threes are, the best fours or the best fives. The hackneyed response first round might say “18” just like someone might say sixteen at Cypress is the best or that nine at Ailsa is the best. But I think that response might be a bit jejune and more sophisticated thinkers will ultimately ponder this question and maybe never really know. That, to me, is what separates good from great.
Here you will find a small membership from around the world, all of whom are deeply passionate about Caprock. You see, it’s very hard to get to there so naturally most members have deep rosters with multiple memberships at most exclusive golf courses throughout the world, but inside it is a welcoming club served by an amazing staff where everyone is friends and family. There are mini-loops on the course as well that naturally weave together if you want to play a quick five.
While a good portion of Gil’s spectacular portfolio is focused on renovations/restorations, he continues to provide hugely innovative approaches to new builds both in the US and overseas. CapRock Ranch was built on relatively flatter sandhills compared to nearby venues, but there is no shortage of blind tee shots and approach shots on each nine. The routing takes you adjacent to the deep ravines on several occasions and offers fun risk/reward scenarios throughout. The par 3s were certainly my favourite holes as they occupy many of the best pieces of the property, and arguably the most exciting green sites. The course only opened mid-summer 2021, and as the entire facility matures, I’ve no doubt it will grow in admiration.