The White course was first unveiled at Dismal River Golf Club in 2006 and Jack Nicklaus laid it out amongst the Nebraskan dunes. Seven years later, in 2013, a complementary Tom Doak layout opened to critical acclaim.
The Red course traverses up the dunes for the opening holes and then wends its way back down to the Dismal River, with the home hole finishing alongside the water where the imposing dunes and bluff form a dramatic backdrop on the opposing river bank.
Architect Tom Doak commented as follows: “The cliché about designing a course in the Sandhills is that you can see potential golf holes in almost any direction you look. There's some truth to that. The land is fascinating because there are undulations that never end. But the land is also deceptive. A lot of the holes you see don't work out. You walk out 200 yards and find a blind ridge. Or a feature that seems like it’s 300 yards away is actually 800 yards. Or you find a great hole but you can't go right from there to the tee of another hole that works.”Clearly the landforms of the Nebraska Sandhills provide the opportunity for links-like golf. All that is missing is the sea. If there was only a mere whiff of salt in the air, every golfer would be convinced that the ocean is only a dune away.
Dismal River Red is one of my favorite courses to play if the question is, “what course would you choose to play where you would have the most fun?” If that is what Tom Doak and the owner at the time were aiming to accomplish, they certainly succeeded. It is also a very well-designed golf course with an excellent routing and interesting green complexes.
I rated the White course separately so I will not repeat much of the review here other than to say I played the Red course on June 1, 2016 after first playing the White course. Both courses begin and end far from the clubhouse although for the Red course you utilize the road to the clubhouse to access the course whereas the White is off on its own trail and even farther away from the clubhouse.
My one criticism of the Red course it is very wide open. You can hit it just about anywhere on this course and have a chance to get to the green on the par 4’s and par 5’s. Perhaps this was done by Mr. Doak to account for the wind, but on less windy days the course becomes too easy and lacking in strategy and decision-making with the obvious exception of some blind shots and lower lying ground into some of the greens.
The accommodations, clubhouse, dining, and views are fabulous at Dismal River. It is a superb place to unwind and relax. The expansiveness here, much like Sand Hills and Ballyneal, is most impressive. The only sound one is likely to hear once they are on the course is perhaps a cow or the very rare plane going overhead. Otherwise, with the exception of your conversations with your partners, the noise of the cart if you take one, and the sound of the club on ball, you will not hear anything else. It is wonderful.
We came via the dirt road that cut an hour off the drive. Every ten minutes you will swear you are lost. The one piece of advice I would give is to make sure you have more than half a tank of gasoline before leaving I-80. There is a gas station in Mullen, but the other small towns do not have a petrol station.
When one drives through this area of the country, one believes over one hundred courses could be built as the land and the natural rolling sand dunes look as though they go on forever. The wind has created enormous raised dunes, ridges, bluffs and valleys. However, as Mr. Doak has pointed out, the land is more difficult than it appears as a nice rise is actually farther than it looks, or perhaps what is on the other side of a rise is unplayable, or maybe there is a drainage issue. In any event, Mr. Doak solved all of those issues in routing the Red course.
The routing flows from one hole to the next much which is something that Mr. Doak has been able to do at many of his courses such as his two courses at Bandon Dunes, Tara Iti, Barnbougle Dunes, and Ballyneal. There is good variety in the holes, another characteristic of Mr. Doak’s courses. Much like Ballyneal, there are no real tee markers here and you pick the spot where you want to play. The tees are marked by the skulls of cattle which I think is a nice feature. The routing takes advantage of rises in the dunes, falls in the dunes, the river, and finally a finishing hole that has an outstanding view of the clubhouse, cabins, and surrounding hills. Mr. Doak emphasizes the chance for recovery with greens that are tamer than one will find on many of his other courses.
The tees range from 6994 to 4830 with a designation for the 6334 tees which are tees we played. The course is likely to play the same if you added 300 yards on eight of the holes. I liked the following holes the most, #2, #3, #7, #10, #13, #14, #17, and #18. My playing partners also liked #16.
The first hole is a par 5 of 535/520 playing uphill to a very wide fairway. The hole bends to the right. The first and second shot do not require a lot of thought for the average length player. The third shot plays to a plateau green with one needing to avoid a small bunker in the center of the fairway 120 yards short of the green. The green has bunkers on either side and runs from back to front with some depressions and a tiering effect on the left side. Its an okay starting hole but could be better.
Two is a par 4 of 478/430 that is very good. There is a carry over grass to a semi-blind fairway. Going down the right side lengthens the hole although you can get a favorable bounce and roll as the fairway tilts to the left. There is an enormous bunker with grass islands on the left. The green is wide open with a false front. There is room on the right acting almost as a path to the third tee. The green has a gentle slope to the right which I was able to one putt to save par. I am surprised the green is this easy but it is consistent with the course being very playable.
The third is a par 3 of 195/168 and has an elevated green with another carry over grass to a green with a false front with fronting bunkers. The right bunker reminds me of the left bunker on the fifth at Ballyneal. The green goes from left to right.
Four is a par 4 of 388/325 from an elevated tee shot with a split fairway. The left side is shorter but results in a blind approach shot for the average hitter. The green is tucked between mounds with a bunker short right and one back left. I felt the bunker on the right should have been half as close to the green but I did like the hole.
Five is a par 3 of 261/239 and was my first bogey. I simply do not have the length for this hole. There is a large bunker on the right. One cannot quite see the left side of the green but there is actually room in front of the green which is relatively flat. It is a good golf hole although slightly unfair to average length players, yet it is an opportunity to test one’s scrambling abilities.
The sixth is a short par 4 of 326/290 which goes right to left to the green. This is one of the higher points on the course. The green has an opening in the front with various bunkers scattered left and right. It is an enjoyable hole with a lovely visual but not very challenging. For whatever reason I could not figure out the green and three putted it for a bogey.
Seven is a par 4 that is either long or short at 442/388 and we start to go downhill into the valley. There is a raised and large bunker on the right but not a lot of room on the left. The green is elevated with a bunker on the right. There is a substantial fall-off left of the green. I found the bunker off the tee and then hit a poor chip for a double bogey yet I liked the hole a lot.
Eight is a lovely par 5 of 554/512 with a generous fairway much like the first hole. There is a series of bunkers down the right nearly all the way to the green. One simply has to stay left even if the fairway runs left to right. The green is perched on a shelf running quickly from a tier on the left to the right. I felt the hole needed more bunkering at the green even if only to frame it better.
You cross over the road for nine, another short par 4 of 374/368. Another forced carry over grass and one must simply not go right down into high grass and lower ground. The green is infinity but it is benign.
Ten is a par 5 of 546/537. Longer hitters will try to clear the bunkers on the right to be able to reach the green in two. The fairway is tilted a bit to the left. For average hitters they must avoid the bunker on the right on their second shot. The green is on slightly higher ground which is on the left side. The green is wide but not deep but has short grass around the right and front. This is my third favorite hole on the golf course although again I thought the fairway to be a bit too wide.
Eleven is a nice mid-length par 3 of 174/149 looking like an island in the distance with another carry over grass to a slightly uphill green. The green is one of the more tilted ones coming from higher ground on the right with multiple sections to it. The green is surrounded by bunkers with a slight false front between the front bunkers and green. It is a nice hole.
The twelfth is a bit bizarre as it is another either long or short par 4 of 430/355 where the fairway tilts to the left with a very generous fairway and a fall-off to the left side of the green. From the 355 tees I felt the hole to be too easy. The back tees offer a blind tee shot which is much better.
Thirteen is a long par 4 of 496/441 and starts to work towards the river and Big Horseshoe Hill. This hole plays as a dogleg right with a deep, large bunker on the right corner. The green can be seen from the tee even though it sits below the elevated tee. As long as one avoids the bunkers on the right side, this hole plays easier than the yardage because it is possible to run a shot onto the green. I really liked the visual of this golf hole.
Fourteen is a shorter par 4 of 419/355 where once again I thought the member tees are too far forward and make the hole play too easy and not as intended. The green is hidden due to a raised, large bunker on the right and higher ground on the left. The green has sort of a double dip in it. It is a nice hole located down closer to the river and in a valley.
The fifteenth is a short par 4 of 315/271 which is a driveable par 4 for the longer hitters. The fairway again seemed a bit too wide for the yardage of the hole but the green makes up for it. The green has a substantial false front and a steep pitch to it. Missing the green to the left offers a lot of options for recovery while missing it to the right leaves one likely in the sand as there are many bunkers there. It is another nice hole.
Sixteen is the final par 3 of 166/131 playing level to a wide but thin green with Dismal River to the right. There are bunkers to either side as the green is in three sections. If one finds the correct section, the green is relatively straightforward.
Seventeen is a lovely blind, uphill tee shot on this par 4 of 454/411 and is my favorite hole on the golf course. It is a blind uphill shot with a posted cattle skull for the line. I choose this moment to hit my worst drive of the day way left into and had a terrible lie resulting in my second double bogey. The fairway is actually very wide but drops off on the right side. From the right side one has to carry another small ravine. There is a small hollow on the right of the green that prevents a ball from going on the green. The preferred line is in from the left. The green tilts left to right. This hole reminded me of some of the blind uphill tee shots in the UK and Ireland.
The fnishing hole is a nice par 4 of 447/420 with the last forced carry over brush and grass to a fairway slanted towards the right on the river. The play on this hole is down the left side because the right side can lead to trouble in grass mounds and result in a blind shot to the green. There is a nasty bunker short middle of the green. The large green is relatively flat although it appears to go to the right. I liked this hole a lot due to the beauty of the setting.
The finishing holes from fifteen through eighteen are very good. I preferred the back nine to the front nine.
I shot 78 on the White course and 79 on the Red course despite the two double bogies. I wished I had played the Red course longer but I do not think adding 300 yards would have changed my score. The Red course is a delight and as I said at the beginning of this review it is one of the courses that I have had the most fun playing. I do think Mr. Doak got as much as he could from the land which is a high compliment. I do think some of the fairways are too wide which limits strategy and decision-making. This is a golf course mainly focused on the shot to the green and therefore it takes pressure off of one’s game. The greens are smooth are relatively simple to determine the pace and line. You may not make the first putt but you really should not have many worries about three putting.
If one goes to Sand Hills, one should definitely stop here and play both courses. Although Dismal River must have struggled to attract members given the ownership changes, if one cannot get into either Sand Hills or Ballyneal, this is a very good alternative and one that will create a lot of wonderful memories. If one cannot get on Sand Hills, then I still think the two courses here are worth the stop if one is adding The Prairie Club and Wild Horse. I have yet to play either of them but have talked to enough people who praise those courses.
Of the 725 courses I have currently played, I rate the Red course at #149 on my personal scale and the White course at #294. I note I do have a bias towards courses with this type of “look and feel.”
The Red course is much more in tune with the Sand Hills landscape. Specifically, the architecture is much more focused on minimalism compared to the White course. The opening nine has an open gentle feel in tune with the endless surrounding topography that we were first exposed to in 1994 at the Sand Hills Golf Club. The Red Course routing has a variety of directional changes on the front side, bringing a number of holes into view from different angles. I truly enjoyed the blow-out bunkers, the Dell greens and the simple lines that must be followed. Doak gifted us with adjoining fairways mown together to expose the huge natural undulation which offers endless angles into the greens. I witnessed this same strategy at Royal Adelaide, and really appreciated the options it gives you off the tee.
As with almost all of Doak’s courses, you’d never grow tired playing them given how different each round will be. It’s impressive how such minimal design can provide so many possibilities.
Most of the back nine plays much closer to a large sand dune (looks like a string of valleys/canyons) and ultimately brings you along the Dismal River itself. The surrounding landscape on the back nine feels down in a valley and has more visual vegetation in places. The par 3 16th along the river is sublime as is the exciting blind tee shot on 17 where a lonely skull serves as your line off the tee. The rolling hills on the back nine offer both blind tee shots as well as hugely contoured pitched fairways. Even on the shorter par 4s, the strategy off the tee is paramount, especially with the plateau fairways that roll off to the end of the earth.
The first hole is nowhere near the clubhouse, the last green is nowhere near the first tee, and at the end of the day – you have to remember that you’re in the middle of Nebraska where nothing is near anything!
The Red Course is the highlight at the Dismal River Club – although golfers already had a massive reason to trek to Mullen, NE.
The Dismal River Club is located about 8 miles west of Sand Hills GC as the crow flies, but getting there by car is more like 30 miles (and about 45-50 minutes). The last 19 miles used to be a gravel road, but most of that has now been paved (but is mostly one lane...but as you can imagine, not a ton of traffic even in "rush hour").
DRC’s first course was designed by Jack Nicklaus and opened for play in 2006 and stretches to about 7400 yards. It was Jack's first design in this type of environment, and many have said it is far too extreme. Word is he went from hating blind shots to going overboard with them. Who knows, but based on this input (which was remarkably consistent) and a tight schedule for this trip, I decided not to play the Nicklaus course. It should also be noted that the Nicklaus course has never cracked any of the Top 100 lists.
In 2013 the second course at DRC opened. It is known as the Red Course or the Doak course, since it was designed by Tom Doak. As the club sits on about 3,000 acres, they were just able to squeeze in the second course. It was highly anticipated and opened summer 2013. It has no course or slope rating (neither does SHGC), and no tee markers (just posts marking the back, regular, and front tee areas). Stretches to 6994 yards (par 71) and I played from 6334 yards. All yardages below are from back (except where noted).
In summary, I think the Red or Doak course is superb...and I think as it gets tweaked over the next 5 years or so (as happens with all new courses in their early years) it will get even better. I do not think it is in Sand Hills' category, but that is hardly an insult. To my mind, there is about a single handful of tracks in the USA that are.
One of the first things I noticed at DRC, is how different the terrain and sand dunes were compared with the area around SHGC (just 8 miles east of DRC). DRC sits in a valley with huge (400') dunes around it, and its final three holes are close to the Dismal River (which also runs through SHGC...but near the clubhouse and cabins...which are over a mile from the course).
The course has some idiosyncrasies. Doak insisted on having the 18th green some 500 yards from the 1st tee. Actually, given that the 1st tee is about a mile from the clubhouse, it really makes no difference (except in a match play if you need to go extra holes). Also, with only one road going through the property, Doak insisted on having the 9th hole cross over the road. Again, no big deal, and think about the number of fabulous tracks with a road crossing one of more holes (e. g., Cypress Point, Old Course, Shinnecock, The Country Club)...and remember the tee shot from the back tee on SHGC #5 goes right over the 4th green...and SHGC has even more land!! Following is description of best of the holes:
#1--535 yard par 5, starts flat then slightly uphill for last 150 yds and turning slightly right. Good starting hole. Big wide fairway...strategic design. No obvious problem for opening drive. Bunker in center of fairway 115-125 from center green needs to be negotiated for any layup second, and bunkers and dune right of green must be carefully avoided by anyone going for it in 2. Green sits in natural amphitheater and angles LF-->BR, slopes to front and has two tiers...upper tier to back right. Excellent opening hole.
#2--472 yard par 4...slightly uphill and turns left...to green on top of crest with deceptively string false front. Blowout bunker on left of fairway to be avoided off tee (230 to reach and 310 to carry) and any layup must avoid left bunker 50-75 yds from middle green. Note the winterkill damage in the fairways. Remember, this was very young grass last winter going up against some of the worst global warming in history. Very tough hole and tough green to hit.
#3--195 yd par 3--slightly downhill. Pic from back tee...regular tee is to left and has easier angle. Obviously, best to avoid deep deep bunker on right front. Tee shot requires fade but green slopes slightly L-->R
#4--388 yrd par 4--uphill and straight. Fairway split by bunker in middle, leaving player with important strategic choice. Narrow part of fairway to left of bunker, and leaves open shot to green. Lots of room to right of bunker but two problems with that choice. First, you MUST hit tee short far enough to carry big hollow on right...or your drive will roll back 20-40 yards (as I learned). Second, that angle forces your second shot to clear two bunkers carefully guarding right front of green. In strategic sense, hole very similar to #1 at Rock Creek Cattle Co. (also a Doak).
#5--261 yard par 3 (no typo)...and 239 from regular tee...into prevailing wind. And look at this bunker built (by nature) into the dune protecting the right side of the green. Frankly, I think this hole is unfair for all but the best golfers. It goes down into a valley and then moves up to the green, with only 5-8 yards of relatively flat land before the green (remember the length and prevailing wind), so almost impossible to run it up. One of only two holes I didn't like. In any case, put tee shot into bunker and got out and onto green...2 putt for heroic bogey.
#6--326 drivable par 4. Slightly downhill and turns left. Very good risk reward hole. Bunker protects front right corner of green and large bunkers protects whole left side of green. Several fairway bunkers and exposure to wind makes player think carefully about how to play any layup off the tee.
#7--442 yd par 4...straight, downhill off elevated tee then uphill sharply to crested, 2-tiered green. Tee shot protected by two bunkers (255 to carry), and approach shot must carry large bunker right and short of green.
#8--554 downhill par 5 with green angled LF-->BR and sloping sharply L-->R. Tee shot must avoid fairway bunkers down right side and approach must carry bunkers built into dune 80 yds short of green. Dune also makes any third shot from right side blind to entire right side of green. 2 tiered green with upper tier on left and hollow to back right. You do not want putt from upper tier to hollow. Wonderful green setting.
#9--374 yard par 4... turning slightly right to small angled green (angle from LF-->BR with large bunker protecting right and small bunker protecting left side. This is hole where drive goes over the entrance road. Excellent "sleeper" hole...looks very easy, and player must concentrate to maintain focus, and avoid a "stupid" bogey. Overall hole is flat but important to hit drive about 250 to reach crest of fairway. Green is "infinity" and small...and look at that dune which is way in the background...that is on the other side of the Dismal River and is about 500-600 yards past the 9th green. Nothing like this view at SHGC 8 miles away.
#10--546 yard par 5. Elevated tee, then downhill and uphill to green (from 150 short of green next shot is totally blind). Three sets of bunkers along right side. First set not in play, second set 300 to 335 off back tee, and third set 75 -100 from center of green. Two bunkers and dune protected left side of green. Green is deep and narrow (20 yd wide and 40 yd deep) and falls sharply L-->R and back of green slopes toward back. See pics from tee and left front of green. Superb hole and the start of a magnificent back nine.
#11--174 yd par 3...flat to narrow deep green (but front of green angled to back right...making for much longer carry over junk to right side of green). 3 bunkers protect front and right side. Green is tiered and has 3 sections...back left (highest point of green), back right, and front (lowest section). Pin was in back left, hit ok 5 iron that ended up about 3' and got my birdie. Despite this bit of pure luck, a super hole.
#12--430 yard par 4. Blind tee shot uphill and then downhill to green...something I have seen very little of on this trip, and really enjoy (think #4 at Pine Valley). Deep, narrow green protected on left and in back.
#13--Very tough, spectacular and even fun 496 yd par 4. Uphill off the tee then downhill to green and doglegs right. Two sets of fairway bunkers guard right side First is 300 off tee and second is about 60 from green. Large dune at corner of dogleg. Approach shot is spectacular...with "bison run" over dune about 500 yards behind green as aim point.
#14--419 par 4---turning left, and slightly uphill to raised green. This is the second hole that I think needs some changes (other one was par 3 #5). Dune on left side of fairway and bunker on right side (both about 155-165 to green) leave a gap between them which is only 20 yards wide...a gap which is too narrow (in my always humble opinion). Especially from at least 160 yards out, to a raised green protected by a bunker on left front of the green.
One side note...I had trouble figuring out where 14th green was (lack of tee markers contributes to this) and saw what I at first assumed as the 14th hole...and thought it was the best looking hole on the course from the tee...but it turned out to be the par 3 16th green that I was looking at.
#15---start of a fabulous finish...315 yard drivable par 4...downhill and straight. Two fairway bunkers on left force you to think a little about layup (as you would prefer to layup on the left side of the fairway). Large dune with 4 bunkers carved out protected right side of shallow green (21 yards deep)...and there is a very sharp drop off on the left side if the green, and getting up and down from the bottom of that drop off is a tough chore (trust me anything left will run off at least 30 years from the green)...but probably easier than going for the green and putting it in the fescue on the right hand dune or one of the 4 bunkers there. Great strategic hole with lots and lots of choices/options. Think your way around this one.
#16---166 yard par 3 to seemingly large green divided into 3 sections...like a three leaf clover. Front left of green protected by a bunker. Two bunkers on front right, two other back left and one back right...total of 6 bunkers around this sucker. Lowest portion of green is front of it (to right of fore mentioned front left bunker), highest portion is back right, and middle height portion is behind front left bunker...three very small greens. Behind green (but not close to in play) is the Dismal River and behind river is a towering (400' I would guess) sand dune...see picture. Spectacular setting and wonderful golf hole.
#17--454 par 4...blind drive to top of huge dune (probably 50-60 in height) and then tumbling downhill and from left to right to green sitting near Dismal River (same huge dune mentioned on 16 to right across river). Very simply, the most fun hole on the entire trip (perhaps because I played two spectacular shots to about 15'...but you guessed it, missed the putt). Seriously, just loved this one!! At first had trouble figuring out what line to hit my drive, but them spotted the cattle's skull on top of the hill... line is to left of big bush middle left...
In any case, I guessed right and was in perfect position on top of the dune. Fairway is very very wide up here, but too far left and hole much longer...to far right and go back to the tee and reload. Wind was behind me and I had 215 to pin. Hit 3 hybrid...planning (to be honest...hoping) to run it in. Hit career that landed short and rolled to 15' behind back pin. Green is narrow (26 yd) and deep (39 yards)...20' further and I am in junk. So so much fun watching this shot tumble down and onto green and come to rest so close. BTW...that is the clubhouse on top of the hill in the distance.
#18...447 yard par 4, downhill slightly and dogleg right. Tee shot has to carry some marsh (I played from 420 and no problem carrying it...but had following wind)...and if the wind is against, you can play tee shot further left for a shorter carry, but of course this leaves a longer approach. Here is tee shot from back tee (green is directly below 4 cabins on hill to left of long clubhouse):
If you choose to lay up, you need to negotiate patches of marsh and one fairway bunker in middle of fairway. Green angles from back left to front right and slopes strongly in that direction. Spectacular and tough but playable (and fun) finishing hole. I put my approach back left and had an 85' long putt for my birdie...missed it but sunk a 6 footer for par and a 40-37-77 to complete all the current USA top 100's!! See picture of the green along line of my 85' putt. Trees beyond green in previous picture show where Dismal River runs, and clubhouse is about a mile behind.
Summary of Dismal River's Red course: I was surprised by the greens...very tough but much tamer than early Doak tracks (e.g...Ballyneal and Barnbougle Dunes). Don't know if he is becoming more conservative, or if owners are successfully putting a "leash" on him. Whatever, it is working. Greens are very tough but on average I overplayed the breaks...how often does that happen on early Doak greens?
Layout has a wonderful flow. You always know where you are, and the finishing holes are simply great. Who cares about the distance between 18 and 1...and the road that the tee shoot on #9 crosses doesn't exactly have much traffic. Besides...that is the insurance carrier's problem.
No question there are major conditioning issues due to the prior past winter. As I wrote earlier...this had to happen with young grass (course opened about 13 months ago) and the winter. I am fully confident that these problems will be easily fixed which will also enable the fairways to be cut lower and become even faster.
Am also sure the course will evolve over time (see my comments on #5 and #14) as it gets more play...and with proper management (I think that is in place) should be able to rise to a top 20 USA track with ease. It is really really good!
Wow, great and thorough review! The issues with the Nicklaus course has steered me clear of DRC but might have to get back to Nebraska to try out Doak!