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.”
Date: April 28, 2020