Located only 14 miles from Sand Hills, the White course at Dismal River is bound to draw comparison with Coore and Crenshaw’s stellar layout. And so, on the sand dunes of Nebraska, some might say Jack Nicklaus has proved with his 250th design that he really can do minimalism after all.
Unveiled in 2006, the course lies in splendid isolation at the end of a 17-mile long single track that leaves Route 97 at mile marker 64 from North Platte. With an enormous property extending many hundreds of acres, the Golden Bear had rather an expansive canvas to work with when laying out the fairways here.
It’s said that less than 15,000 cubic yards of earth was shifted during construction but, following initial comments from golfers about the difficulty of the layout, Jack returned to widen fairways, shorten carries off the tee and soften green slopes, repositioning both the 13th and 18th greens in the process.
The Nicklaus course at Dismal River is certainly rugged in style, with a routing that encompasses elevation changes, blind shots, blowout bunkers and contoured greens; all of which encourages a more imaginative game for golfers, especially when playing in the normally firm and fast conditions.
Tom Doak has now added a second course at Dismal River and his Red layout is routed down towards the river, away from the big dunes, which is quite a departure from the style adopted by other architects who’ve worked in the sand hills region.
I played Dismal River White on June 1, 2016. I played it towards the end of a 10-day trip where I drove 3400 miles, played 10 rounds of golf and combined golf with running races and sight-seeing. The trip took me from Denver to Ballyneal to Flint Hills National, a side trip to Lawrence, Kansas (three tornados), Prairie Dunes (playing only the back nine twice due to flooding), a 10K race in Little River, Kansas, then past Denver to Laramie, Wyoming, ran a 5K in Laramie, Wyoming that was straight down and straight up a dirt trail at a state park at 8800 feet of elevation at the highest point of I-80 where the Lincoln statue is (really, really hard run), a round of golf at the University of Wyoming course, a side trip into the Rocky Mountain State Park to see the hot sulphur springs, a side trip to Cheyenne and Boot Hill, then back to Denver to pick up friends to go back to Ballyneal, then to Dismal River and Sand Hills and finishing with a half marathon in Hastings, Nebraska before driving back to Denver.
I mention all of this because I both had a lot of time while driving and running to consider the courses I played. In addition, other than the University of Wyoming’s (beautiful campus) course which is short and relatively uninteresting, Dismal River White is clearly at the bottom of the list with a noticeable gap to the next best course which is the Red course at Dismal River.
The accommodations, clubhouse, food, and “hang” at Dismal River are exceptional. After lunch or dinner, sitting outside around the fire pit with a long view looking down the valley, dunes and river is both scenic and relaxing. After playing both courses and having dinner, the then owner (originally from Ohio just like me but living near Jackson Hole), spent two hours with us over drinks as the sun went down explaining why he bought the club and his vision for the club. We spoke about how we had come to be there, what we knew about the courses prior to playing them, our thoughts on the club, and finally our opinion of the two courses.
It has a new owner now (the fourth since opening in 2006). Did we say too much to owner number three to convince him that it would take many years to make the club financially viable? I shared with him the financial struggles that occurred at Ballyneal with a bankruptcy and change in ownership. We discussed the over-powering reputations of Sand Hills and Ballyneal with other very fine golf courses close by in Wild Horse and The Prairie Club.
Unlike the other two reviewers, I made a point of playing the White course designed by Jack Nicklaus. One reason I choose to play it is that during my trip to Sutton Bay, Sand Hills, and Ballyneal in mid-2006, half of our party of eight had stopped to play the newly opened Dismal River course (it was not yet called the White course). They did not have a good welcoming experience in the pro shop and disliked the course so much they walked off after fourteen holes. In particular they strongly disliked the greens. I was amazed by that story because they were in Mullen, Nebraska with very little to do yet still decided to stop playing golf and leave. Instead, they drove back and flew up to Pierre to get to Sutton Bay. For ten years I was curious as to how a golf course on that type of terrain designed by Mr. Nicklaus could be so bad that one would walk off.
In that ten years, Mr. Nicklaus did return and changed the golf course considerably which I give him credit for doing so. One of the primary changes he made was to reconfigure and soften ten greens. He even became a part of the second ownership group although I do not know if he has any ownership stake today. Maybe he thought that Dismal River would be a huge success due to the acclaim of Sand Hills, where the land it is on and surrounding land is so good it looks as though one could build over a hundred courses. Perhaps he thought his name as the designer would propel the course to notoriety.
I did not play the course my companions had played and walked off. The course I played was far better, yet it is not as good as the Red course. After playing both and giving considerable thought to the courses, I wondered whether Mr. Nicklaus was told which part of the 3000 acres he would have to build the course on because the land where Tom Doak built the Red course is easily better, although not without its own complications. Perhaps Mr. Doak took more time or is simply more gifted at getting more from this type of terrain. What I was told was that after searching for nearly half a day, Mr. Nicklaus found a valley with surrounding dunes where he decided to place the finishing holes. Much of the routing was done on that first visit with the remainder finalized over a series of other site visits.
In building the initial course, Mr. Nicklaus barely moved any land, mainly for the fifteenth tee and making the tees and greens.
Neither course begins at the clubhouse nor ends at the clubhouse. Both courses have a long cart ride to the starting hole and then back to the clubhouse much like at Sand Hills. I do not think it is a mile but it might be close to that for both of them. The ride to the White course is longer than the Red. If one wants to walk the White course, well, you better be fit. Even if one takes a cart to get there and back, you will have a workout after only one round of golf due to the up and down nature of the holes. Both courses have some views of Big Horseshoe Hill but they are better on the Red course. The Red course also has views of Dismal River whereas the White course does not.
After playing it and having a long time to think about the White course, I would summarize it as follows: I think Mr. Nicklaus forced his routing a bit too much into the land he chose. It seems weird to say he is not talented enough to create a “wild/natural” course given the very fine golf course he designed in Kinloch in New Zealand. Yet Kinloch has land that is more similar to the terrain for the Red course. The fairways on the White course seem to narrow too much at the wrong part of many fairways. The greens are tucked and often hidden. The greens which have been reportedly smoothed since it opened are still not as interesting as they could be. Some feel over-undulated while others do not seem to offer the visual shape one might expect as they come into the hole. These two reasons minimize the fun of playing it although it is still fun. There is a decent mix of playability, strategy and challenge. The greens sites are fine and varied with some being located in dells while others are uphill on plateaus. The bunkering is well placed and fun to look at (I did not go in any) but look like they could be overly punitive due to the raised nature of many of them. It is a rugged golf course. The better holes are #4, #7, #9, #12 and #17. There are other holes that are good, particularly the par 5’s. There are some golf holes that I simply did not enjoy.
The course yardage ranges from 7368 to 4965. We played the 6638 tees. I note the yardages by hole have changed slightly from my visit although the total yardage is essentially the same. That is good as it means the new owners are continuing to tweak the course.
The opening hole is a par 4 of 433/411 going downhill to a wide fairway and a sharp dogleg left. There is plenty of room off the tee. There is a series of bunkers on the left sitting at the bottom of the rise that I felt are too distracting as they hide a view of the green. Longer hitters can easily fly those bunkers on the left. But what I really disliked is the hidden downhill punchbowl green running fast away from you after an extremely narrow entrance. The green feels too contrived with numerous undulations in it that do not really align with a punchbowl green.
The second hole is a par 4 of 507/409 playing as a blind tee shot uphill with the fairway sloping to the right ending at a sunken green slightly off to the right. Although the visual to the green is nice I did not like the green complex which is bland.
The third is a par 3 of 188/146 requiring one less club unless wind is in one’s face. It plays fairly level across a valley and I did not think much of the hole other than a huge fronting blow-out bunker on the left that should not come into play unless there is very high wind. The false front to the green is more of a concern. It is a nice hole with a good visual.
Four is one of the better holes on the course, a par 5 of 578/524 and one of the flatter holes. It first plays downhill as a dogleg left with a windmill at the left front of the green. There is a huge bunker/sand area on the left side of the hole. The rest of the hole is fairly level. It is a lovely two-tiered green fronted as well by numerous bunkers. The bigger hitters can try for the green in two but that shot can bring the windmill into play. For other players if they play the hole the way it is meant to be played rather than be distracted by the view and all of the sand/bunkers, they will likely be rewarded with a putt for birdie on an undulating green that is one of the better ones. I did think the fairway to be slightly too narrow for the tee shot. From the fairway this is perhaps the most beautiful spot on the golf course due to the large bunker on the left, the windmill, and the hills surrounding the green.
Five is an uphill par 3 of 185/141 as a semi-blind shot to the green. If you do not make the green, you essentially have a 40/50-yard blind shot back up the hill or you are in a very difficult, raised bunker in the front center of the green. It is a decent hole which I liked more than the third.
Six is a short par 4 of 348/305 playing downhill to an uphill green. Due to the location of a center-line bunker and huge, raised greenside bunkers, I do not consider this a true risk-reward par 4. Therefore, it seemed too easy to me despite a lovely punchbowl-like green. I did like the hole.
Seven is a dogleg left par 4 of 475/437 from the elevated tee with the tee shot down and the green is uphill. A large bunker is on the left corner. There is another false front at the green. I felt this to be the most difficult hole on the front nine. The view from the tee is nice as one gets a nice long look at the surrounding land.
Eight is a par 4 of 333/296 that is definitely driveable for the longer hitter playing uphill to a blind green. It is all carry to the green from the tee which provides a peak at part of the green. This is a good risk-reward hole but the safer play to the fairway creating a dogleg right should yield a good chance for birdie. The safer play then has to travel over a sand/bunker area of more than 100 yards but it should not be in play. The green slopes right to left so for the player trying for the green it is sloping away from them. A player who prefers more risk in their game would like this hole more than I did.
Nine is a par 5 of 618/590 that features a centerline bunker on the second shot. One friend said it reminded him of Hells-Half Acre bunker at Pine Valley but I thought in size in was more like the large bunker on seventeen at Muirfield. This hole has one of the better greens on the course with more undulations on the right side. I liked the hole.
Ten is a par 3 of 195/160 with a huge bunker in the middle of the green. The bunker is fairly deep and surrounded by rough area. We had a left pin location so the bunker did not come into play. The green sits in a bit of a bowl with both sides allowing a slightly mis-hit ball to come onto the green. However, it made me wonder how often they use the front/right pin because one has to get over this bunker since this side of the green is not very deep. I also felt the green was too slanted. I think someone either loves the hole or dislikes it. I did not like it.
Eleven is a par 4 of 443/401 playing up over a rise and then downhill to the right with a massive, deep blow-out bunker to the left of the green. Once again, the fairway narrows too much for the longer hitter. The green is very tilted back to front and left to right. It is overly undulating. We thought the hole to be average.
Twelve is a par 5 of 572/536 playing as a double dogleg with a large bunker complex on the right for the approach shot and then on both sides of the front of the green. I thought the fairway to be a bit too narrow which would be fine if other holes did not have a similar issue. The hole is visually attractive and like the other par 5’s has a green that is more sensible.
Thirteen is a shorter par 4 of 400/379 where the green sited off to the left due to the slope of the fairway. There is another deep bunker and substantial fall-off into rough area on the front and left of the green requiring an approach shot that is all carry. The green is very narrow. I felt the green to be a bit too narrow although visually the hole is attractive.
Fourteen is a long par 4 of 515/441 playing down to the right to a wide fairway with an almost infinity green at the end fronted by another large bunker and false front filled with rough area/taller grass. It is a good hole.
Fifteen is the final par 3 of 186/161 playing sort of like a redan with bunkers/sand between you and the green. I think the bunker ten yards behind the green detracts from the visual of the hole. However, it is a nice par 3 with a green sloping front to back and right to left. It is the best par 3 on the golf course.
Sixteen is a par 4 of 425/383. We disagreed on this hole. My playing partners liked the rise on the right with a bunker placed into it with the optimal line is to go down the right over the bunker. Going left will leave a blind shot to the flag due to a hill that cuts in from the left. I went left and hit a lofted club into the green and I was fine with an uphill putt as the green slopes 3 feet from front left to back right. They liked the hole a lot and I thought the green was too severely slanted back to front.
Seventeen is a mid-length par 4 of 457/413 playing downhill from an elevated teebox to a wide fairway. There is a higher ridge line of hills to the right of the hole with frames it beautifully. Longer hitters will fly the bunker complex cutting in from the left leaving themselves perhaps a gap wedge if they do not run through the fairway. The green is in a bit of a bowl. I like the hole as it is both visually attractive and fun.
It takes a bit of a trip to get to the eighteenth tee. Eighteen is a short par 5 of 515/505 playing downhill towards a very large bunker on the left side. From the tee, the fairway looks like a normal fairway has been sliced in half due to the large bunker left and a hill on the right with tall grass. However, this is deceptive as the fairway is fairly wide. The longer hitter can easily reach the uphill green in two following a good tee shot. For average length players, just be smart and it is a fairly easy hole although the fairway narrows again if one is trying to lay up to 80-100 yards. I wish that the course ended with a better green complex as it is be too tricked up despite a upper and lower shelf and swales. However, I feel the final green is easy to read.
If one is making a stop at Dismal River, they should definitely play both golf courses. The two courses are very different with Mr. Doak’s having a less rugged feel to the land, better shaping of fairways and better green complexes. However, the White course is very natural. It is rugged and the bunkering, while not always in play, is a great visual. The various owners and Mr. Nicklaus have improved the White course from the course that once was there. I think there is a bit more work to do to improve the greens both in being less hidden as well as smoothing them even more There is also a need to widen the fairways on four of the five holes where I thought the narrowing of the fairways do not reward enough the brave, longer hitter and they create a bad visual. This would not take a lot of work to do.
If I was a member, I would likely play the Red about 6-6.5 times out of 10. But if I showed up and the Red was busy, I would not hesitate to go to the White course. It is certainly worthwhile and one can get around it in about 3 hours in a cart on a relatively calm day, but it should not take more than 4 hours walking. Overall, I like the White golf course a lot. The only other course that Mr. Nicklaus designed that I have played in land somewhat similar to this is at Kinloch in New Zealand. The White course is not as good as Kinloch, but it is a fine golf course.