Several years before The Prairie Club opened in 2010, founder Paul Schock set about acquiring over a thousand acres of a former cattle ranch along the Snake River Canyon in Nebraska, with a view to offering visitors a unique golfing experience in a remote location.
When land was purchased and permits were in place, Schock and business partner Cleve Trimble interviewed a number of prospective designers before selecting three who would bring their golfing vision to life and this resulted in three very distinct layouts from the architects who were chosen.
Tom Lehman and architect Chris Brands designed the 18-hole Dunes course, an eminently walkable out-and-back layout with wide fairways and enormous greens set out on a rolling landscape punctuated by sand hills.
Lehman says that “it took Chris Brands and me over a year to finalize routing of the 18 holes. There are dozens and dozens, if not hundreds out there in the sand hills of the Prairie Club. The real battle was to overlook that which was extremely good for which was and will be truly great”.Regarding the other layouts at The Prairie Club, Graham Marsh fashioned the 18-hole Pines course and Gil Hanse set out a fun, 10-hole par three course named Horse. Another 18-hole course (provisionally named Old School) was due to be built at The Prairie Club in the near future by Gil Hanse, but has so far failed to materialize.
I was able to play the Dunes course at The Prairie Club three times on October 7, 2020, as I had the first tee time as a single. I was also able to take my time and chip and putt from multiple places near or on the green while also driving to various other points on the fairways to see different playing angles into the green. After the first round, I felt the course had too many flaws – overly difficult, overly penal, overly done in terms of elevation changes and undulating greens. After the second round, I liked the course more. By the third round, which took the longest as there were more groups on the course, resulting in me bouncing around a few of the holes, I liked the course. However, I still think there are holes that are flawed and diminish the course. As I looked around the landscape, I wondered why Tom Lehman and Chris Brands choose the land they did for some of the holes. There is a lot of land available here on this property, all of which is suitable for links-like golf. Mr. Lehman and Mr. Brands often choose the most dramatic land as opposed to land where the movement is still very evident to create an interesting golf hole that will capture one’s eyes yet be more “fair/playable.”
There are several holes where the change in terrain is so dramatic that a slightly missed shot could result in a ball being more than 100 yards away from the green when perhaps you missed a landing zone by only five yards. On these holes, the greens are large and very undulated, so a chance at recovery is nearly non-existent. A chance at bogey is low where you find yourself out of position. A slight mis-hit is more likely to result in a double bogey due to a blind recovery shot into a green where it is anyone’s guess where the ball will end, if it will stay on the green, or what type of inner moguls on the green one will have to navigate. These holes very much have a “wow” factor to them, but playability is not really an option. Perfection is required on several of the holes. For me, this limits the course. It is acceptable to have a “crazy” fairway moving up and down with deep valleys and rises. One can have a green that is very tilted with inner swales and knobs and tiers, but put both of these on the same hole on too many holes, and the result are holes that will drive one crazy in the pursuit of par. Finally, there are some pin positions that require a heroic, perfect execution in order to get close, but the penalty for not being perfect is very penal. In essence, the Dunes course sometimes feel as if it is meant for single digit handicaps or the world’s greatest short game. For the rest of us, on these hole a victory is a bogey and moving on to the next hole.
Yet if one applies the ethos of Ohoopee Match Club, where no one cares about your score, then you will enjoy every hole on the Dunes course (84-82-78) from the Blue tees. In my case, as I learned the course, my scores dropped each time because I learned where on each hole one simply could not go in order to avoid the double bogies. I learned the holes where good decision making for me was to have a potential one-putt par. I understood which holes I lacked the length to have a reasonable chance at hitting the green in regulation and therefore knew the better places to try to approach the green from 60-110 yards away. I learned the importance of keeping the ball always on the higher ground even if it meant laying up in order to putt or chip from the front of the green as opposed to trying to get to a pin tucked into a corner of the green where fall-offs awaited. I learned which holes one needed to be pin high and the direction from which to putt. I am certain the members know this as well, otherwise there would not be much joy in playing some of the holes.
Many of the holes are outstanding to very good because the land is “smoother” yet offer more than enough variation in terrain with outstanding bunkering to get onto the green. These holes are not quite as dramatic as some of the others, but one has to consider how the ball will bounce and release.
Golfweek has the Dunes course in the top 200 modern courses in the USA. This website has it third in the state. It is often listed as one of the top 100 public courses in the USA (the members of the club get one of the two courses to themselves on alternate days while the third course – the par 3 Horse course is open to anyone on any day). All of the accolades are appropriate; the Dunes course is very much worth making the journey to play. As an added bonus, the Pines course is also good and also beautiful in spots, and the ten hole par 3 Horse course is outstanding fun. From the cabins, a spot on the Pines course and the Horse course where chairs await, one has amazing views of the Snake River canyon falling abruptly creating a wonderful vista. Looking at the views, one understands why the CapRock Ranch course is being built closely by The Prairie Club, albeit going to be built closer to the Snake River canyon.
The Dunes course is par 73. From the Black tees it is 7537 yards, rated 75.5/133. The Blue tees are 6986 yards, rated 72.6/127. The Blue/White tees are 6655 yards, rated 71.0/123. The White tees are 6184 yards, rated 68.9/116. There are two sets of lesser tees going down to 5202 yards. I played the Blue tees with a bit of wind in the morning and the later part of the third round. The course is kept in excellent condition by a very friendly and dedicated superintendent and maintenance staff. I found no areas on the course, including the cart paths, that are in poor shape. I will say there are a few spots on the cart paths where I should have slowed down. The course ratings make sense to me.
1. Par 4 – 458/426. From an elevated tee you hit down before the hole rises to a green placed on a high point. The fairway is very wide, particularly to the right side. The hole actually plays fairly straight but due to a large blowout bunker on the left, one has to either be confident to carry it or play to the right of it. The approach shot is meant to go through a gap between two rises offering a peak at the middle of the green. Each side of the rise has a large bunker built into these hills. The green is hidden by higher ground on the left side of the green more so than the higher ground on the right. While the right side might lead to a longer shot into the green, the left side has a blind shot in over a bunker and the higher ground if the pin is middle or left. My pin was front left and I never came close to getting near it in my three attempts. The first try I had no idea where the pin was due to the blind shot and ended up on the back right about 80 feet away – three putt. The second time I ran through the green and was lucky to make bogey. The final try I barely cleared the rise and was still in the tall grass and could not get up and down. This front left pin position is invisible from the fairway until one is about 50 yards from the fairway peering through the gap. The green is very undulated. I counted six humps and swales along with a slight false front. For me the combination of a blind approach shot over rises through a gap and a green that has too much going on in its interior diminish this hole.
2. Par 4 – 478/434/342. The wind was in my face on round one and three, slightly lower on round two. It was not until I walked off after round two that I noticed this is a par 4 as I was certain it was a par 5. The white tee is too far forward. From an elevated tee you play downhill but the ground then quickly rises. This is a hole where I simply do not have the length unless there is no wind. The ground has a valley off of the tee and then a very deep valley to the left as you near the green which is placed in a hollow/bowl with much higher ground to the left side and high ground to the right. I suppose these mounds can be beneficial in bringing a ball onto the green but due to the blind nature of my first two rounds playing down in the valley from 100 -120 yards away, I do not know if I got a favorable kick or not. I do know one has to account for a large blowout bunker built into the hill on the front left while a smaller, scraped bunker on the right side does not seem like it would often be in play. By round three I realized I had to stay as right as I could with my lay-up shot in order to avoid going down into the valley. This is one of the holes where if you miss by a yard or two, you will be penalized 100 yards or more. Finally, this very long green has three tiers to it as well as tilts. I had a pin that was before the third tier where a plateau awaits. I three putted the green the first two times for double bogies and made a 5 feet putt on round three for a bogey. This is another hole where the combination of the excessive land movement and an undulating green is overwhelming. Visually this is an attractive hole.
3. Par 5 – 590/525. From a slightly elevated tee one has to carry the ridge over a center-line bunker while ensuring they do not go too far left into a much larger bunker. The ground then rises with a massive bunker on the right with another one about 50 yards behind it that one might not be able to see from the lower ground. The approach shot will likely find level ground as you contemplate a very difficult approach shot. The green has a large deep fronting bunker on the left that sits well below the green followed by another deep bunker at the back left half of the green. There is a final bunker back right. The ground is front of the green where the bunker sits is likely as much as ten feet below the green. More importantly, about 110 yards out from the green, the fairway bulges out to the left as another valley appears, not quite as far down as on the second hole, but will lead to another blind shot. I was unlucky in my pin placement, back left and close to those bunkers. This is another green that has multiple tiers and swales in it. I never came close to parring this hole, the first time finding one of those bunkers and two putting, the other two rounds three putting because I saw no way to get close to the pin which had a deep swale right in front of it. My third round I thought I had pulled it off only to see my first putt run out of steam and come back down the slope nearly going into the bunker and being 25 feet away. For the third hole in a row I felt the hole was diminished by having too much going on. Sometimes less is more.
4. Par 3 – 145/138. The yardage says 145 but it felt like it was playing 170 as the pin was set to the far right. This tee shot has to carry a valley to an hourglass shaped green with a tall ridge in the green dropping about 4 1/2 feet. I walked off the green which I think is 88 yards wide. The green slopes steeply back to front. I did think the play to that far right pin was to hit long and let the hill behind the green where there is an opening allow the ball to release and go back onto the green. However there is a bunker placed up there as well. Round one was a three putt, round two I found one of the two long bunkers fronting the green and round three I finally parred it. From the tee this is another visually pleasing hole but it is another hole where there is too much going on in the green.
5. Par 4 – 371/326. This dogleg right is yet another visually attractive hole from an elevated tee. Bigger hitters will try to cut as much of the dogleg as they can. Shorter hitters will need to carry a large bunker fronting the fairway and avoid a center-line bunker behind it. Another center-line bunker follows about 50 yards farther up, very much in play for nearly everyone. The green sits in another hollow/bowl and is raised. There is a large blowout bunker before the 5 feet high false front. Much of the right half of the green is hidden from view by a mound fronting the green. The green falls off in the skinny back half left of the green. I had a front left, very visible pin position close to the false front. Each round I found myself either short or falling back off the green to the bottom of the false front. But each time I putted and got up and down. It is a clever hole although one wonders what I would have thought had the pin been hidden behind the mound on the right side of the green.
6. Par 5 – 542/525. This double dogleg takes prime advantage of the land which has valleys, rises, and plateaus in the fairway. The tee shot should easily carry two bunkers at the center and left. More troublesome for the average length player is a small center-line bunker and one placed off to the right. The second shot is uphill to a plateau where the shorter hitter will have to avoid being too cautious and going into a bunker at the bottom of the rise on the left, or two bunkers near the top of the ridge on the right front of the green. The green is angled to the right with a back right long, thin bunker. This green has a large bailout area to the left side but one has to navigate a fall-off slope to get back on. The green is also the first smooth green on the course whose biggest defense is its length.
7. Par 3 – 171/161. There is a nice long view over the sand hills from this elevated tee. Despite the hole being downhill it seems to play to its length based on the wind. There are deep bunkers on this hole, one front left, followed by one left side and a single, large bunker on the right that takes up the entirely of the right side. The green has several interior swales, but not as pronounced as some of the earlier holes. Twice I got up and down from the greenside bunkers whereas the third was a routine par.
8. Par 4 – 481/461. If the seventh is somewhat of a breather hole, the eighth hits one hard. It is a “wow” hole. You play downhill to a wide fairway that narrows considerably due to a bunker on the right and an enormous, long bunker complex on the left consisting of three scraped bunkers. You have to hit a perfect tee shot between all of the sand to have any possibility of a view of the flag. In my case it was always going to be a blind second shot to this uphill green that has a bunker middle right and three on the left. For an average length player this hole is intimidating due to the blind nature of the hole and the size of the fairway bunkers leading one up the hill. The green is fairly flat, more of a back to front slope with ripples but not overly done ripples. The land is not overly done on this hole despite all of the changes in elevation. Even though I never parred the hole, I wished more of the first four holes were like this one where the emphasis is on the tee shot/approach as opposed to the green.
9. Par 4 – 492/473. I never came close to parring this hole either as it plays longer than the yardage due to it being uphill. In addition, my pin was back left, adding another 20 yards to the hole. The tee shot has to avoid a large bunker on the right side. Bigger hitters will need to either carry two bunkers placed inside the fairway on the left or thread the needle between the three bunkers. The green sits fairly high above you with a fronting center-line bunker 10 yards short of the green and another bunker on the right that is long and deep, also short of the green. There is a sizeable fall-off to the left where a final bunker is placed about eight yards from the green. This hole has another green that I think is too tilted and borderline silly. Between the length, the bunkers and the contours of the green, this is an overly difficult hole. Having a difficult hole, possibly two, on a golf course, is fine, but having several within the first nine holes is a bit much.
10. Par 5 – 609/532. The par 5’s are very good on the Dunes course. For me, this is the best of the lot because the third hole I think is lessened by a poorly designed green complex. The tee shot on this hole has to navigate bunkers placed on the ridge. There are five bunkers to navigate on the tee shot, three of which are placed in the center or near center of the fairway, the first two being both long and angled. There are two bunkers also on the left. For longer hitters, they will try to fly the bunkers or much like shorter length hitters, the play is down the right side of the fairway. The remainder of the hole has a slight rise as the fairway narrows with a long, deep bunker on the right side and two more small bunkers placed in the center of the fairway. As one nears the green there are large, angular, somewhat deep bunkers on both sides of the fairway about 60 yards from the green. Finally, at the green there is a small bunker front left, one front right and one at the back right. This hole has an excellent use of bunkers that make the hole play more strategic, making what seems to be wide fairways become much narrower. Most of the bunkers offer a chance of recovery, yet one wants to avoid them. The green has five humps in it and overall is sloped back to front and to the left. The front half of the green has the more severe undulations. It is a very nice hole.
11. Par 4 – 364/310. This is another breather hole offering a downhill tee shot to a wide fairway to the right. The green is placed atop a rise with one of the largest blowout bunkers fronting it placed on the hill and three smaller bunkers in the center of the fairway. Bigger hitters will simply go over these bunkers. If the bigger hitters want to have a try at the green, they have to avoid two small bunkers placed to the left of the green and not miss to the right of the green into a long, sinewy bunker trailing away from the green. For me, this hole was an easy decision, hit out to the right and hit a short iron into the green where I parred it twice and birdied it once. There is ample room to be short or long left of the hole in order to get up and down. I had a front left pin but in looking at the green the back half looked a lot more difficult.
12. Par 5 – 548/518. Playing to another wide fairway of 90 yards, this hole has no fairway bunkers to consider with the tee shot. There is a valley before the green rises above you about 25 feet. The second shot for average length hitters is to play to the middle of the fairway, being careful to avoid the six bunkers on the right side. The green sits well above you placed essentially behind two large, very deep, long blowout bunkers. I did not go into them, but I walked into the one on the left and estimated the height at 15 feet, possibly more. The green is sharply tilted back to front with various swales but overall is influenced by the slope. I went long on my third try and could not stop my ball with my chip shot from higher ground behind the green to a back left flag resulting in my only bogey in three tries.
13. Par 4 – 429/394. More center-line bunkers are waiting here and at this point I started to think this happens too often. This hole plays downhill. This hole has two of them, but also another bunker on the right placed inside the fairway and a large bunker on the left that might actually be two bunkers that also go deep into the fairway. This is followed by another bunker left that is long and thin. Finally, there are two bunkers placed far off the green to the right and a small one fronting the green. The green is raised and the fronting bunkers and a knob hide the green. The green is tilted back left to front right. There is a lot of room behind the green. I had a front right pin which is hidden if one comes in from the left side of the fairway.
14. Par 3 – 164/158. This par 3 is uphill with all of the sand on the right side before the green and continuing to the side of the green in the form of three bunkers. The green is very large. It is best to take another club on this substantially uphill hole. The safer play is to be long however the green has a lot of subtle undulations.
15. Par 5 – 581/566. Playing as a triple dogleg to the left then right then left, this is a lovely par 5. Once again there are bunkers placed inside the fairway, more so on the right. There is a bunker on the left that only the longest hitters can reach. The fairway narrows with long, deep bunkers to either side. Finally, the uphill green has natural bunkers on the left side with a couple small ones on the right front. This is another very well designed and wonderfully laid out par 5. As I played the hole I understood it more, thus my scores were 6-5-4 for the three rounds.
16. Par 3 – 201/173. There is a lot of room to the left of the green as the right side has higher ground and three bunkers built into the rise. The green is 77 yards long with a sizeable swale on the right rear with an overall tilt than looks like it is more than 5 feet. Balls hitting this swale will definitely fall off the green and run off as much as twenty yards leaving a very difficult recovery shot.
17. Par 4 – 457/443. This hole plays as a slight dogleg right to an uphill green. The tee shot must avoid a small bunker in the fairway on higher ground followed by an enormous blowout bunker on the right. There are smaller, thin bunkers down the left side. The real difficulty to the hole is the massive fall-off both before the green and to the left side that can take a ball 30-40 yards down a hill leaving a blind shot. If one is trying to ensure they reach the green and go too long, there is a bunker in the back waiting for them. The green has a hollow in the left side. It is a hole that requires precision with the approach shot.
18. Par 4 – 456/443. Two more center-line bunkers wait here followed by flanking bunkers as the fairway turns slightly left. There is a large blowout bunker on the left side before the green. There is a mound in the fairway that will send a ball one way or the other. The green is angled left to right with a final bunker on the right side. I parred the hole the first two rounds but the third round was a bogey. It is a fine finish to a course that is filled with wonderment and discovery.
As mentioned, by the third round I appreciated the Dunes course at The Prairie Club, other than the beginning holes and a few of the greens which I think are overly done. It is a course very much worth trying to play. It is not as subtle as Sand Hills nor as playable as Ballyneal, but it does offer a good mixture of challenge and fun. At times, there is too much movement in the land and on the greens on the same hole. There are some pin positions that perhaps should not be used due to “fairness.” When the hole is stacked against you so much that you feel it is impossible, that is when the beauty of the course can disappear into frustration and angst. I do not think they picked the best land for the course, sometimes less is more. But it is a course that will grow on you the more you play it. The more you play it, the more you will like it.