The golf courses at Prairie Club in Nebraska’s Sandhills region are laid out within an enormous property that once operated as a cattle ranch in Snake River Canyon, some twenty miles southwest of the small town of Valentine in Cherry County.
There are currently 46 holes in play here: 18 on the Dunes course (a Tom Lehman and Chris Brands co-design), 18 on the Pines course (fashioned by Graham Marsh), and 10 holes on a lovely little par-three circuit named Horse, which were introduced by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackleford.
In Daniel Wexler’s book The American Private Golf Club Guide the author describes the Pines course as “moving between dunes and pine-covered terrain (where) it’s shorter front nine initially offers the well-bunkered 548-yard 2nd but peaks at the twisting, semi-blind 616-yard 7th and the sloping (but massively wide) 462-yard 8th.”
He continues: “the pines are more in evidence on the 4,822-yard inward half, particularly at the narrow 602-yard 11th, the 461-yard 12th (a strong, sweeping dogleg left), the 460-yard 16th (whose fallaway green favors a run-up approach) and the 183-yard 17th. Also memorable are a pair of par threes with huge triangular green (the 159-yard 6th and 173-yard 10th) as well as the 595-yard dogleg left 18th, which dares a long second across a corner of the Snake River canyon.”
I know several people who describe the Pines course at The Prairie Club as a missed opportunity. While it is on a flatter piece of land than the Dunes course due to it being closer to the Snake River Canyon, I found it to be a good second course with some decent shot values and visual appeal. I do not think this course, designed by Graham Marsh, was ever meant to compete with the Dunes course. Instead, I think it is meant to be the more player-friendly course, although it has several holes that will challenge the better players. Perhaps the people who quibble about this course simply wanted a routing that was all along the canyon – out and back, because the routing has a fair amount of holes set away from the canyon. Indeed, when I look at the photos of CapRock which will be next door to The Prairie Club, it seems to be routed to take prime advantage of the views of the canyon, and incorporating the edges of the canyon much more than the Pines course.
I enjoyed playing the Pines course, and was able to play most of it twice the same day, but couldn’t quite pull off 36 holes due to a six hour drive waiting for me when I finished my “second” round. There are a few parallels to the Dunes course in terms of several holes being out in the open of the sand hills, yet the parallels are not as evident because the land is much flatter, it does not have the dramatic rises, falls, high ground, elevated tees, elevated greens, valleys, that are on nearly every hole of the Dunes. Instead, the land is closer in elevation change to Wild Horse near Gothenburg.
Could they have made a better course? Of course, given the land available to them. Yet it is a good and worthy second course, with the highlight of the course being the greens, which are smaller than the Dunes course, but nearly as undulated. The greens seem to have fewer inner mounds and swales, but possibly have more slope on several of them. On the negative side, there are four greens that are poorly shaped with unfair pin positions.
The Pines course plays to a par of 73. The Black tees are 7385 yards, rated 74.6/129. The Blue tees are 6792 yards, rated 71.9/123. There is a Blue/White combo of 6386 yards rated 69.8/115 and a set of white tees. I will reference only the Black and Blue tees. I played the Blue tees.
1. Par 4 – 419/400. The course begins with a gentle par 4 playing level with a few small rises and falls in the rumpled fairway. There is a vertical spine running through the green making it two tiers. The fairway is wide with a large bunker on the left side, the preferred side for a slightly better angle into the green. Placed before the green is a large, somewhat deep bunker on the left and three similar bunkers on the right that begin about 35 yards from the green.
2. Par 5 – 548/489. The love affair at The Prairie Club with center-line bunkers is evident on the second which features three bunkers grouped together in the middle of the fairway. Off to the edges of both sides of the fairway are two other bunkers. The bigger hitters will fly all of these bunkers to either side of the fairway, depending on their preference. It seemed to me that the right side might have the better view of the green. The fairway pinches in with more bunkers on the left and one on the right, but there is ample room to avoid them. The left side of the fairway has tall grass near the large bunker where recovery is difficult. The green has two long, sinewy bunkers on either side of the green which is angled to the left. Another small bunker is hidden in the back right of the green. I had a front pin but I could see that this green has a lot of undulations that do not appear to be that difficult, yet the putts I took all went extremely fast and broke quite a bit more than I expected.
3. Par 3 – 168/154. This hole has a plateau green with two tiers. All of the danger is in front of the green with four bunkers, two in the middle and one on each side. This is perhaps the least visually exciting par 3 on the two courses. However, the green surface is very tricky as I learned with after a three putt on round two.
4. Par 4 – 479/434. One of the lesser interesting holes as it is basically flat and wide open with only a large bunker and scattered trees on the left. Farther up beginning about 50 yards from the green and spaced 15 yards apart are diagonally spaced cross bunkers from right to left ending in a large bunker on the left short of the green. While these bunkers are meant to confuse one as to the distance to the hole, I do not think they had much effect. The green is steeply sloped left to right but with a lot of room behind the green for balls going long.
5. Par 4 – 416/379. I do not quite know what to make of this hole where a long waste bunker confronts the player and one feels like they are playing out of a hallway due to the trees on either side. It is the only hole like this on the course. The waste area goes about 180-220 yards depending on the tee played. The hole has a large outer bunker as it turns right. The dogleg is very sharp. Going down the right side will lead to a blind shot. There are two other small cross bunkers but I find them unlikely to be in play due to their placement. The green is raised and tilted sharply right to left and front to back. Another large bunker is placed off to the left but I do not think it will often come into play. A lot of my chips (I had a lot of time on round two) would run through the green off the back or right side due to the slope. I think the waste area in out of character with the rest of the course and the green is too sloped.
6. Par 3 – 159/148. This is a nice par 3 to a triangular shaped green that has fall-offs to three sides, with the deep bunker on the right side of the green set below the green being a difficult recovery shot. There is a large bunker short of the green on the right but it is not much in play. The green has multiple spines and plateaus but not excessive as to the degree of change. The hole is visually attractive.
7. Par 5 – 616/530. The Black tee hitting through a chute of trees is an outstanding look. Flanking bunkers at the beginning of the fairway are more of a guide than for defense. Another bunker is on the left side that is in play because one wants to play away from the pine trees down the left. As the fairway narrow further there is a bunker placed right, creating a double dogleg from the tee. The green is placed like a fish-hook off to the right creating the third turn in the hole. When playing the second shot one needs to not go too far left as there is a large bunker there. The green is fronted by two bunkers. The green has a crown in the middle and falls off to the sides with a substantial swale off the right back. The best part of the hole is playing near the pines.
8. Par 4 – 462/427. The fairway has a substantial tilt to the right and shares its fairway with the ninth hole. Playing with a line of trees to the right one has to avoid the very wide bunker in the center of the fairway and a smaller one of the left. The green is partially hidden if coming in from the right side by two bunkers. One cannot go long due to a long bunker behind the hole. The green has a large internal swale. I feel this is the best hole on the front nine.
9. Par 4 – 314/299. A driveable downhill risk-reward par 4 but lessened due to the six feet high false front. And so much sand before the green including three bunkers on the right and two large ones fronting the green that make the opening fairly narrow to an already narrow green. A small pot bunker is hidden behind the green in the middle.
10. Par 3 – 173/161. This is another par 3 that I like. The hole plays downhill with two bunkers on the left side placed below a higher point that drops away towards the trees. The green is sloped front to back which is not evident from the tee. Pine trees frame the hole. Behind the hole is a walk to the edge of the canyon with stunning views.
11. Par 5 – 602/558. Another long par 5 placed between the pines trees. There is a short waste area before the start of the fairway along with a long bunker, then a smaller bunker, then another long bunker running down the left. The right side has only one small bunker as the hole starts to bend to the right. There is another center-line bunker about 65 yards short of the green. Finally, there is a large chasm-like bunker on the front right of the green with a knob on the back side.
12. Par 4 – 443/410. Another waste area is off the tee but not in play as this hole doglegs to the left. Down the right side are four bunkers with trees down the left. I do not know why the hole has so many bunkers down the right. About 40 yards from the green on the left is a long, continuous bunker set a few feet below the level of the green. The green has another bunker on the right with a back center swale in the green. I feel there is too much going on for a single hole.
13. Par 4 – 422/381. I like the shape of this par 4 that rises slightly to the punchbowl, large green. Four small bunkers are on the left side but not in play. For the longer hitters there are two massive bunkers on the right beginning about 100 yards short of the green. The left side of the green has a thin bunker set about 40 yards before the green which is angled left to right and has two spines running through it.
14. Par 4 – 345/326. This is another risk-reward driveable par 4 with two bunkers left and two placed inside the fairway on the right. The second bunker on the left is greenside and deep as the green is raised and sloped back to front. There is a sizeable fall-off to the right of the green that can take a ball 15-20 yards away.
15. Par 5 – 581/562. The fairway rises on the right side where a small bunker and a large bunker await. The play is down the left for a straight shot into the green on this slight dogleg right. If one has gone down the right they have to avoid another bunker off the right side of the fairway. Placed around the green are three bunkers with the left side very deep. The green has a diagonal spine through it with two mounds at the back.
16. Par 4 – 460/417. This is an overly difficult hole playing straight other than the green is situated left close to the canyon. Playing over a waste area and heavily tree lined. There are two bunkers placed on the right side but too far out to be in play except for the longer hitters from the Blue tees. The difficulty of the hole is in the approach shot where there are two bunkers left of the green spaced about 15 yards apart with the second one hugging the green and deep. The green is angled slightly to the left and runs towards the canyon. I think the slope of the green is to encourage a bump and run shot with a draw or a very lofted club, but only from close range. I could not get a ball to stop without rolling 40 feet. The green is too much.
17. Par 3 – 183/168. You play over a ravine to a smallish green where there are trees down the left side and a steep fall-off. The green is long but fairly narrow. There are three bunkers on the right side, placed well below the surface of the green. The front right of the green has a spine that requires a perfectly paced putt. I never could get a putt to stop when coming at the front left pin from a horizontal putt. The spine is too tall and any ball will gather speed and go off the green.
18. Par 5 – 595/549. This is an interesting hole that I believe is lessened by a poorly designed green. Perhaps I was unlucky with a prevailing wind at my back, but this green, which can be reached in two by longer hitters, is sloped front to back with a substantial fall-off behind the green. I hit a shot from 90 yards for my third to a back right pin position and found the ball off the back of the green, down a steep slope, nestled in the beginnings of tall grass about 15 yards from the green and 35 yards from the pin. On my second round I found the bunker fronting the pin location, hit a good soft bunker shot that barely cleared the edge and saw the ball nearly off the green with a 40 feet putt. Before that bunker shot, I dropped a few other balls in the fairway and only by hitting well away from the flag could I get a ball to stop on the green, but leaving a 50 feet putt of undulating surface where I could not get a putt very close. I ate lunch outside and watched others try to navigate the green. No one came close to the pin with their approach shot and no one was able to make a two putt. The ridge on the right front of this green is a terror. Obviously, my advice would be to change the contour of the green to make it fair. People do not want to walk off with a double bogey on a good hole that is perfectly placed in front of the clubhouse with a clever and eye-catching design of the route of the hole prior to the green. The hole plays as a substantial dogleg left. One cannot cut the corner too much due to the tree line on the left side where several trees pop out. The second shot for most players is to either lay up to the left with a short iron or bang a ball down the right side of a tree. Laying up left means you have to avoid the branches of a large tree as well as a bunker placed near it and leaves a 185 yards or more third shot over a valley of tall grass and rough land. If you do not pull it off it will likely mean a lost ball. Going down the right means threading a fairway that gets narrow and is rumpled, so one is not quite certain where your ball will end. The green has two bunkers placed fifteen yards right of the green, then four bunkers surrounding the green, including a hidden one at the back. It is a hole that has decision-making, strategy, and asks for execution and confidence. But the green is poorly shaped. A good shot into it should be rewarded; even a “perfect” shot is likely not to work here to pins located on the right side of the green.
The Pines course is a nice complimentary course to the Dunes, but will always be in the shadow of the Dunes due to the fabulous land the Dunes sits on with so many dramatic changes in elevation. The Pines is flatter, perhaps only having a rise of 35 feet whereas the Dunes course weaves and heaves. The Pines course has several greens that need to be re-shaped. They simply are not enjoyable because they are unfair. These greens lessen the design and routing of the course. The par 3’s are of a similar length, however they do look and play differently even if one uses the same club on the tee. It is somewhat surprising there is not a long par 3 on the course. However, this is a course that one will enjoy due to the par 3’s, the risk-rewards par 4’s, the eighth hole, as well as the beauty of the pines and the Snake River Canyon.
The Prairie Club’s Pines Course might have been called the Line of Charm Course. Time and again, the player stands on the tee (or on the second shot on a par five) and has to decide how much risk to take on to get the reward of a better angle for the shot to the green. That doesn’t mean an aerial approach is the only possibility, just that there are generally advantageous sides to approach from. The course was in excellent condition in September of 2019—firm and fast.
I found these features, along with the challenge posed by the contoured greens, to be the strengths of the Pines. On the downside, I hit the same club on three of the four par 4s and the routing is not at all intuitive, requiring long walks from too many tees to the next green. In fact, I was the only walker I saw all day…..other than my playing companion, whose cart failed at the farthest point from the clubhouse.