Review for Sand Hills

Reviewer Score:


Sand Hills, the third course designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, is the best golf course I have played that was built after 1970. Tara Iti is the only course that comes close to it but has the advantage of a breathtaking setting on the ocean. Ballyneal and Frairs Head are a bit lower followed by the courses at Cape Wickham, Bandon Dunes, Cabot, Barnbougle, and Kingsbarns. Streamsong, Castle Stuart, and Whistling Straits are in the next level. We are fortunate to have so many wonderful new courses created by owners who find the right land and designers so well skilled in routing, knowing when and how to place bunkers, utilize natural land shapes, and create wonderful green complexes.

I have played Sand Hills five times during two stops on July 19, 2006 and then on June 2/3, 2016. I have generally played the member tees at 6432 yards but have also played it all the way back at 7039 yards. The weather during the first trip had the morning round ending at 98 degrees and the afternoon round peaked at 108 degrees. Strangely, we took a cart for the morning round but walked the afternoon round. For the second trip the weather was in the low 80’s and we walked all three rounds. A month can make a big difference in the temperatures in Nebraska.

Dick Youngscap had previously worked with Pete Dye in developing Firethorn Golf Club in the eastern part of Nebraska. But he was aware of the potential for a golf course on the land in the sand hills. The land was unsuitable for grazing by cattle requiring 25 acres to support one cow as opposed to the norm of 5 acres per cow. It was also unsuitable for planting crops. It was perfect for golf particularly since under the ground is the Ogallala aquifer. It feels as though 100 great golf courses could be built in this area of flowing, rolling sand dunes perfect for golf. He purchased 8000 acres of land in the sand hills in 1990. The overall cost of the project was minimal due to hardly moving any land. The cost of making the greens averaged $300 per green instead of $40,000 (1993 prices) as there was no need for drain tile/gravel nor seed mix. Only $7000 was spent grading the greens. 85% of the cost of constructing the course was spent on irrigation, followed by the cost of grassing the course.

Mr. Youngscap took a huge risk. The closest big cities to Sand Hills are Omaha and Denver, both over 4 hours drive (and not an exciting drive by any means). If not for the success of Sand Hills, would we have Ballyneal, Dismal River, Sutton Bay or The Prairie Club? Mr. Youngscap proved that golfers would travel to remote locations if the golf was at a very high level. Perhaps we might not even have Bandon Dunes, Whistling Straits, Sand Valley or Streamsong. We should all give thanks to him. I had the pleasure on my first visit of spending 45 minutes with him at Ben’s Porch along with Ric Kayne, later to build Tara Iti. Mr. Youngscap is firm in his opinions, has in-depth knowledge of the proper design, economical use of funds, and type of environment required of a destination, golf-only club to be successful. We should be thankful for his legacy to golf beyond Sand Hills.

Of the recent architects, Bill Coore and Tom Doak are the best in finding the best land and getting the most out of the rises and falls of the terrain such as where a dune is raised or a lower valley reveals itself They expertly incorporate the various contours in the land. They seamlessly connect one tee to the next. They do leave as much undisturbed as they can. At Sand Hills, Mr. Coore immediately saw land that would become the first, seventeenth and eighteenth holes. Over the course of multiple site visits during a two-year period, Mr. Coore and Mr. Crenshaw found 130 holes that they had to narrow down to 18. To finish the routing, Mr. Younscap had to swap some land for holes 12-15. As Mr. Younscap put it, Mr. Coore and Mr. Crenshaw did not have to develop the holes, they had to discover them.

Much of this information is found inside a brochure in the cabins.

The final routing is superb. A hole flows effortlessly to the next hole. There is a consistency to the golf course that one finds only at the best golf courses. The course moves in all directions with only holes 10-12 going the same direction before it reverses. Therefore, on windy days one will get the benefit of the wind as equally as one may find oneself at a disadvantage. The only criticism I can give of the course is that it is unbalanced in that the back nine is superior to the front nine in terms of the quality of the holes on the back nine offer more challenge. Part of this is due simply to length but it is also due to slightly better driving lines, slightly more undulating greens, and a more defensive placement of bunkers. Everything is lifted a notch on the back nine. Most importantly, from fourteen on in is a fabulous finish, particularly the final three holes.

The front nine yardages are 3370/3046 versus 3703/3355 leading to total yardages of 7073/6401. These are per the scorecard although I wrote down 7078/6432 in my personal rating spreadsheet. My low round from the 6400 tees is 77 while from the back tees I scored 83. The course is far better from the back tees as the holes open up more visually, in challenge, and excitement.

There are too many holes to list as my favorites or what I consider to be the best holes. The two holes I thought to be a little below the others would be the third and fourteen. I have only parred fourteen once in five tries, so maybe I am wrong about that hole. These are not average holes, they are simply “less good.”

The first time I played the opening hole I thought it was visually very good but an above-average hole. By the fifth round I thought it might be the best opening golf hole in the world. The first hole really does have everything: a long beautiful view, a challenging tee shot that can be either rewarding or punitive, a risk-reward element, excitement on the green and an amazing green complex. The hole is the most attractive as one steps onto the green and looks back towards the tee. I have thought about what other courses begin with such an amazing hole. Merion East has the porch with people dining to the left but it is an easier starting hole. The Old course at St. Andrews has the clubhouse behind it and town to the left but the fairway is enormous, it lacks length and other than the burn does not offer a challenge unless the wind is in one’s face. Cypress Point offers a blind tee shot over a hedge and road but I do not think the setting is comparable. Perhaps only Machrihanish Old and Cape Wickham have as good an opening tee shot and hole.

The starting hole is a par 5 of 549/521 playing as a cape hole from an elevated tee shot going downhill until you reach where the green complex begins. The fairway is 60-65 yards wide so there is plenty of room off the tee. There are two large bunkers to either side for the tee shot which makes the fairway feel smaller than it is. The longer hitters will not even look at the left bunker and fly it over the right edge to have a chance for the green in two. The fairway comes back a bit to the left in direction and tilt. The fairway is rippling and undulating. Hitting a second shot too long and too far left could mean one is in a bunker there. This is a near impossible shot to recover from this bunker to get to the green. I have found that the third shot from the right, no matter the length, is quite challenging as it simply feels more blind and the height of the green and surrounding mounds seem taller. On the front right of the green is a large sand/bunker that one has to clear. The green is elevated between mounds, sort of an amphitheater, running back to front. One must land their ball at least two thirds up this green or the green will send the ball coming back off the front down the hill about 50 yards or even into those bunkers on the right. Going long over the green results in a very speedy downhill putt or chip. It is a most impressive golf hole.

The second is a par 4 of 458/368 and is a prime example of the back tees being much better than the forward tees. The back tees play almost straight sitting above the back side of the first green. These tee sends you over a short, forced carry uphill. The member tee plays more as a dogleg right. The fairway sits between two knobs followed by a bunker on the right that appears to be pressing against the green but is actually sixty yards short. The green has a false front and a marvelous contour with its highest point about 60% on leading to a fall-off behind the green. The real beauty of the green is a small plateau section on the right with a steep slope to it that will repel a shot struck too weakly back towards the front or send it towards the lower left back half. Some of my partners thought the green to be overly difficult but I liked it. If one likes a few of the prairie and nothing else, then standing at the backside of this green is the place to be as the view goes on forever.

The first par 3 is next at 216 yards. There is 100 yards of grass to clear to a green sitting slightly below you. The green is massive, fully 50 yards deep and one can run a shot onto the green here. There is a raised area of the green on the left side which will send balls to the right. There is a hidden bunker on the back middle of the green which for me is the only interesting part of the hole.

Four is an outstanding par 4 of 485/409. It tumbles downhill about 60 feet to a wide fairway resulting in playing much shorter than the yardage if there is no wind. From the back tee it is a slight dogleg left while the member tee it becomes a straight tee shot. There is a bunker on the right of the fairway. The real interest and beauty of the hole is the raised large sand bunker to the left of this green which sits on a shelf with a fall-off to the right. The bunker left of the green is more massive than at the sixth at St. Enodoc Church and the fourth at Royal St. George’s. Possibly combine them and you might approach the size of this bunker, which is the largest and deepest at Sand Hills. From the fairway one sees only about a third of the ultimate size of the bunker. If one goes down there, then good luck as you have to hit a 35 yard high bunker shot that is difficult to stop on the green due to the fall-off on the other side. The green itself is fairly gentle but getting there is the issue. This hole plays very differently from the back tee due to the additional yardage. It is perhaps a bit too easy from the forward tee if one is driving the ball well.

The fifth is a par 4 of 412/387 offering a center-line bunker about 240 yards out with more bunkers on the right. This hole is a better hole from the back tee as a dogleg right is created as opposed to a straight drive. Playing the back tee brings the right bunker into play, which is against a mound, deep and steep. You are not likely to get to the green from this bunker. The fairway tilts a bit to the left all the way until the next bunker on the left that blocks the view of the green. The green has a large bunker to the right and sits in a bowl. The green is relatively straightforward. I like the visual of the hole but if the tee shot is successfully executed, this is one of the less interesting approach shots on the golf course.

The second par 3 is the sixth at 198 yards playing slightly downhill. A blowout bunker hides the left side of the green where there is a depression. Two bunkers are on the right side of the green. It is a nice hole.

Seven is a short par 4 of 283 to a wide fairway with two bunkers on the right and another large one on the left side at the green. The green is on a shelf and is narrow at the front and back. The bunker on the left at the green is unlike the one of the fourth hole in that it does not fall off, it is merely 10 feet deep and split while having a raised front. However, that bunker is very much in play for those attempting to drive the green or the player who has hit down the left side. This is a tough green to hit even with a sand wedge due to the size. Missing the green to the right will go down a steep hill and you will likely have a 15 feet high blind recovery shot. I felt this to be a good risk-reward hole.

Eight is another short par 4 of 367/293 and visually very lovely from the tee. This slight dogleg right has two bunkers on the right in play from both tees and one farther up on the left that is not in play from the back tee but very much in play from the forward tee. The fairway slopes right to left. There is a small bunker in the front middle cutting into the green which is surrounded on all sides by sand built into the surrounding dunes creating a boomerang bunker much like is found at the fourteenth at Colorado Golf Club. I think this is one of the better holes on the front nine.

The front nine finishes with a 402/371 par 4 playing as a uphill sharper dogleg right finishing in front of the starting shed/halfway house where the burgers and beer are delicious. This is referred to as “Ben’s Porch.” This is the most undulating fairway but also wide. There are two bunkers on the corner built out of the dunes/mounds that can block the view of the green and two tiny ones on the left. The green is raised from its center with fall-offs abounding. It is another nice golf hole.

The tenth kicks off with a tee shot nearly as dramatic as the first hole. This fairway is one of the most undulating and has several valleys/hollows that can hide golfers playing ahead of you. There is a 120-yard forced carry to one level of the fairway before it drops to another level where the fairway narrows. There are two small bunkers on the right and one small on the left. Another larger bunker is on the right side. Of these four bunkers, only two should be in play for the average hitter. Finally, there is one bunker to the back right of this nicely contoured green that slopes towards that bunker. The play into the hole is down the left. I think this is a very beautiful hole.

Eleven is a hole I have only once figured out. This downhill then sharply uphill dogleg left par 4 of 408/348 seemingly should present no problem due to the large green. You can see the green from the tee. You know exactly what you have to do. The fairway slopes sharply to the right. From the back tee there is a long, forced carry where I have to avoid the bunker at the right. From the member tees the huge blowout bunker on the left is very much in play as is the smaller one on the right due to the pitch of the land. Only the front of the green is now visible. If the flag is at the back of the green you will likely not see it on the horizon green and judging the yardage becomes a bit of a guessing game. It is a very steep hill and a ball hit short will come back down the hill perhaps 90 yards. The tilt of the green is back to front so even if one finds the front section there is the possibility the ball will release back down the hill. There are three bunkers that are deep and large to the left of the green that one can see from the tee but are blind for the approach shot. I have never played a round without at least one member of the foursome being in one of them. Hitting the right side of the green can have one’s ball release to a deep swale on the right from which recovery is difficult.

The first time I played the hole, I hit my second too short, then hit my third 25 yards over the green. I hit my next shot too hard and flew over the green again ending 100 yards away down at the bottom farther away than my first attempt to approach the green.. I hit my next ball slightly over the green and eventually scored an 8. I have parred the hole once. In my round of 77 I double bogeyed the hole despite hitting a perfect drive from the 348 yard tee. I love the hole despite my inadequacies here.

The favorite hole on the course for many golfers is the twelfth, a par 4 of 417/354. From the forward tees this is not a favorite of mine even if the visual is still fairly good. From the back tee it is an exceptional hole. This hole reminds me of various seaside courses in the UK and Ireland as it has the widest fairway on the course at nearly 100 yards. There is a forced carry followed by a ridge before finally there is a spine sending balls down into valleys on either side creating blind approach shots. Nearer the green there is another valley on the right. At the green there is a deep fall-off in front of the green sending balls down to the right. Missing to the right will find a large bunker. From the member tees I find it easier to stay on the spine or having an approach shot that is short enough to not cause any stress. From the back tees this is a very good golf hole as I do not have the length to make the first tall ridge that creates the spine so my approach shot is always blind. It is a wonderfully designed golf hole.

The third par 3 comes next at 216/185 from an elevated tee to an infinity green with another series of large bunkers on the right side and just one on the left. A ball hit weakly will tumble down the fairway to the right into a collection area about 40 yards away. There is 60 yards of fairway before this horizon green which has many swales which help to stop the ball. This is a very good par 3 both visually and in playability.

Fourteen is a short par 5 of 508/475. I have played this hole well and played it poorly. There are two large bunkers on the left. If you get into one of these bunkers, it is best to play for safety rather than be aggressive. The fairway is certainly wide enough to miss these bunkers. The best line to the green is down the left and the longer hitters can catch a ridge line and get an additional 50 yards. Playing from the left for a short third must avoid the deep blowout bunker at the bottom of a valley about 70 yards from the green. This creates a blind wedge to a very tiny green but this is preferable to coming in from the right side and having to carry the bunker fronting the green with a bunker behind it due to the narrowness of the green. It is an exceptional risk-reward par 5 mainly due to the green complex.

Fifteen is a par 4 of 453/422 ending with a green angled off to the left. I really like this hole. The hole plays as a dogleg right off the tee with a large bunker pinching into the fairway from the right. There is another bunker on the right farther up to catch the longer hitters. At the green there is a large, raised bunker about 30 yards short of the green. The front of the green is sloped steeply back to front. This is the hardest hole on the course and one where I feel a bogey is an acceptable score. This hole is not as visually appealing as many others, but it has a lot of positive attributes.

Sixteen is the last par 5 and it’s a long one at 612/563 playing as a dogleg left going downhill. After playing some very challenging holes, when I come to sixteen I feel relaxed and calm. The hole mirrors the starting hole with an outstanding view from the tee. There is a massive, raised bunker in front of you with 70 yards of fairway to the right. The brave player carries the left side bunkers to get a better line and an extra 60 yards towards the green as the fairway kicks to the right. From the member tees it is possible for the average length player to carry them providing the wind is not hurting. Bunkers continue first on the right side and then a long bunker complex is on the left from 140 to 190 yards out. One tiny bunker is well left of the green and should not be in play. There are no real bunkers at this smallish, but undulating green going left to right. This is my third favorite hole on the golf course.

Seventeen is my second favorite hole on the golf course and the final par 3 at 150 yards playing uphill. This is another hole that could be found in the UK or Ireland, perhaps at Royal Dornoch. There are rugged bunkers surrounding this tiny green creating an “island” effect. The bunker is built out of a raised dune. It is an exceptionally exciting hole, both visually and in playing it as one has to be precise. One simply aims for the center of the green after making sure the club they take will carry those front bunkers. Beware, though, at the back of the green the tall grass starts quickly.

The finishing hole is a par 4 playing downhill then uphill of 467/432. It is another wonderful golf hole and my fourth favorite on the golf course. There is a large sand bunker down the left side of perhaps 90 yards that sits well below the fairway. As the fairway twists and turns uphill there are two more bunkers spread apart down the right. On the left side as you approach the green is another massive, deep, long bunker with islands in it ending before the beginning of the green but coming into the fairway to slice it nearly in half. Finally, there is a small bunker on either side of the green. The “miss” on this hole is to be short of the green as the land is finally level. I have never made the green in two on this hole despite twice hitting good tee shots. It is a wonderful finish.

I sometimes hear from people that they prefer Ballyneal to Sand Hills or do not understand why Sand Hills is a top ten golf course in the USA. Ballyneal might have the more interesting, rugged, dramatic land for golf holes. I personally think Ballyneal is more balanced and is the equal in par 3’s and par 5’s. But the bunkering at Sand Hills is slightly superior due to the land forms and the greens are simply better due to what is underneath the grass. Ballyneal might never get their greens smooth and that is intentionally done, but because Sand Hills can and does, it provides a slightly better golfing experience since typically 40%-50% of one’s score is done with the putter.

Sand Hills sparks joy for the game of golf. It is visually attractive, challenging yet relaxing. One finds solitude and peace on the golf course playing a wide variety of long and short holes of all pars.

Sand Hills has made a lasting impact on the golf world as have Mr. Youngscap, Mr. Coore and Mr. Crenshaw. I have it rated as the thirteenth best golf course I have ever played on my personal scale and the sixth best in the USA. I am hoping to get back to it in September of this year, but Covid-19 has really messed up the golfing calendar. I hope I do.

Date: April 29, 2020

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