The Sandhills region of Nebraska is a huge meadow, which extends to some 20,000 square miles but amidst the cowboys and the grazing cattle, lies a magnificent sandy tract of golfing ground, which is otherwise known as Sand Hills Golf Club.
Sand Hills Golf Club is a club to respect and those in the know admire their non-commerciality, which is a welcome break from tradition in these days of the perennial money-go-round. One hundred golf holes might easily have been laid out on this amazingly natural piece of land, but Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw settled on just eighteen. But make no mistake, they discovered the best possible routing and each and every hole at Sand Hills is very special indeed.
The "Golden Age of Architecture" inspired Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore to set up together sharing the philosophy that traditional, strategic golf is the most rewarding. And, when Sand Hills opened for play in 1995, they must have been quietly delighted with their achievement.
Sand Hills has only a few lucky members, and surely each and every one of them must belong to another golf club. Why? Because Sand Hills is closed for eight months each year… overplayed it is certainly not.
With wide, generous fairways that wind their way beside huge dunes, Sand Hills is a big course on a big scale and it’s tempting to open your shoulders. But beware of the sand. You will need to be either an extremely good golfer or a very lucky one to avoid the crater-like bunkers at Sand Hills Golf Club.
If there was ever a golf course I would want to play every day for the rest of my golfing life, Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, Nebraska would be the one. Shinnecock Hills would be a very close second, Chicago Golf Club third, Friar’s Head fourth, and National Golf Links fifth. Many years ago, I was studying the various top 100 lists and I glanced through the names of all the courses. I had heard of each and every one of them, with the exception of a top 10 course on every list named Sand Hills. To this day, many passionate golfers have never heard of this peaceful oasis in Nebraska that is a genuine gift to golf; anyone lucky enough to have experienced Sand Hills knows exactly what I am referring to.
Finding my way to Sand Hills began with my quest to play the top 100 courses in the USA which was driven by my passion to study the world’s best golf course architecture. I’ve been fascinated with architecture for over 25 years and over those years, I visited the vast majority of the top rated courses. Sand Hills remained elusive for a long time because it was 13.5 hours each way from my home on the East coast. When I scheduled a trip out to Sand Hills a few years ago, it was one of the most exciting to ever hit my calendar.
To give you all some perspective, Sand Hills is a unique in many ways. First off, it was founded by Dick Youngscap in the early 1990’s who had a great vision to build a natural golf course carved out of sand dunes. Certainly in the US, no course had ever been built in such a remote location. The course was designed by renowned architects Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw the course opened for play in 1995. I’ve had the privilege of interacting with both Mr. Coore and Mr. Crenshaw a number of times over the years and you could not have found two finer and more qualified gentleman to build this course. The approach to architecture that they take is to find great land and move as little dirt as possible so it appears as if the course has been there for a very long time. I knew their look quite well as I have been lucky enough to play countless times one of the top designs called Friar’s Head. A key component of their gifted talents is that they consistently find the balance to allow the mediocre hacker to enjoy their courses as much as a touring professional would; finding that balance as an architect is quite challenging. Knowing that the work Coore and Crenshaw did at Friar’s Head was modeled after their work at Sand Hills, I knew Sand Hills would be good, I just didn’t know if it would be extraordinary.
With that long-winded introduction, it’s now time for my review of Sand Hills. The 13.5 hour trip to Sand Hills had begun and the excitement continued to build as each hour passed. My journey began at 7:00am and after arriving on time at Denver International Airport, the 320 mile drive to Sand Hills was underway. I arrived at Sand Hills about 8:30pm and immediately was off to the lodge for a good night’s rest as there was a 36-hole day awaiting me the following morning.
I woke up to find a bright sunny sky knowing the day was finally here to see what Sand Hills was all about. Had a nice breakfast, hit a few shots on the driving range, took the 1 mile ride to the 1st tee, and what would prove to be one of the greatest golfing experiences of my life was underway.
Standing on the first tee I took a deep breathe, looked around and was awestruck by one of the most spectacular views I had ever seen. Endless amounts of acreage with a golf course that had looked like it was there forever. It really did look like before this course existed the only thing missing from the property was manicured grass, greens, and flagsticks. It takes all of a couple of minutes to realize the setting of Sand Hills is as good as it gets.
Off we go; the opener at Sand Hills represents my favorite opening hole in all of golf. Having played over 600 courses, this is by design a bold statement. This opening hole offers everything you could want in a perfect golf hole. A well-defined yet forgiving tee shot, where the elevated tee allows you to hit a long drive possibly offering the chance to go for the uphill green in two. The stunning view off the tee mentally prepares you for the incredible round ahead. Don’t fool yourself into thinking this hole doesn’t offer plenty of challenge because if you leave your approach shot short there’s a false front that will carom your ball well down a steep hill fronting the green. Miss right and there is a huge bunker that leaves a very challenging up and down. Bottom line, your round will start with a great birdie opportunity and you should make plenty of pars here unless you are careless.
The second hole is a wonderful uphill par 4 that has a very undulating and sectional green waiting for you. It’s right here on this 2nd green that you will find one of the best views on the entire course. Take note, the view I am referring to has nothing to do with golf, it has to do with a view that defines what serenity is all about, peacefulness. When standing on this green, you a get a sense for Sand Hills is all about, the aura. Beyond the second green is an endless view of fescue and natural grass. All you can see is miles of the grass whistling back and forth with fresh air all around you and calm all around. At this moment you feel as though Sand Hills is all your own. Peaceful bliss is upon you. All you need is a 30-second glance to let your entire body relax to set the stage for the rest of your round.
Hopefully, you are now focused to hit a solid shot on the wonderful long par 3 third hole going in the opposite direction.
The fourth hole is one of my favorites on the course; it’s long with a downhill tee shot to a huge fairway that leaves a mid-long iron approach shot for most good golfers. The design of this hole is nearly identical to the 15th hole at Friar’s Head in New York. Both of these holes have an elevated green that is off to the left with a big fall off if you miss the green right. The green is more than ample for any length approach but the key is NOT to miss this green, or pay the price. If you do miss, you will be punished with either a very tough shot out of a “blowout bunker” or an even harder uphill pitch from missing the green right. One of the unique things Sand Hills offers is the “blowout bunker” concept, where there was a sand dune already there for which Coore and Crenshaw helped shape nature into a bunker. The look of these blowout bunkers is a sight to be seen, simply spectacular. Some of these bunkers are larger and more dramatic than you will ever see anywhere else in the world. As gorgeous as they are to look at its highly advisable to try and avoid hitting into them.
it’s hard to follow up the dramatic 4th hole. Yet, I love the 5th, as it’s a comfortable tee shot that allows you to blast away to a wide open fairway. A semi-blind shot to the green makes for a tricky approach. Once on the green, the moderate contours give you a chance to make birdie.
After the solid par 3 sixth hole comes one of the most exciting holes on the course, the drivable par 4 seventh. Nobody needs to ask what to hit off the 283 yard 7th at Sand Hills; take out your driver, swing away and hope for the best. The entry way to the green is quite narrow, and missing to the right is the better place to wind up than the treacherous bunker on the left. Whether it takes you, one, two, three or more shots to reach this green, the good news is, any putt is makeable; as a matter of fact, my playing partner made a 50 footer.
One of the things that you will note on the 8th tee is if you look around, it literally looks like there are a whole bunch of other holes that are just not formally shaped. That is what Sand Hills is all about, Coore and Crenshaw had a ton of options for which to select only “the 18 best holes” to form the course. There are blowout bunkers all over the property that have no holes shaped at all.
The 8th hole is simply awesome, there is no other world for it. It’s a great birdie opportunity with one of the most fun greens and settings on the course. At only 367 yards, your best bet is to lay back off the tee to your favorite distance because you need to be spot on with your approach shot if you want to have a good birdie chance. The view on the approach is one of the best you’ll see all day. I took a moment to really soak it in and enjoy this moment. There three bunkers behind the green carved out of a hillside and a pot bunker just in front of the green. It’s easy to get lost in the view, so one must keep their focus to hit the required precise approach. If you are lucky, you will walk away from this gorgeous hole with a birdie.
The 9th hole is a tough one but another beauty. It looks more intimidating off the tee than it is, but still takes two excellent shots to knock it on this green in regulation.
The front 9 at Sand Hills is exactly what I wish every great course offered; an opportunity to score well. You better take advantage of that scoring opportunity because the back 9 is much tougher and its exceptionally difficult to make up much ground from here on in.
Off to inward nine we go. The view on the 10th tee is equally stunning and dramatic as the 1st. You are looking downhill at a long par 4 that plays shorter than the distance, especially if you hit a solid drive that will tumble along the fairway and hopefully leave you between a 6 iron and 9 iron approach shot. The green has some movement, but a two-putt can be expected so try to make your par 4 and head to the 11th where the next 3 holes are very challenging.
The 11th hole is a tough par 4, much shorter on paper than the 10th but at least for me, it plays much harder. I generally hit a fade off the tee and the 11th is a dogleg left that wraps around a huge blowout bunker for which you have to be spot on to hit this green in regulation where a 2 putt is anything but a guarantee. Anytime you can make a 4 here, you should consider yourself fortunate.
If you catch a windy day (as I did), the 12th is the point in the back 9 where you quickly realize that the round can get away from you if you aren’t striking it really well. Hitting the fairway at the 12th will not be hard as it’s a very generous; but the blind approach shot with no trees to aim at, will make any golfer uncomfortable. You have to trust your swing enough to pick a spot of grass in front of you for which your ball will travel. Jack Nicklaus made a career doing this, but not many of us are able to trust our swings like he did. Missing this 12th green does not leave an easy up and down and this is a hole where a bogey or worse can easily sneak up on you. I found the 12th hole to be a turning point in the course because if you are playing well up until now, you should be scoring well. But if the wind is not favorable, its likely to make bogeys on 11 and/or 12 leading up to the very challenging par 3 13th.
The 13th is a truly great par 3, all carry with a false front short and a bunker just left of the green that if you face a left to right wind as I did, makes the tee shot very uncomfortable. This is a demanding hole for which you may feel like you have nowhere to bail out, especially with a long iron to the green. The greenside bunker left may be the best chance for an up and down here but if you watch a left to right wind and you have your ball miss well right, look out for a double bogey to grab you.
Now that you made it through Sand Hills “turning point” holes, you have one great birdie opportunity left which comes at the par-5 14th, the most fun hole on the course. It’s a short par-5 by today’s standards but like most Coore Crenshaw holes the brilliance of the design is that if you want to make a birdie, it won’t be gifted to you, you have to earn it. Reaching this green in two is no issue with a good drive, yet having your ball finish up on the putting surface is a different story. It’s a very narrow opening to the green and a tiny surface. The best 2nd shot finishes just short and left of the green which opens up the widest angle for a pitch shot to give you a really good chance to make a birdie. The 7th and 14th holes are the two holes on the course where a good golfer is disappointed not to make birdie.
The final 4 holes at Sand Hills are dramatic and very challenging. I wound up playing the long 15th hole straight into the wind and I was left with a hybrid to this long par 4. Hitting a hybrid to a partially blind green with a huge blowout bunker staring you in the face is just about as intimidating a shot as you can expect anywhere. Naturally, I bailed out to the right and didn’t even come close to getting up and down. Despite making a bogey on 15, I walked to the 16th hole appreciating what a great hole the 15th was. Depending on the wind on a given day at Sand Hills, the 14th and 15th holes are one of those unusual situations where you may have a better chance making 4 on the par 5 and walking away with a 5 on the par 4; that’s exactly what happened during this round, and it was not surprising at all. These two holes run alongside each other in different directions with plenty of space and it’s a spot on the course that is just majestic.
The 16th is a true 3 shot super long par 5, the views off the tee are fantastic and you have to deliver three really solid shots to hit this green in regulation. The green on 16 is really cool as it slopes substantially from left to right, and the brilliant design here allows you to bounce your approach shot into the green from the left side and it will funnel to the center of the green. What’s nice about this, Is that if you are playing the hole into the wind or have a long shot in, the green is receptive to a number of different types of approach shots giving you a good chance to save par. If its windy, you’d be quite pleased to make a par here.
The 17th is hand down my favorite hole on the course. It is a contender for my favorite short par 3 in the world. When you think of famous short par 3’s that are candidates for the best of all time, most people immediately think of the 7th at Pebble Beach and the 12th at Augusta National. For me, the 17th at Sand Hills is the absolutely perfect par 3. The setting, the backdrop, the bunkering, the drama, the hole coming at the perfect point in the round, and of course the architecture proves that this hole has it all; everything you could ever want in the perfect hole. While only a short iron, the 17th is a very tough green to hit. The bunkering is the most protective of any green on the course and the effective landing requires a precise shot to hit the green. Getting up and down from anywhere is not a high percentage here. No ocean, no regular water hazards, nothing but nature surrounds this hole and I’d gladly debate with anyone the 17th at Sand Hills is as majestic and well designed as any par 3 in the world. Just writing this paragraph makes me smile as I just closed my eyes to find a clear image of this hole as if it were right in front of me; how many holes have you played where you can do that?
I still remember walking off the 17th green for the first time at Sand Hills thinking to myself that 18 has to be a letdown compared to the 17th. As I stood on the 18th tee, it didn’t take but a few seconds to breathe a sigh of relief after looking into the distance and immediately knowing that a great finisher was in front of me. It’s a demanding uphill par 4 that requires two solid shots to hit this green in regulation. The green is a modest “punchbowl” that funnels most balls to the center. The pin position on 18 will determine your chances of finishing with a birdie more than your 2nd shot will because this is a green where some pin positions are more user friendly than others to hit your approach shot close.
I cannot imagine someone walking off the 18th green without a huge smile on their face, and a sense of peace and tranquility, knowing that you just finished playing one of the best courses in the world. We all define fun differently, but Sand Hills is the ultimate for me. This golf course flows so well as if it was always meant to be this way and no doubt, that is exactly what Coore and Crenshaw set out to achieve when they spent two years working on the routing and studying the land. What Mr. Youngscap, Mr. Coore and Mr. Crenshaw accomplished here is equal to shooting a 59 in terms of aura and architecture.
During my time at Sand Hills, I quickly realized the people there are just as special as the golf course. The entire staff and all of the members I was lucky enough to meet during my visit are a huge part of what makes the place so special. Sand Hills is the true definition of understated elegance. Sand Hills superintendent Kyle Hegland is one of the best in the business and on top of that he’s terrific guy who not only loves the fine work he does, but is as passionate about Sand Hills as anyone you will meet. His assistant Jarod and the rest of Kyle’s team are all amazing. Sand Hills is a place where you feel euphoric, no matter what you shoot on the course, you will have a blast.
Sand Hills is a big property. The clubhouse and accommodation is tucked down near a gorge so that it is protected when in shutdown through the winter months.
The golf course is a mile distant from the first tee, but the driving range and then the putting green are stopping points along the way. The course itself has a nine out, nine in configuration with the only infrastructure being a modest foodstop called Ben's Porch which overlooks the 18th green.
My initial impressions of Sand Hills were of a natural rolling carpet of fairways framed by impressive blowout bunkers and the purest of green surfaces. The greens were as slick and true as any I had played- and with ample movement and the ever present wind they were both a challenge and a joy to play. In fact I was just happy to keep putting on the putting green- it was so damn good!
Obviously wind is a factor in The Sand Hills- there is nowhere to hide, no trees or mountains to block the breeze, so controlling your flight is a must, particularly on the approach shot.
Coore & Crenshaw have provided generous landing areas off the tee to accommodate winds from different directions, and the green entrances are open to allow for a running approach...
Notable holes include:
- hole 1, an impressive start, the par 5 first hole is framed by natural blow out bunkers and a gorgeous raised green
- hole 7, the short potentially driveable par 4 with well protected raised green
- hole 8, another short par 4 with a boomerang shaped green wrapping around a central bunker
- hole 13, a long par 3 from one dune to another
- hole 17, one of the world's best short par 3's! It has a small heavily bunkered green in a sandy wasteland
- hole 18, a classic long par 4 finishing hole requiring two well struck shots to climb the ribbon of fairway past huge blowout bunkers to an imperiously placed green overlooking the action below
Sand Hills is one of the best golf courses in the world consistently being regarded as one of the top 15 courses in the world. And it is great fun to play.
It's development has played an important part in golf history, encouraging others to follow their dreams and develop spectacular courses in remote areas of the world.
And there is no doubt in my mind that these early courses by Tom Doak and Coore & Crenshaw have lead to an ongoing Second Golden Age of Architecture which has has continued now for 25 years..
Peter Wood is the founder of The Travelling Golfer – click the link to read his full review.
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.
The centrepiece of our 2 week golfing trip to Colorado and Nebraska. After waiting breathlessly for the invitation to play we were like kids on Christmas eve as we approached the course across the incredible sand hills terrain. On arrival, the staff were all very friendly and treated us like members for the two days on site. As did the members themselves who were so proud of their amazing course. Our shared cabin accommodation was superb without being over the top. And then to the course...What can you say except it was brilliant. Each hole laid across the hills with the big blowouts defining the structure. Greens of multiple angles and undulations, fairways rocking and rolling and nice deep rough where not to lose your ball but still findable in most cases. Elevated tees, few blind shots and not too severe carries made it a totally enjoyable experience. Some fabulous views from the higher levels just to accentuate the remoteness of the place. And yes the dining was top notch with a great cosy atmosphere.
Sand Hills will always have a special place in my heart. I was lucky enough to play several rounds there during an epic trip back several years ago. That special place is not only do to how special the course and routing are but also because the last round of the visit played from the back tees in very windy conditions was the best round of my life for several years carding a 1 under 70 with 3 friends, one of which was giving me 8 shots for our match. Naturally, you never live that down, especially since he struggled on that round and the net difference was on the humorous side.
How difficult must it of been for Bill Coore to route Sand Hills, after all he only had one of the largest sandy sites ever to work with, with unlimited options. It's a true testament to his skill as an architect that he wasn't temped to make it into a cart-ball course and go out there and just find the 18 spectacular holes hundreds of meters apart from each other. Instead he came up with a sublime, walkable masterpiece that starts and finishes on extremely high points and honestly doesn't really let down throughout.
Essentially it's a links course and for me the difficult part of assessing it's greatness is trying to imagine how good it would be if it were located in the UK or Ireland and what place it would have while competing directly for rounds against the likes of Turnberry, The Old Course, Dornoch, RCD or Portrush, let alone the 100's of other natural links. As far as that goes, I'd say Sand Hills has a unique advantage in that it's novelty value given it's located in the US, given it's literally in the middle of nowhere and requires a long drive to reach, given it's isolation in relation to anything else and finally given that it's one of a small handful of courses that really are links or links like in the US benefiting from sandy soil and massive dunes.
Perhaps one of the best parts is that on a one of basis with a little luck you can access it.
Sand Hills is a golf course with no weak holes, which, aside from Pine Valley, Cypress Point, and the National Golf Links, is hard to say about almost any course in the world. The land was destined for golf, and architects Coore & Crenshaw did a masterful job designing the course. In 1993, they visited the site and “discovered” over 130 golf holes, and then proceeded to narrow it down to only eighteen, which is the golf course the world is lucky to have today. Although the area is windy, there is no prevailing wind, so the course is routed to be playable in any wind condition. I’m not sure how you design a course as good as Coore & Crenshaw did, but they pulled it off. My journey there was much more than a trip to play golf; it was a life-changing experience, which is one of the unexpected lessons I learned pursuing my dream and what makes Sand Hills such a sought-after destination.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
John - I played 72 holes at Sand Hills over 2 days and agree wholeheartedly with your comments. I've been fortunate to play the top 30 or so on this ranking (except Augusta), and Sand Hills is the best golf experience I've ever had.
John I recently purchased your book. I'm hoping it will give me insight on to reach at least one course, it would be money well spent. Working on Sand Hills now, it's been a bucket list course living in Iowa and being g so close to something so perfectly done.
I was fascinated by the divergent reviews on this site about Sand Hills. People seem somewhat divided between thinking this course is definitely top 10 in the world and those that think it is overhyped in its ranking. I was fortunate enough to receive an invite and I was excited to see it for myself.
For me, the course lives MOSTLY up to the hype. The routing is fantastic and the sublime beauty of nature becomes very apparent and is such a relief after playing many a bulldozed course. The greens are quick and treacherous and the course was is very good shape despite a so-far super hot summer trying its best to bake out the course.
Yes there are some holes on the front side that are a little more straightforward, maybe take 3 wood instead of driver but even those holes have challenges especially in the green complexes.
One of the best things of Sand Hills is the silence. So many times crowded tee times, road noise or other modern distractions take you out of the round rather than just relaxing and enjoying the round. Sand Hills is ALL about the golf, the course is wonderful and if you don't feel relaxed after playing here, you might need to invest in a stress ball.
Is SHGC a top course in the world? Heck yes! It doesn't matter where exactly it is ranked only that if you are invited DEFINITELY go, it is well worth the trip!
Sand Hills is all about the golf. “Golf courses are built for many reasons,” Bill Coore said over lunch months later. “The main ones are demographically driven: to support real-estate development or public play and, in some case, purely for golf.” Bandon Dunes and Sand Hills are two leading examples of the pure-golf scenario.
“Dunes land is the foundation of golf,” Coore continued. “This is the land that golf architects like me look for: wind, sand base, random contours on the land. Sand Hills was site-driven not demographically driven. It was built for the sake of golf and no other reason. It’s a place where millionaires can play next to local rancher members. Golf has its deepest roots in this kind of land.”…
The course terrain is rolling, with fescue surrounding the fairways and hardly a tree in sight. It was calm and hot when we started and very windy when we finished. As we ate lunch outside, it was a challenge to keep our food from blowing off the plates. Jeff, Todd, and I all agreed that there are no memorable holes at Sand Hills, but the experience is one that we’ll never forget. Larry Berle.
Larry - in all seriousness, if you think there are no memorable holes at Sandhills you have absolutely zero credibility in terms of writing a golf review.