A Cinderella StoryMar 17, 2023 12:05PM ● By Andrew J. Nelson
The Nebraska Sandhills have long been known for ranching, for scenic beauty, for the lonely drive up Nebraska Highway 2, or for being, as the National Park Service says, roughly 34,000 square miles of the largest and best developed sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere.
But in recent years, the Nebraska region has become known for something else: ranking among the top destinations in the world for golf.
“The Sandhills of Nebraska has almost become a Mecca for golf. It’s a really special place in America,” said Joel Jacobs, CEO/owner of the Dismal River Club near Mullen. “We’ve seen an onslaught of world-class golf courses.”
Many of the premier courses aren’t what you might expect to find around Omaha—a good place to shoot nine or 18 holes after work and get a drink at the clubhouse before heading home. In fact, they’re more aptly described as golf resorts, with cabins, restaurants, and a host of other activities; necessary, in part because some of these courses are out in the middle of nowhere, even by Nebraska standards.
Take Dismal River—southwest of tiny Mullen, Nebraska, (Census Bureau pop. 734) in Hooker County and more than an hour’s drive from the nearest city. The club, founded in 2006, today offers offers horseback riding, sporting clays, fall and winter pheasant hunting, bison hunting, and a 25,000-square-foot clubhouse. Inside, guests can enjoy a pub, a fine dining area for corporate events, custom wine tasting, and meals prepared by an executive chef and a culinary team that produces five-star results, Jacobs said.
Five new four-bedroom cabins are under construction, eventually bringing the club from 80 rentable rooms to 130. And all that is in addition to two 18-hole golf courses: the White Course, designed by legendary PGA champion Jack Nicklaus; and the Red Course, created by golf course architect and author Tom Doak.
“We turned it from just pure golf…to doing more outdoor adventure,” said Jacobs, who played 8-man football in Mullen, then found success in the NFL as a tight end for the New England Patriots before his business career. “The golf courses and all the experiences that we offer…we are not even close to touching the capacity.”
Wild Horse Golf Club near Gothenburg in south-central Nebraska began in 1996 when a group of members at the old nine-hole municipal golf course decided they needed something better. They knew a cow pasture northwest of town was available and figured they could buy it, said Tony Collins, Wild Horse’s director. They brought in architects Dave Axland and Dan Proctor, who have done work with the nationally known Coore & Crenshaw course design team, to create the new links.
It was soon named one of the top courses in the country. Then they added a clubhouse and lodging.
“I compare it to field of dreams, but for golf,” Collins said.
It offers fewer amenities and activities than clubs like Dismal River. But with its proximity to Gothenburg, they may not be as necessary. Wild Horse cabins sell out a year in advance during golf season. Restaurant and bar services are still being developed, but you can pre-arrange steak dinners. It also benefits from its proximity to the North Platte Regional Airport—about a 30-minute drive.
And with less offerings, that helps the Gothenburg economy.
“We definitely benefit from the folks that come from outside of Gothenburg,” said Deb Egenberger, executive director of the Gothenburg Community Development Office. Golfers who travel to Gothenburg “are going to buy a tank of gas. They are going to buy a meal. They are going to buy something to take home to one of their kids.”
Jacobs said Dismal River and other golf clubs in more remote parts of the Sandhills offer a rarity in today’s world: peace and quiet.
“It’s really about the freedom you experience when you are in the absolute middle of nowhere,” he said. “It’s the freedom you don’t really have in today’s world.”
Dismal River and Wild Horse are hardly alone on the jagged, grassy hills. Sand Hills Golf Club is located near Dismal River in Hooker County, and the CapRock Ranch and the Prairie Club are southwest of Valentine, Nebraska, in Cherry County.
Both CapRock and Prairie Club offer guest accommodations, bringing in lodging tax dollars to help promote the Valentine area even more, said Regina Osburn, director for Cherry County Tourism. Some avid golfers have even purchased second homes in Valentine.
“It’s really helped the local downtown and city sales tax,” said Osburn, who is also director and president of the Nebraska Travel Association. “We are pretty much booming and busting at the seams during the summertime.”
In Gothenburg, local tourism officials promote the city to visiting golfers, luring them to nearby attractions like the Pony Express Station museum.
Dismal River is an exclusive club, with a $25,000 bill up front for membership. But local residents and nonprofit groups are allowed limited access. This benefits the high-rolling members, too, Jacobs said. They get the opportunity to dine with ranchers and Mullen-area locals—not something you normally get to do if you’re a guy from New Jersey.
Wild Horse is less exclusive, as it is a public facility. “You can show up and play pretty much whenever you want,” Collins said. “There is no requirement to be a member. But we do have memberships available.”
At Wild Horse, 18 holes with a cart costs $99 Friday through Sunday and $85 during the week. That includes a driving range pass. The average pace of play is 4 hours, 20 minutes.
Both Wild Horse and Dismal River get their fair share of celebrities. Comedian Larry the Cable Guy and various Huskers like Eric Crouch make regular appearances at Wild Horse, Collins said. Egenberger recalls Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan coming out to play a round.
“There was a group from India…they came to Gothenburg just to play golf,” she said.
Dismal River hosts a bevy of athletes, politicians, and other notables from the business and entertainment worlds. Jacobs said he can’t talk much about that; in some cases, he’s bound by nondisclosure agreements. Both courses respect the privacy of their famous visitors.
Another reason for the success of the courses is no doubt the surrounding geography—mixed-grass prairie and rolling hills for as far as the eye can see. Both Jacobs and Collins likened the landscape to the site of golf’s origins in the British Isles.
“It really is a step back in time to the courses where the game of golf originated,” Jacobs said. “Those link-style courses are all very similar to the experience you have in the Sandhills.”
Said Collins: “It kind of takes you back in history a little bit…very natural wispy grass in the rough.”
But geography can be a challenge, too. If the grass doesn’t get covered in snow, it can die in the harsh cold and blowing wind of the arid region. “You can live and die by the winters in Nebraska,” he said.
Erosion is more profound in the Sandhills. Jacobs recalls a broken valve on an irrigation pipe one winter that washed out 500 feet of road and the side of a hill. Since you can’t backfill frozen dirt and sand, they had to wait two months to fix it.
“Once you open up a sand dune, that sand just starts moving,” he said. “It was like a crater as you enter the club.”
The golf courses look out for each other and support each other.
“They are all just world-class experiences around the region. It’s a benefit to everyone to have as many as we have,” Jacobs said. “It’s exciting for the state of Nebraska. And I’m happy to be a part of it and be an advocate for all the other courses as well. Because you get these guys coming in, flying in, they want to try to play them all.”
With the February announcement that Dismal River Club has plans to add a third course, thanks to a partnership with Chicago-based KemperSports, the appeal of the private course is expected to grow.
What brings people from around the world to the Sandhills isn’t just about the remoteness, or the beauty. “It’s about how they are treated,” Egenberger said.
“Folks that come here, they enjoy their experience here,” she said. “And they come back. It’s that come-back thing that becomes really important. They make an annual reservation. So they bring their money back year after year. And then they tell their friends…and then their friends want to come.”
Visit dismalriver.com and playwildhorse.com for more information.