VALENTINE, Neb. -- Before I play a course for the first time, I always visit it's website. Usually there's a stunning or magnificent picture followed by superlatives and hyperbole. In my mind, the pictures and the words rarely match the experience.
I found this to be the case for The Prairie Club, a 2-course complex in the middle of Nowhere, Nebraska. The pictures and words couldn't begin to match the experience. Photos and prose cannot do it justice. Pure golf may be overused, but there's no other way to say it. The fact that I got to share it with my father made the trip even better.
"How in the world did they find this place?" was the question my dad posed. Credit the founder, Sioux Falls businessman and accomplished golfer Paul Schock. A couple dozen miles south of the South Dakota border, the club has been called the quietest place on earth. You've got to take a gravel road several miles off the state highway before you even see the course and it's lodge/clubhouse.
We played the Graham Marsh designed "Pines" course on our first day. It starts gently along the rolling sand hills. The par 3's are all memorable and the 3rd hole might have been the best one of em'. There's a great windmill behind the green and you'll be glad its there. It's a safe bet that the wind will have it moving at a good clip.
By the 6th, the sand hills give way to the Ponderosa Pine, as the course starts to cut through what looks like the most rural parkland you might be able to imagine. We didn't hear a soul out here, just catcalls from a variety of birds . We didn't see another golfer. A rustic and rugged canteen at the turn offered the only hint of civilization.
Every hole offered a couple of choices, provided you could place the ball where you wanted, sometimes into a 2-club wind. Marsh provides the golfer with temptation and offers options, and it's most evident on the fabulous finishing hole, a risk-reward 5 par.
There's a generous landing area, but you can cut a lot off your second if you stay left. The problem is, you'll have to carry a canyon, and if you go long, you could put one into the Prairie Club's restaurant (try the Walleye or the Filet BTW.) You've got to think your way through "The Pines" and it's a fun and scenic ride.
We played the Dunes the next morning in a sideways rain blown around by 40 mile per hour winds. It didn't deter our forecaddie and didn't deter us either (though my dad ended his valiant effort after 9 holes). Tom Lehman and Chris Brands designed this 18 (the better of the two) but others around the club will tell you it was designed by God. They moved very little earth and the bunkers look like they've been there for centuries.
I can't really pinpoint certain holes. They were all great; not a boring one in the lot. It was a wild ride, up and down, and somehow, around the rough, rugged, and gnarly bunkers. There are a couple blind shots which add to the round by offering some excitement and anticipation. Plus, you don't often see the next hole and that really gives you that "middle of nowhere" feeling.
Any other course, and I probably would have called it quits at the turn. It was the worst weather I have ever played in (and I've had many November rounds in Minnesota). I couldn't feel my hands as we entered the saloon, which was a tin bucket placed thoughtfully on one of the highest points of the property. I figured this was the same weather that created the magnificent grounds, plus, I had no idea when I'd be back in the Sand Hills region, so I trudged on, and I'm glad that I did.
The wind is definitely a force but Lehman and Brands give you some good chances to run your approaches up to the hole provided you respect some of the rumpled ridges around the greens, which were far from boring. And like the Pines, there are always a number of options/gambles you can take with your tee shots and your approaches.
On my second shot on the Par 5 fifteenth, I tried to kill a 3 wood into a stiff breeze. I clenched my teeth on impact only to hear and feel a subtle but distinct crunch. It was rough and gritty. It was sand; likely blown into my mouth by the fierce and bitter wind.
I appreciated that sand in my teeth. It was another reminder that I was truly battling mother nature. I was off the beaten path.
If you're looking for lush green fairways, elaborate flower beds, and water fountains in ponds, don't make the drive out. But if you're looking for "pure golf" and a battle with mother nature and all that she naturally produced... by all means... put this place on your bucket list.
(Copyright 2011 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)