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Sand Hills Golf Club: A Minimalist Marvel

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Sand Hills Golf Club is considered one of the world’s greatest and most natural golf courses. It’s located in the Sand Hills region of central Nebraska, which occupies over 20,000 square miles and a quarter of the state. The course was masterfully crafted by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, who discovered the routing by walking the dramatic landscape for over two years, identifying over 130 potential holes.

The course stretches across the sandy hills and prairie grasses with bold contours, strategic bunkering, and tricky greens. Holes are routed up, down, and across the rumpled terrain, and the wind ensures that no two rounds are the same. The minimalist design philosophy allowed Coore and Crenshaw to fully embrace the unique setting rather than imposing or artificially shaping the land to fit a golf course. A CBS report stated, “The course is so subtle, if it weren’t for the flagsticks, you wouldn’t know it’s here.”

The course has a linksland feel, routed around the land’s natural movement, impacted by the elements. It has all of the characteristics of a quintessential links, the exception being that it could not be further from the sea. In this post, we’ll review the origins, evolution, and mystique of Sand Hills, a place that transports golfers back to the pure essence of the game. We’ll walk through the course to understand what makes it so influential and highly regarded, suggest further reading, and link to videos that will bring the course to life.

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Sand Hills Golf Club – Origins and Design

Sand Hills Golf Club originated from the vision of Dick Youngscap, who, in 1990, had what he called “an emotional impulse” and sought to build a golf course that took advantage of the topography and natural beauty of Nebraska’s Sand Hills region. Youngscap had previously collaborated with Pete Dye on Firethorn in Lincoln with a minimal budget. Youngscap approached Bill Coore (who learned the trade working for Dye) and Ben Crenshaw to design the course. They signed on, intrigued at the prospect of creating a links-inspired design in this interior land-locked location. The group of investors acquired 8,000 acres of pristine sand dunes and prairie near the small town of Mullen for $1.2 million.

Coore and Crenshaw moved less than 4,000 cubic yards of dirt in the construction process in an era where moving up to a million cubic yards was normal. They discovered dramatic contours and sandy wastelands ideal for golf, using the winds to naturally shape bunkers and uncover fairways and greens hidden in the dunes.

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The construction budget was under $1 million due in part to the natural drainage and quality of the sandy soil. In a nutshell, the natural terrain was so ideal for supporting golf that many of the expenses – drainage system and truckloads of sand, were not necessary, avoiding hundreds of thousands of dollars in expense.

At one point, Ben Crenshaw found a parcel of land ideal for holes 12-15, and the developers arranged a land swap with the owner to incorporate that land back into the course. They would later say that while finding good golf holes at Sand Hills was easy, finding the right combination that made sense based on the terrain, its walkability, rhythm, and flow was key.

The course opened in 1995 as an ultra-private club, and despite its “middle of nowhere” location (290 miles from Omaha, 320 miles from Denver), Sand Hills has cemented itself as one of the world’s best. Its success proved that a relatively remote, minimalist course built on spectacular yet isolated land could not just succeed but inspire a “second Golden Age,”  a revolution in golf course architecture towards fully embracing natural terrain over shaping the land to fit holes. Coore described the process as creating a course equal to the spectacular potential of the Sand Hills landscape.

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Did You Know?

Nebraska Sand Hills region covers nearly 20,000-24,000 square miles across north central Nebraska. This sandy grassland area contains some of the tallest sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere, reaching over 300 feet high in places. It is theorized that Sand Hills formed 5,00-8,000 years ago after the last Ice Age when winds blew deposits from ancient rivers into enormous dunes. Today, cattle ranching thrives in the region, supporting over half a million beef cattle.

The Sand Hills ecosystem remains highly intact compared to surrounding regions. The area contains over 2,000 lakes and wetlands and is home to diverse wildlife species, such as prairie chickens, deer, coyotes, and cranes. The sandy soil prevented extensive cropland development, allowing the unique tallgrass prairie vegetation to persist. Combined with the scenic rolling dunes, this makes the Sand Hills a popular destination for nature lovers, photographers, and now golfers.

The terrain and natural contours make it an ideal location for golf, with soil that drains well, providing perfect conditions for firm, fast fairways and greens. The towering dunes are reminiscent of those found at classic British links such as Royal St. George’s, Carne, and St Enodoc.

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The Course

Sand Hills is set on 130 acres and plays to a par of 71 at 7,089 yards from the tips. Strategic bunkering and tricky greens add to the challenge, while ever-present winds racing across the dunes provide additional defense. Preferred lines change daily based on wind and pin locations. The course has no yardage markers, ball washers, signs, or trees. There aren’t even rakes in the bunkers, as the wind is relied upon to straighten up. Brad Klein compared the course’s “haunting beauty” to the links of Ireland and Scotland.

The round starts with a mid-length, downhill par-5, playing to 550 yards. The tee shot plays across a rumpled fairway to a green benched into a large sand dune that falls severely off to the right. It provides an impressive start showcasing the sandy, rugged landscape. The 2nd is a short par-4 playing uphill to a plateau green, followed by a long 490-yard par-4 with a green tucked into a natural bowl. Another short par-4, the 4th plays downhill to a heavily contoured green that required significant shaping. The 5th returns uphill, playing 230 yards as a long one-shot hole to an elevated green.

The 7th is a mid-length par-4 that plays uphill, featuring a green built into a large sand dune with steep falloffs around the putting surface. The short par-3 8th “Little Devil” is 150 yards but plays to an elevated green with a false front. The front nine ends with a short par-4 that doglegs left around a cluster of bunkers with a green angled to reward shots played from the left side of the fairway.

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The Back Nine

The par-4 10th plays uphill to an elevated green with steep falloffs around the putting surface. The 11th returns downhill as a reachable par-5 at just over 500 yards, with a small green well-defended by bunkers and falloff areas. The short par-4 12th tempts players to drive the green at just 289 yards, but finding the proper tier on the bowl-shaped green is critical for birdie chances.

The tough par-3 13th features a large but well-protected green playing 185 yards into the wind. A classic risk/reward par-5, the 14th doglegs left around a wasteland. A classic strategic long hole, the ideal line hugs the trouble but opens the preferred angle to the tiny green. At 15, the terrain climbs uphill to an exposed green, measuring 450 yards from the back tees.

The three closing holes encapsulate Sand Hills’ brilliance. The par-5 16th tumbles downhill through rumpled contours. The tiny 17th green is set in an intimidating natural amphitheater, playing just 150 yards to one of golf’s most photographed holes. The home hole is a classic long par-4 playing uphill. Players must challenge the bold fairway bunkers lining the ideal line to set up the best approach to the sloping green that runs away on the right. The ever-present wind racing across the dunes adds complexity to the closing stretch.

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Sand Hills Today

Nearly 30 years after first opening, Sand Hills continues to cement its reputation as one of the premier golf destinations in the world. The course currently sits at #11 in Golf Magazine’s ranking of the Top 100 Courses globally. Due to extreme winters in the region, It is only open for play seasonally from May to October.

It retains its status as an ultra-private club, with membership by invitation only, limited to older, distinguished golfers. Guest and tournament play is kept to a bare minimum, ensuring unhurried rounds that are fully immersed amidst the rugged natural beauty of the sandy hills. Great care is taken to preserve the authentic spirit of Sand Hills. No significant changes or renovations have altered the routing or design over its history. The fairways and greens are maintained firm and fast, showcasing the links-style characteristics that make Sand Hills a true bucket-list course for passionate golfers who are lucky enough to experience the course.

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PuttView Golf Books

PuttView Books are detailed yardage and green maps designed to help golfers save strokes, especially under tournament conditions. They offer precise visual representations of courses, including topographic slope percentages, fairway arrows for slopes over 4%, and a dual view of greens accurate to the millimeter. The books are printed on high-quality waterproof paper, sized to fit traditional yardage book covers, and are USGA legal. 

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Further Reading

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Golf in the Nebraska Sand Hills
by Dean Kratz

Summary: For the truly passionate golfer, an unspoiled landscape, the joy of unpretentious solitude, and the challenge of a perfectly designed course is like paradise. This gorgeous full-color book presents the magic and tells the story of one of the world’s finest golf locales: The Nebraska Sand Hills. The extraordinary photographs capture the brilliance of the visionaries who saw the land and imagined what would make these dream courses a reality for ardent golfers.


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Wide Open Fairways
by Bradley S. Klein

Summary: In golf the playing field is also landscape, where nature and the shaping of it conspire to test athletic prowess. As golf courses move away from the “big business, pristine lawn” approach of recent times, Bradley S. Klein, a leading expert on golf course design and economics, finds much to contemplate, and much to report, in the way these wide-open spaces function as landscapes that inspire us, stimulate our senses, and reveal the special nature of particular places.

A meditation on what makes golf courses compelling landscapes, this is also a personal memoir that follows Klein’s own unique journey across the golfing terrain, from the Bronx and Long Island suburbia to the American prairie and the Pacific Northwest. Whether discussing Robert Moses and Donald Trump and the making of New York City, or the role of golf in the development of the atomic bomb, or the relevance of Willa Cather to how the game has taken hold in the Nebraska Sandhills, Klein is always looking for the freedom and the meaning of golf’s wide-open spaces.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

Videos

Sand Hills – CBS Sunday
Two minute tour of the Sand Hills
Course VLOG – Sand Hills

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