Review: Dismal River Golf Course (Jack Nicklaus Course)

The Most Underrated Course in the US??
There are many great courses in America.  There are multiple lists made every year that showcase the top 100.  Then there are lists for each individual state.  One course that you might not find on many of those lists is Dismal River.  I’m not sure why after I played there this fall.  On paper, it should be highly regarded.  Jack Nicklaus is the designer and the setting is the surprisingly beautiful sand hills region of NE.  In some rankings it is 5th in the state of NE.  While it is never going to be 1st in the state with the venerable Sand Hills Course just next door, (which by the way started the whole golf mecca status for sand hills area in NE) it certainly is worthy of a higher ranking.  I think it might be the most underrated course in America.
Like all sand hills golf courses, it is difficult to reach; hours from any major metro and well off the main roads.  This one is also private like others in the region, but unlike the other uber-exclusive clubs in the region, Dismal River is much more guest friendly, in more ways than one.  First off they are much more friendly to outside play.  Not that they are public in any way, but they will entertain guests from time to time. If you are considering joining a private course in sand hills, NE; Dismal River would like you to visit them.  Once you get there you will notice that all the amenities are top shelf.  It makes its neighbor look like a Super 8 by comparison.  The cottages, clubhouse, restaurant, patio, fire pit, billiards room, theater, weight-room are all 5 star.  The even greater draw will be the completion of a second 18 holes designed by Tom Doak that will challenge for the top spot in the state.  (more on that later)

Obviously the main draw of Dismal River is the golf.  It is Jack’s take on sand hills golf.  While initially I heard it had a few holes that Jack went over the top with, those have since been redesigned into what I think is an outstanding course.  It certainly ranks among the top courses I have played. (if you browse through the reviews, there are some pretty highly regarded courses it is up against)  The setting is so removed from the influence of humans, it is a 1.5 mile cart ride from the clubhouse to the course.  Once you get there, it is rolling sand hills and green turf interspersed across the terrain.  The experience starts and ends at Jack’s Shack, a rustic bar and grill for all your refreshment and food needs.  Right next to the shack is an adequate range.  It isn’t huge, be plenty for a couple of groups to warm up before their round.  The putting green which is next to the first hole is an absolute necessity for anyone playing their first round at Dismal River.  The undulate greens are replicated very nicely on the practice green.

As you begin your round, you get a good feel of what all 18 holes will be like;  great views off the tee, mostly open tee shots, challenging second shots and lots of undulation on each green.  The first couple holes offer a good mix of challenge, but the real outstanding holes on the front 9 are holes 4-6.  Hole 4 is the signature hole for Dismal River.  It is a beautiful par 5 with a windmill near the green.  It is bombs away off the tee, careful placement of the second shot and then avoiding the windmill on the third shot into the green.  Some have complained that it feels mini-golf like, but I just saw it like it was a tree there like you might see on any other course.  The 5th hole is one of the tougher par 3s I have played.  It looks almost impossible to hit the green from the angle of the back tees, but this uphill long par 3 is a great hole.  The short par 4 6th hole probably isn’t going to be reached  by many golfers, unless down wind, but it is a great hole, and requires a good second shot.  The front side wraps ups with a down hill par 5 that can be reached in 2, but only with a very precise second shot.

As you make your way to the back 9, there is an honor snack house.  The 10th hole is a really cool par 3 that plays just under 200 from the back tees to the center of the green.  But this green is huge, so depending on wind and pin placement, you could really use a wide variety of clubs.  The most important thing is to avoid the bunker in the middle of the green.  It was my favorite par 3 on the course.  The next few holes meander up and down and around the sand hills.  When you reach 14, the final push to end has a solid collection of holes.  The 14th is probably the toughest on the course because it is long and the down hill lie of the second shot makes it very tough to reach the uphill green in two. The 15th is a fun little par 3 that feels very protected as the whole hole feels like you play down the middle of a little valley.  Holes 16 and 17 are opposite dogleg holes that both allow you to cut the corner on your tee shot, the challenge of each hole is how much do you want to risk.  The 18th hole is a grand finishing hole.  The tees are way up on top of a hill, then you hit down to the fairway which will then climb back up to the green.  It is a massive par 5 to finish with.  The giant natural sand bunker dominates the left side of this hole.
When I got done I asked myself “Why is it so underrated?”  To be honest, I couldn’t figure out why there are some die-hard golf architecture fans that told me they wouldn’t even want to play Dismal River.  I guess they are just missing out on an outstanding course.  The only thing I guess is that some might knock the course for is it’s lack of true links style of play.  There weren’t many ground game shots available on this course.  The aerial game was mostly the way to attack the greens.  I guess others might not like Jack’s undulated greens, but to me they fit with the terrain and really offer a great variety of pin locations and putts, especially if playing multiple rounds while staying at Dismal River for an extended period of time.

Dismal River (Tom Doak Course)

The greatest treat of my visit to Dismal River was the time I had to preview the new Tom Doak Course at Dismal River.  It was still being worked on while I was there, but the layout was mostly done and half of the holes were seeded to the point that I probably could have played them.  I got a first hand preview of the 18 holes with Chris Johnston the man behind what goes on at Dismal River.  You could feel the sense of pride as he talked about the new 18 holes going in at Dismal River, and rightly so, this course is going to be great, one of the best that Tom has ever designed. 

These 18 holes are set on a more subtle piece of land along the entrance to the club.  The main road actually separates the front 8 holes from the back 10.  The front 8 holes meander through some outstanding sand hills terrain, but in a more walker friendly, closer together layout.  I was really impressed by the use of natural lines, variety of styles, yet playable holes from every different tee.

I’ll be honest, the back 10 holes blew me away, every single hole is amazing.  I was even privileged to see Tom and his crew at work.  They were finishing up hole 12 which initially was an awkward par 4, but with some investigating and maneuvering of the green, it became a really solid par 4.  The green will now be perched out on the edge of a cliff almost and will be the first golf hole you will see when driving into the property.  What makes these 10 holes so great is their proximity to the Dismal River as well as the great cliffs that tower over it.  The big and little horseshoe bowls create a spectacular setting.  The 16th, 17th and 18th holes might be some of the most beautiful holes I’ve ever seen.

While I didn’t take pictures of this course, let me say it will be great!  Hopefully I can return once it is grown in and see the final product.  Keep you eyes open for great things at Dismal River, especially the new Doak course.

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Quick Hits
+Jack Nicklaus’ version of sand hills golf
+Pristine conditions
+Excellent accomodations
+Private, but not uber-private
+Additional 18 hole by Tom Doak coming soon

–Doesn’t play very linksy
–Still private and in the middle of nowhere