Review: The Prairie Club Golf Courses, NE

Incredible sand hills golf for everyone
Over the past 10 years golf architecture has taken a turn to more natural settings and more links style golf.  I attribute much of that to the great Sand Hills golf course in Mullen, NE.  This course has literally changed the landscape of golf course architecture.  It has moved up the list of the top courses in the country year after year.  The only problem is that fact that very few can actually play this course.  It is private and rather exclusive at that. 
But that region of our country, the sand hills of NE has 100s maybe even 1000s of golf course sites available.  It is an amazing region because it is too fragile to farm, too rugged to ranch, but perfect for golf courses.  It is obviously sandy, which makes for great golfing soil and has a rugged rolling topography, which appeals visually for holes too.  It makes for excellent inland links courses.  While it is in the middle of nowhere, getting away from it all is 100% worth it. 

The Prairie Club is the newest resort, but probably not the last to build golf courses in the sand hills region.  I heard about the master plan a few years back and have waited patiently for the courses to be built and opened.  They finally did in 2010.  Not only did the Prairie Club open 18 holes, they opened 46 holes.  Two full 18 holes courses, the Pines and the Dunes, but also 10 holes of HORSE golf.    

The 36 hole at the Pine and Dunes (and 10 holes at the HORSE) were simply amazing. The conditions were some of the best I have ever played, (I’ve played some good courses).  The greens were fast and smooth, while the fairways were hard and tight.  Tee boxes were flat and well maintained, even the back ones.  I would even be willing to put these in the same conversation as some of the greats at Bandon, they are just missing the ocean.

Because these are literally in the middle of nowhere, most golfers are going to have to travel to this course and stay, which is something you are going to want to do.  When you drive up they take care of everything.  The valet parking takes care of your car, the staff gets your clubs to the pro shop, the lodge workers drop you bags off at your room, and you barely need to lift a finger.   The staff is all incredibly friendly and helpful.  The food is excellent at all times of the day and the rooms are awesome.  The dark woods and rich warm colors in the rooms along with free wi-fi and a nice LCD TV make things cozy and relaxing.  Depending on your cell-phone provider you might not have service out here, but getting away from the phone can actually be kind of nice.  

Now is a great time to go, their first year stay and play rates are very reasonable.  But if you can’t make it out there just yet, the future sounds to be better for this resort as there is another course slated to be built.  So if you want to play great sand hills golf, enjoy a lodge like retreat and get away from it all, Prairie Club is open the public.  

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The Pines Course

I’ll start with my first and best round of my trip, the Pines.  The Pines was designed by Graham Marsh and is set along a rugged canyon rim and weaved through the dunes and the pine forest.  I literally hopped out of my car and into a golf cart and off I went, no warm-up at the extensive range, just 1 minute on the putting green and I was good to go.  I decided I wanted to give the whole course a try, so I tackled the tips at 7300 yards.  Thankfully, the wind was pretty mellow and the temperature was a beautiful 86*.  The opening par 4 is a nice hole to start with.

 The fairway is pretty wide and there are nice framing bunkers to aim at.  After ripping the drive down the middle, a smooth iron shot in capped with a 2-putt par.  The 2nd hole, a good length par 4, took just a little maneuvering to find the right tee box, but once I did I again found the fairway only to top the second shot, but the reward of links golf is roll.  I was still able to hit a short iron into the green and another par.  The par 3 3rd hole is all about hitting the right spot on the green, because even if your ball starts on the green it can easily run off just about any side.  The long par 4 4th hole takes a good drive to have a decent shot into the green.  While the drive wasn’t perfect, I was able to hit a running hybrid right into the middle of the green and exit with another par.  The medium length par 4 5th hole is a dogleg right with a semi-blind tee shot.  But there are great aiming points with the windmill in the distance and a tall bunker to hit just right of.  The second shot into this hole plays slightly downhill to another generous sized green.  After just missing this green, a simple chip close for another par.  The next few holes enter into the Pines part of the course. The par 3 6th hole has a huge multi-tiered green.  Even if you hit the green off the tee, it doesn’t guarantee a par depending on hole location.  But thankfully my Slighter Damascus was rolling the rock to leave this hole with an easy par.  The par 5 7th hole is most likely going to be a 3 shot hole.  It plays straight away for the tee shot and second shot.  Just avoid the pines on the right side.  After getting within 100 yards, the green is down hill to the right.  It is fairly deceptive.  There is a nasty false front and while the back looks like a backstop it is much flatter than it looks.  But again dropping the ball on the green for a 2-putt par seemed simple.  The long par 4 8th hole plays up hill.  The fairway is huge so it is easy to hit, but trying to navigate the second shot is all about trusting the yardage and going for it.   While there is some danger on the right side, it also rewards balls by kicking them down onto the green, again leaving a simple little par putt.  The short par 4 9th hole is a great risk reward.  There is nasty tall stuff left, and there are some bunkers and junk to the right, but the green is reachable off the tee.  I hit a nearly perfect drive only to come up about 20 yards short of the green.  A little chip and two putts for par left me with a boring 36 of all pars on the front side.

The backside starts with a tricky little par 3.  It plays slightly down hill so club selection is key.  Going over is not good, lots of rough a big low hanging tree and possibly even deeper junk.  Some how I hit a miracle chip that went under the tree branches and yet bounced right on the edge of the green to trickle down close for a tap in par.  The long par 5 11th hole is cut between the pines.  While it feels much narrower than previous holes, it is wide enough to forgive a less than perfect drive.  While the hole is virtually straight as an arrow, there is still some pinching of the tree line as you get close to an undulated green with some danger all around it.  But again, regulation golf works for me.  The long par 4 12th hole offers a tricky drive.  It looks and plays like going up the right side is the safe play and while it might be, it leaves a very long second shot, that on this day I couldn’t get home in two and ended up with my first bogey of the day.  The relief of the 13th hole couldn’t come at a better time.  Everything is wide open on this par 4.  Bombs away off the tee, which will leave a mid iron in to the elevated green.  This green is set in a bowl so getting on in two isn’t too difficult.  The par 4 14th is short and probably drivable under the right conditions.  There is some danger with multiple bunkers all around the green, but being short helped make par an easy score.  The long par 5 15th plays entirely uphill with all of its danger on the right side with all rough and slopes.  But again there is ample room to play up the left side.  After your second shot the hole plays flat to a long narrower green.  The long par 4 16th is the second hole that tripped me up.  This hole feels semi-blind off the tee, but with pines lining both sides of this fairway, you know where you ball has to go.  The little push off the right made for a punch out from the trees on my second shot, making par very difficult.  The green is perched almost like on a peninsula with traps down to the left front and danger long.  Another nasty bogey to ruin my otherwise boring score card.  The par 3 17th hole is a great links holes, while there is some junk to carry, a tee shot short will run back to the pin, for another easy par.  The long par 5 finisher brings you back to the lodge.  It plays as a big long dogleg left.  After navigating the seemingly narrow fairway, the final approach is to a raised green sitting right out in front of the pro shot.  But again, hitting the green in 3 was simple enough to wrap up the round with another par.  16 pars and 2 bogeys.

Dunes Course

Day 2 would tackle the Dunes course designed by Tom Lehman and Chris Brands.  This course is true open prairie land links.  There was but a tree or two on the entire course, but those didn’t come into play on a single hole.  This course plays 7400 from the tips, but there are also some special Lehman tees tucked in some back corners of various holes that can play up to 8030 yards.  I don’t even know if Lehman can play from that distance anymore.  That is crazy long.  The course is plenty tough from the tips.  After a long drive around the driving range and up the hill behind it, you finally reach the first tee.  From this vantage point you get an idea of what your day will be like.  

The fairways are generally big and rolling and there are sand bunkers and blowouts all over the place.  The green is elevated and kind of domed, but nothing too severe.  The second hole is another long par 4 with an incredibly wide fairway, but everything pinches in at the green.  Behind the green is one the few trees on the whole property.   Also behind the green are visual bunkers that probably never come into play.  The par 5 3rd hole is all about getting your tee shot up the left side so you can see for your second shot, but most likely a lay up anyways so even if you go right, you can still get your par.  The par 3 4th hole was the closest I’ve had to a hole in one in some time.  I burned the edge of the cup and stopped just inches away.  It is a huge hourglass shaped green, that can play anywhere from a 5-iron as it did on my first round down to a 9-iron as it did on my second round.  Also with the hills in the back, you can bounce it off those too to bring it in.  The par 4 5th hole is short but depending on pin placement can be nasty.   While it is pretty wide off the tee, navigating the pot bunkers and being at the right spot for the approach is vital.  They have a nasty pin placement that can be on the right side of the green behind this huge blowout bunker.   At least there is a collection area to the far right in case you bail.  The par 5 6th hole isn’t real long for a par 5, but playing up hill makes it a 3 shot hole for most golfers.  Navigating the second shot can be tricky because it is semi-blind.  The 3rd shot into the green needs to stay right otherwise it will kick down to the left and gather in a collection area.  The par 3 7th hole is a nice little downhill hole that has a bunch of little collection areas, but for the most part is one of the simpler holes on the course, only to lull you to sleep for the hardest hole on the course the brute of a par 4 8th hole.  You need to hit two very good shots on this hole to have a chance at par.  Needing a long accurate drive and then another long second shot funneled between the hills over the bunker.  While the green and landing area around it are very forgiving and huge, it is just a very difficult hole.  While on the card the par 4 9th hole is really long and plays uphill, for some reason I didn’t have too many troubles with this hole.   Just make sure you stay to the left off the tee, there isn’t much room to the right, especially not over the bunker.  The green up on top of the hill will be generally very receptive to long irons or hybrids.  

As you make the turn there is an old style saloon house for snacks.  You are not quite at the furthest point away, that will still come in two holes, so as you start down hole 10, you encounter another long par 5.  All you really need to do is avoid the bunkers off the tee.  The second shot finding any part of the fairway is good to hit into an elevated back to front sloping green.  The 11th hole is a short par 4 with a couple of nasty bunkers right in the landing zone.  But I found even if you hit into them, you have a short enough sand shot to still hit the green in regulation.  The par 5 12th hole is amazingly wide off the tee and not nearly as long as some of the other par 5s.  All the danger is when you approach this green.  It is elevated and has huge bunkers to catch anything short left or right.  The par 4 13th hole again is generous off the tee, but going up the right side seemed a better angle to attack the pin, even though it is a little longer approach.   The tee boxes for the uphill par 3 14th are actually right in the fairway of the 13th hole off the green far enough that you should still be safe, but close enough that you feel like you are still on that hole.  This hole is all about the wind, because it is up hill and danger is all short, taking enough club is a must.  The long par 5 15th hole has bunkers scattered here and there.  Staying up the right side on both your first and second shots will make it easier to attack the green tucked back to the left.  Just don’t go left of this green.  It drops off into some tricky bunkers.  The par 3 16th hole can play all different lengths with an 82-yard long green.  So make sure you have some sort of rangefinder Or really study the yardage book) and pick the right club.  The views of this tee are great.  This is a generous green, but just being on the green in one is no guarantee of a par.  The par 4 17th hole has one of the smaller greens on the course.  It is elevated with collection areas all around it, so feel free to bomb the tee shot to make the approach as short and as easy as possible.  The finishing hole is a very long par 4.  Again there are bunkers that either need to be carried or avoided to have a chance at par off the tee.  The green itself is tucked back just off the left corner of the fairway.  If you are short and right on this green, you might have to putt through the fringe like I did.

The H.O.R.S.E. Course

The last 10 holes on the property were actually some of the coolest par 3s I’ve ever played.  They call it the HORSE course, designed by Gil Hanse.  The theory behind the course is just like the basketball game of HORSE.  Someone picks a shot and the other guy has to try and make it.  There are 10 greens with no official tee markers, so whoever wins the hole, gets to pick the next tee off location.  There are many options for each hole.  It plays best with about 3 clubs.  A long wedge, a short wedge and a putter.  

What I also really like about this short course, is that it played like the regulation sized courses, you could bump and run, you could hit short and trickle one on, is wasn’t just fly the green and putt out.  Not only was the set up awesome, the greens were more fun than just a normal course too, because they offered huge undulations, almost like a mini-golf course.  I think if you go with a couple of buddies, grab some beers, a couple of clubs and you could spend hours playing HORSE on this course.