As golfers we travel an unfathomable number of hours by planes, trains, boats and automobiles to reach the far corners of our planet seeking that perfect golf destination. Whether it’s Tasmania, New Zealand, the north of Scotland, Cape Breton Island, some isolated location on the coast of Oregon, or to a reclaimed phosphate strip mine in central Florida, the search is continuous and never-ending. Our search led us to The Prairie Club just outside the small, Middle America town of Valentine, Nebraska. Population? A whopping 2,789 people and ten times that in cattle.
Make no mistake about it The Prairie Club is out there. For us, that meant a 19.5 hour drive — our preferred mode of transportation — from just north of Toronto. If unlike us you decide to fly, however, you’ll face a much more manageable five hour drive from the nearest major airport.
We’ve been lucky to travel a fair amount among us and we’ve driven both the east and west coasts of the United States in their entirety. This trip marked the first time we would be driving through the heart of America and it was quite the experience. And what we mean by that is that all we experienced was flat land and relatively little urban population for hundreds of miles — just the way we like it.
When you tell a fellow Canadian you’re driving nearly 20 hours to golf in Nebraska, most of them look at you with a blank stare. When they’re finally brought back from their near coma and gather enough mental power to muster up a few words only one comes out, and rather emphatically at that, “Nebraska?!?!”
Even our border crossing agent had a tough time believing we were golfing in Nebraska. When we told him our purpose there was golf, he lost all strength in his knees and fell back into the stool directly behind him, “Really?” he said. “Guys, you’re making this tough on me.” But who could ever come up with a lie so good?
It wasn’t until the last hour of our drive, which bled into the next morning, that we started to get really excited. On the horizon approaching quickly were large hills of sand; they were the majestic Sand Hills of Nebraska. This unique region can often be mistaken for desert and contains some of the largest sand dunes anywhere in the country towering over 400 feet in places. As our backseat travel companion started to wake from his uncomfortable sleep with the pattern of car fabric ingrained on his face, he thought we had arrived at the golf course, little did he know that this landscape would continue on for hours and hours.
After making our way through Valentine we would exit the main roadway and turn south on to NE-97, a narrow two lane highway, devoid of any shoulder, that can be easily confused for a two-way bike path. Compared to what was ahead on this trip it was actually quite spacious.
If you blink you’ll miss The Prairie Club. There’s no sign of it in the heaving dunescape engulfing the horizon and the only thing that indicates its existence is a small sign warning you of an entrance a couple miles ahead and another small sign at the main entrance itself. So in we turned and down the unpaved recently riveted driveway we went.
A few minutes later we’d finally catch a glimpse of the clubhouse/lodge and some cabins off to the right. One or two greens and their pins waved violently in the distance and it was quickly apparent it will be difficult for us to distinguish golf from raw nature here — awesome.
At this point we were anxious to get our first taste of golf in the Nebraska Sand Hills so we decided to forgo a visit to our rooms and head straight to the first tee of The Pines course, a Graham Marsh design that works in and out of the dunes along the Snake River Canyon.
The first hole was our introduction to the ever present Nebraska wind and the oven-like heat we’d become all too familiar with throughout our trip. At about 2,500 feet in elevation, golfers gain an extra five to seven yards for every 150 yards they hit the ball. They also gain one sunburn for every 20 minutes outdoors in the 36-degree Celsius temps and cloudless sky. There is drinking water every few holes and coolers with ice on the golf carts, which we suggest you take advantage of regularly. Ourselves, we’d go through a dozen bottles of water between us each round — everyone could tell we were Canadians incapable of bearing the sun.
The Pines is an interesting course with tough greens and a good routing. It blends two styles of golf rather seamlessly with approximately half the holes being of the wasteland variety, working through the Pines along the river canyon, and the others more akin to the Sand Hills featuring wide fairways, beautiful bunkers and wild greens set along and over natural dunes.
In hindsight, we’re glad to have played The Pines first. It didn’t beat us up too badly after the long drive and provided an introduction of what was to come for the rest of our trip. The best holes on The Pines (2, 6, 13 and 18) were some of the best all week and allowed us time to habituate ourselves to the firm fairways and fast playing conditions. The course is quite a contrast from The Dunes course and that gives the golf here some great variety.
PINES COURSE PHOTOS
It was rather late in the day when we finished our round at The Pines, nearing 7:00 pm central time. Lucky for us The Prairie Club alternates which course is open to resort guests each day and that meant The Dunes was free and clear for what would turn out to be one of the quickest rounds we’d ever played.
And let us tell you The Dunes is a star.
Designed by PGA TOUR professional Tom Lehman and associate Chris Brands, Lehman himself visited the site multiple times as it was being built and the course is genius. In keeping with the scale of the Sand Hills region surrounding it, The Dunes course is one of the most expansive courses we’ve encountered…ever.
To say The Dunes is big in scale is an understatement. Playing along higher ground away from the Snake River Canyon towards the NE-97, the dunes here are huge but gradual in severity. The ridgelines and valleys between the dunes are long and provide for ideal grounds upon which to lay a golf course. The amount of strategy and variety presented on every hole is incomparable. Some holes feature fairways that are 100 yards wide; many have centerline bunkers that dictate play beautifully; all green locations are exquisite.
As an example of the vastness of the layout, on one hole, my playing partner and I both hit drives of equal distance but had a 75-yard discrepancy in approach shots (we were on opposite sides of the fairway). What ties all this width and scale together are the large greens. Some are so big you can potentially face a three club difference in day-to-day play. Despite being so large, the greens play very fair and tend to have distinct sections. Internal contours are generally on the gentler side and all this width and size makes the course incredibly playable in the high winds this part of the world tends to experience on a regular basis.
Our rounds on The Dunes were some of the most fun we’ve ever had playing golf. The variety of playing conditions and options provided to the golfer meant the course was like multiple layouts in one. You could play in the morning and it would be a totally different golf course in the afternoon. We’re not the kind of people who think every golf course they play is better than the last, but the variety, setting and location of The Dunes course has vaulted it into our all-time top 5 courses played — it’s that good.
DUNES COURSE PHOTOS
Our visit to The Prairie Club was sensory overload. For a first time experience in Nebraska golf, we were blown away by the unique landscape, incredibly varied design, the sheer scale of the place, and what can only be described as golf in its ideal form. Some will argue that golf in the Nebraska Sand Hills isn’t true links golf because there is no body of water. We will argue that if this isn’t links golf at its finest then it must be something better.
It took us 19.5 hours to get there, and nobody believed we were golfing in Nebraska, but that was all forgotten in just the first half-day we spent on property at The Prairie Club.
If you like what you’ve seen and read in this post and would like to help us make more content like this please consider JOINING HERE for free or following Canadian Golf Magazine on Twitter @canadiangolfmag and Instagram @canadiangolfmagazine.
Sharing on social media always helps, too.