Monday, January 31, 2011

Sand Hills Golf Club - Part Two

Sand Hills Golf Club - READ PART ONE HERE

"The entrance road to the golf course is 55 miles long. One member called the journey the longest hour in golf - except that the land is stunningly beautiful, and along the way you cross west into the Mountain Time Zone and so arrive the same hour you left. Out here in the middle of central Nebraska’s Sand Hills, the grass-covered dunes unfold forever. There was no limit to the possibilities on this barren, crumpled land. With its native washes and blow-outs of sand, the dunes offered all manner of perfectly natural settings for tees, fairways, bunkers and greens. The hard part was narrowing down the choices and then puzzling through the connections in the chain."
- Bradley Klein, Senior Writer, Golfweek

"From the heaving terrain, to the firm, fescue fairways, to the natural "blowout" bunkers in the dunes, to the boldly contoured green complexes that allow for endless variety in chipping and putting, Sand Hills is the most natural site for golf in the U.S. Throw in the persistent breezes and the endless solitude that defines west-central Nebraska, and you have a golf experience that is second to none. Sand Hills is difficult to get to - and even more difficult to get on. However, the layout's virtues and influence can't be underestimated. This is the greatest course of the last 50 years."
- Joe Passov, Senior Editor, Golf Magazine

Sand Hills had been inundated with rain over the previous week, taking in as much as 5 inches in a one or two hour span at one point but the course played impeccably, with all credit due to the tremendous grounds crew who worked all hours of the day getting the water off the course and tidying up the bunkers.

After spending two full days walking Ballyneal, we decided to use carts at Sand Hills in order to get around fast enough to play more than 36 a day. Our strategy worked, as we easily were able to fit in 54 a day during our two-day stay and got blessed with ideal weather and sunlight on our last day, giving me the opportunity to get some pretty spectacular photos.

Just like Ballyneal, Sand Hills has no course or slope rating due to the ever-changing wind conditions in the area.

1st Hole: 549 Yards Par 5

Perhaps one of the best opening holes in golf and certainly the best that I've played. The tee shot must be played over the native area to an inviting fairway but the average player likely hits it left more often than not, which is dead here. The ideal tee shot is hit toward the right fairway bunker which sets up a tough layup shot to a fairway that pinches in around 150 yards or so. Unless it's howling downwind, I really think laying up to wedge distance is the play, as fairway metals will only hit into the slope and fall back down the hill to a tough pitch distance.

The approach makes the hole - it is played well uphill to a green with a significant false front. And I mean significant - shots that come up short or spin back will roll all the way back down the hill, leaving the most awkward of pitch shots, the 40 yarder straight back uphill. I found out the hard way on my first go-around, when my wedge approach spun back down the hill twice on my way to a opening triple bogey. However, I'd learn enough from that to ensure all my approaches went to the middle of the green and I'd end up making three birdies on this hole over the rest of our stay. Just a wonderful par five.










2nd Hole - 458 Yards Par 4

The club constructed a back tee to the left of the 1st green, adding 40 yards of length for players looking for more of a challenge from the diamond tees. That tee shot, in my opinion, is the most intimidating on the golf course, as the fairway sits elevated from the tee and you can barely see any fairway from that spot. Only the longest of hitters can get the ball into the wider portion of the fairway past the dunes on the left.

It's a much more inviting tee shot from the other decks but this golf hole is a bear no matter where you play. The greensite here is absolutely spectacular, with the right side built up into a dune and featuring a dramatic falloff both to the left and down in front. The false front here, especially on the right side, comes into play often, making shots into a back or middle right hole location exceptionally difficult.

You could spend 30 minutes on this green and never tire of the shotmaking possibilities. For example, the pin position indicated in the photos is back right - if you are on the left side of the green, you can try to lag it up to the hole or try the more exciting approach of hitting it well past the hole, up the bowl and watch the ball come back 20 feet to the pin. There's the same feature on the left side of the green as well, making putting here a blast.

This hole was my nemesis for sure, as I didn't make a par in six rounds. I hit the green only one time in regulation - I proceeded to four-putt for double bogey! Toughest hole on the course from the back tee deck and one of the great holes I've ever had the pleasure of playing.








3rd Hole - 216 Yards Par 3

The first one-shotter at Sand Hills is a beauty, with options even available off the tee. The hole has been designed to accept a low, running shot in from the left side, as the green features a dramatic hillside on the left and everything slopes away from that to the right and to the back of the green. So you can play the hole as it's designed or take the modern approach and try to fly it directly to the flag. I found that you want to be past the flag here in order to leave yourself a make-able uphill putt. Too often, I was in the middle of the green and short of the flag. That would mean me aiming ten feet left while also barely breathing on the ball on 30 footers just to ensure I didn't go ten feet past.





4th Hole - 485 Yards Par 4

Like the 2nd, this hole features two 'back' or diamond tee decks, with one at 485 yards and the other at 449 yards. The tee shot is played downhill and you likely want to favour the right side in order to set up a better look at the green. Doing that, of course, comes with a cost if you miss, as there is a big bunker flanking that side of the fairway.

The most notable feature on this world class hole is the 30 foot deep bunker short and left of the green. Let me just say you do NOT want to be in there unless you're taking a photo for posterity. Look up hazard in the dictionary and there should be a photo of that bunker that goes along with it! The green sits elevated from the fairway and features dramatic falloffs both in front and to the right, with a very large collection area to the right with short grass everywhere. Shots can be played left of the green and will filter back toward the middle of the green so even if you go right on your approach, the smart shot is to play your pitch long past the hole and it should come back a bit off that slope.












5th Hole - 412 Yards Par 4

The 5th hole brings the first instance of a centerline hazard into the mix at Sand Hills. From the back tees, the hole plays at a slight angle and the tee ball must be played over the back of the 4th green and over the native area to a very wide fairway made smaller by the presence of a bunker right in the middle of the target area.

The ideal tee shot has to flirt with that bunker in order to get a clear view of the green, which sits slightly elevated from the fairway in the middle and even more elevated should you miss on the left side, as the fairway slopes off dramatically to the left, propelling many draws or hooks into the left rough.

The approach shot is played uphill to a longish but narrow putting surface featuring a subtle spine that runs down the length of the green in the middle, with the green flanked on the right by a large bunker. There is a lot of short grass around the green here as well, giving some neat options around the green.











6th Hole - 198 Yards Par 3

The 6th is another very strong par 3 with plenty of defenses. Off the tee, you have to carry over some native area and navigate both a large and intimidating bunker complex short left along with a smaller but equally devilish bunker protecting the front right portion of the green.

There is a lot more room than you think beyond that left bunker and shots that clear it will be kicked forward and right toward the putting surface. If the pin is right and you hit short of the little bunker, you will have a ticklish little pitch up the hill and it will be near impossible to stop the ball near the flag, especially if it's cut in front.

There is a tremendous amount of slope on this green and putts from the left side to a right pin will be well uphill. There are a couple ridges on this very large green and everything essentially falls from back right to front left, with some slight exceptions in certain areas. I found this to be one of the more difficult putting surfaces to read on the golf course.






7th Hole - 283 Yards Par 4

Sand Hills proves that you can not only have two great short par fours on one course but also that you can have two world-class short par fours in a row.

The 7th is likely on a short list of the greatest drivable par fours in the world. Only 283 from the back tees and 231 from the 'Circle' tees, it's likely reachable for the majority of players under the right conditions. But is taking driver here the smart play?

The hole features a very inviting fairway, with some fairway bunkers right off the tee that are pretty deep. But the real hazard here is the terrifyingly deep bunker complex in the front left. Hitting out of here onto the green is akin to hitting a ball onto the hood of a Cadillac and trying to make it stop. The green is elevated from fairway grade, is very small and it's pitched severely from left to right. There is also a false front to navigate and balls that fall off the green to the right will fall about 15-20 feet down the slope onto a lower chipping area.

The green looks so close from the tee and really tantalizes the player into giving it a go but I found that the smart play was to get it out short and right of the green, allowing for either a full wedge or a pitch into the green at an angle where the green slopes against the shot. Therefore, downwind, I'd hit a long iron or hybrid club while feeling comfortable hitting driver when the wind was in our face.

I also found that you could use the slope on the green to your advantage on the second shot if you were far enough to the right - you could play your pitch slightly long through the green into the fringe and the ball would come back off the slope toward the middle of the green.

If you do want to try to drive the green, you will have to flirt with that left greenside bunker or you have absolutely no shot of holding the green.

Putting is no bargain here - even though there aren't major contours, the pitch of the green means any putts played from the back left will be almost unbearably fast.

A world-class hole in every respect and easily one of my favourites on the golf course.








8th Hole - 367 Yards Par 4

The wonderful short two-shot 8th is played back toward the clubhouse and in the opposite direction to the previous hole. Obviously, the ever-changing wind patterns at Sand Hills allow this to be a hole that can be driven under the right circumstances if you're playing from the appropriate tee deck, as it's only 293 yards from the 'Square' tees and 236 yards from the 'Circle' tees.

Again, there is plenty of width off this tee and the smart and safe play is to aim well left of the cross bunkers and get the turbo kick off the kicker slopes down the left side of the fairway. This will open up shots played to a left or back pin but obviously will be problematic for a pin cut on the right side, as it brings that little pot bunker that sits in the front middle of the horseshoe-shaped green into play.

And therein lies the absolute brilliance of this hole. The green design here in its amphitheater setting is particularly inspired, with the ability to utilize the ground game to roll the ball onto the putting surface and use the slopes to move the ball either from left to right or from right to left, depending on the side of the green you want to work with. Similar to the bunker on the 6th hole at Riviera, you can work your ball around it here on the ground, even from the fairway short of the green. The aerial game can also work here but be careful, as the severe back to front and right to left pitch of the putting surface can result in many balls spinning back up to 40 feet and into that deadly bunker.

Over at Golf Club Atlas, a couple of people opined that they could spend 20 minutes on many of the greens at Ballyneal, trying many different types of shots and reasoned that they weren't inspired to do the same at Sand Hills. I'd argue that the second and eighth greens at Sand Hills come close to matching up to any green that I've played for fun factor, including the awesome 7th at Ballyneal and I spent plenty of time at all three during my trip, with a smile never leaving my face the whole time.

The 7th and 8th are both world-class short fours but if I had the time to only play one over and over again at the club, I'd pick this hole purely because of the great fun that can be had around the green.









9th Hole - 402 Yards Par 4

The 9th hole at Sand Hills doesn't get much press compared to the other holes on the course but it is a strong hole in its own right.

The tee shot is played uphill and the ideal line is to go up the blind right hand side to not only take the more direct line at the green but also to take advantage of the kicker slopes beyond the hillside. There is a centerline bunker slightly left of center that must be avoided and one of the defining features of the hole is the rather large spine that runs pretty much from the approach area all the way to the putting surface. Shots that go left will fall well below the grade of the putting surface and leave a more difficult approach.

Even from the middle of the fairway, you have to trust your yardage, with some of the natural undulations of the rippling fairway causing some blindness to front pin positions.

The green is very wide and falls off severely on the left side. While the green contouring is among the more subtle on the course, don't be fooled - even putts from the middle of the green hit toward the right side are treacherously fast and I'm sure many have seen a bold effort roll off the green into the collection area.

There may not be a more beautiful site than sitting on Ben's Porch at sunset and looking at how gorgeous the fairway undulations are on the 9th hole at Sand Hills.









10th Hole - 472 Yards Par 4

The long par four tenth features one of those heroic downhill tee shots that we all salivate over, with a pretty accommodating fairway but trouble does lurk in the form of fairway bunkers on both sides. The ideal line is to challenge the left bunker in order to get the turbo kick down and to the right. This fairway features tremendous undulations and a really well-struck tee ball can reach the lower portion of the fairway, necessitating a blind second shot back uphill.

The fairway rises to a certain point about 40 yards short of the green or so but then falls again toward the open-fronted green, allowing a running approach from all vantage points. Shots favouring the left side will also filter back toward the putting surface. This is one of the flatter greens on the golf course but it's pitched quite a bit from front to back.

This is one of those holes where the personality changes substantially depending on the wind conditions. Downwind, the hole can be played with a driver and a mid-to-short iron. Into the wind, this is a bear and only the best drive will give you a chance at reaching the green with a long iron or fairway metal.









11th Hole - 408 Yards Par 4

I think this may be one of the most unheralded holes at Sand Hills, a lovely mid-length two shotter played off an elevated tee to a pretty wide fairway that bends right to left around an immense natural blowout bunker. The second shot is played back uphill to a plateau green that falls away on the left side into some deep bunkers while there is short grass both behind the green and to the right. The slope on this green is deceiving and leaving your putt on the wrong side of the hole will scare even the best putters.









12th Hole - 417 Yards Par 4

The 12th is a straightaway par four with much more room than you think on the right side in the landing area. Despite the very wide fairway, positioning is crucial off the tee, as the fairway features a spine that runs essentially right down the middle of the landing area toward the green. This means even a slightly wayward drive will fall down into a lower bowl and take away precious views of the green and the flagstick. There is a very cool and unique bunker feature about 100 or so yards short of the green on the left, basically a serpentine trench that is very shallow but likely hassles anyone who goes long off the tee or short on their second for that matter! There is also a large and imposing bunker complex right of the green, with a putting surface that features subtle breaks but is very quick near the rear portion with a slight falloff area to the back left.












13th Hole - 216 Yards Par 3

This hole is a brute from the tips, as it plays from one dune to another perched up high above a lower fairway. There is a significant false front here and mishit shots can roll off the front of the green even if they are hit 20 feet on. More worrisome is the treacherous bunker short right that sits about 15 or 20 feet below the green and certainly bogey becomes an attractive score if the tee shot ends up there.

The green also falls off considerably in the back and features a large, short grass chipping area. This crowned putting surface is exceedingly difficult to hold for all but the best players from the back tees, although I may only be saying that because I didn't hit the green once in six tries despite using at least four different clubs during my time at SH. The hole must play easier from the other decks but it's definitely the one hole I really couldn't figure out during our stay.

That said, perhaps I should have just been happy with my ball rolling off the front edge and trying to get up and down for my par instead of stubbornly trying to get the ball on the putting surface!






14th Hole - 508 Yards Par 5

The 14th hole works as a perfect compliment to the tough and imposing 13th, giving players the opportunity to get a stroke back that they almost certainly lost on the hole previous.

If only it was that easy!

This hole is an absolute masterpiece of strategic design. The ideal drive must hug the left side of the fairway to give the long player a chance at a relatively open look to the green. Anything slightly pulled will be gobbled up by a huge bunker complex that runs down the left side of the landing area and most certainly turn the hole into a three shotter.

The right side of the fairway is very inviting off the tee but the angle it presents to the green is less than ideal due to a perfectly placed bunker right in front of the green.

Layups to the left will again open up the angle to the green but the land drops off severely about 100 yards from the putting surface, meaning a blind third into the smallest green on the golf course. And what a green it is! It is pitched severely from back to front and there is a large bunker left in addition to the one in front. Approach shots that bail out to the right are likely dead, as there is almost no room to land the ball on the green and have it hold. In fact, the best play may be to putt the ball and use the contours around the green to get the ball within two-putt range.

This is undoubtedly the finest short par five I've had the pleasure of playing and must be on a very short list of the best "half-par" three-shotters in the world.















15th Hole - 469 Yards Par 4

Here is yet another example of a hole where a certain feature dominates strategy all the way back to the tee, even though it doesn't necessarily come into play on that particular shot.

On the 14th, it was the front bunker that dictates how you play the entire golf hole and here on the 15th, you have an elevated green complex tucked almost completely behind a large dune that forces the player to be extremely accurate off the tee just to get a glimpse of the putting surface for their approach.

On first glance, you don't see how strategic the hole is. You have a very wide fairway and everything is pretty much right in front of you. The fairway is set at a slight angle from the tee, making the right fairway bunker more of a cross bunker and the player usually will be inclined to avoid the carry, if possible, instead hitting it toward the expansive left side.

You will immediately find this isn't ideal, as you'll have a completely blind, uphill approach over the dune and the huge blowout. The best line challenges the cross bunker and ends up on the right third of the fairway, which will, at the very least, offer a partial view of the green. Either way, you will have to execute on your approach, as you'll likely have a long iron or even a fairway metal second shot into a pretty large green.

Shots hit slightly left may kick right onto the green and there is a lot of short grass around the green to give players some options as far as getting up and down. This is a very challenging golf hole and just another example of how much thought must go into your shotmaking at Sand Hills - most long par fours allow you to wail away off the tee with no regard for position but here, you are challenged right from the start.








16th Hole - 612 Yards Par 5

The view from the 16th tee may be one of the most breathtaking on the golf course, as you are perched well above fairway grade and you can see the remarkable land that Sand Hills sits on for miles in any direction.

After soaking up the view, the player must contend with the longest hole on the golf course, albeit one that plays significantly shorter than the scorecard indicates due to its downhill nature. The drive must be hit toward the fairway bunker in the distance through the fairway on the right, which will bring the meat of the fairway into play. If you are looking for the chance to reach the green in two shots, your tee ball will have to flirt with the large bunker complex that runs down the left hand side. The fairway on the left will give a 'turbo boost' to drives and allow the hole to play much shorter then if played more conservatively.

The fairway dips and rolls throughout the landing area, with almost no chance of a flat lie on your second shot, making it a challenge even if you intend to layup. Adding more difficulty is the fact that any layup or shot toward the green will have to challenge the bunkers that pinch the left side of the fairway approximately 150 yards from the green. Players deciding to lay back from the sand will be forced into hitting a long iron third shot, certainly not the ideal choice!

The green is essentially bunkerless, with one lonely bunker that sits about 30 yards left of the putting surface but it usually will only come into play for those trying to hit the green in two shots. The putting surface pitches from left to right and slightly toward the back and there is a lot of short grass around the green to allow many options to get up and down. This is a really fun hole and yet another strong and unique par five.














17th Hole - 150 Yards Par 3

Ran Morrissett of Golf Club Atlas said it best when he called this stunner "a touch of poetry".

A wonderful, short one shotter with a small but very well protected green. If you don't have a birdie putt, you'll be hard pressed to avoid a bogey or perhaps worse, as deep, gnarly bunkers surround the putting surface.

The view from the dune behind the hole, with the 18th in the background, may be one of the most gorgeous views in golf and it's worth the climb...and the inevitable scrapes on your legs! Simply put, this is one of my favourite short par threes in golf.









18th Hole - 467 Yards Par 4

This wonderful journey ends appropriately with an epic, uphill par four. The dominant feature is obviously the massive bunker complex that runs down the left side and crosses in front of tee shots hit from the diamond tees.

The ideal tee shot carries the right corner of that bunker but long hitters need to work the ball a bit from right to left to avoid going through the fairway, as there are a couple of deep bunkers over there that will almost certainly bring bogey or worse into play. The second shot is entirely uphill to a large green and depending on your fairway positioning, a semi-blind approach may be required. This green is pitched severely from back to front and two-putts from the back of the green should be welcomed.

Make sure that you take one more look back at the remarkable landscape before departing for Ben's Porch, the clubhouse or, in an ideal world, the first tee again!
















I think about our time at Sand Hills almost on a daily basis and I still can't believe my good fortune for having the chance to spend two full days and nights at such a magnificent club.

Their members must feel like the luckiest people on the planet. You truly feel like you're alone with nature while at Sand Hills and while it might sound crazy, I truly feel that playing this golf course is a spiritual experience.

While I have no illusions about the chance of revisiting Sand Hills at some point down the road, it really doesn't matter.

My memories of Sand Hills are so vivid even six months after the fact and I can assure you that the time I spent at this spellbinding piece of heaven will be cherished forever.

ADDENDUM
I posted this as a photo tour on Golf Club Atlas a number of months back and the resulting discussion was truly incredible, with ten pages of great analysis by many of the most astute architecture addicts around. If you're looking for more on this awe-inspiring place, check out that thread right here.