Tom Doak believes the golf course he's built at Dismal River Club is not “just another course in the dunes.”
Its three finishing holes have a panorama distinctive among the prairie-style, minimalist golf retreats that have sprung up in the Nebraska Sand Hills and adjoining areas in the past 20 years.
The holes — a par 3 and two par 4s — are in the Dismal River valley. Bluffs, including Horseshoe Hill and Little Horseshoe Hill, rise 200 feet to the golfer's right.
It's a course generating national buzz. Golf Digest's architecture editor, Omaha native Ron Whitten, tweeted during the winter that he thinks it will be the golf architecture story of the year.
Doak said distinctiveness was on his mind from the start of the project for the club that opened its first 18 holes, designed by Jack Nicklaus, in 2006. The relatively lush valley had to be included in the routing.
“It makes the course a little different,” he said. “You play enough of these courses and holes can blend together in people's minds. I don't think that will happen here.”
To Dismal River's majority owner and CEO, Chris Johnston, Doak is a “humble genius.”
“He's Michelangelo,” Johnston said. “What we wanted to do is let him paint the picture, wanted him to build his course.”
A July opening is planned for the budgeted $3 million course. Play will be limited this year, Johnston said, while the course matures.
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Doak's credits include Pacific Dunes at Bandon, Ore., and Sebonack (a project with Nicklaus) at Long Island. He also designed Ballyneal, the 18-hole private course just across the Nebraska state line near Holyoke, Colo.
He still wanted to build a course in the Sand Hills, a dream area for him since he saw Sand Hills Golf Club in the planning stage more than 20 years ago. Over the years, Doak looked at four or five projects. The original owners of Dismal River interviewed him and he also was considered for the original course (yet to be built) at the Prairie Club near Valentine.
“For a combination of reasons, I didn't do either of them,” Doak said. “I've been waiting for the right time and the right piece of ground, and this is it.”
He sought distinctiveness, too, between the new course and Ballyneal, in part because of their relative proximity. He avoided copying the “wild greens” of Ballyneal.
Many of the green sites are natural. Doak said of the 12 greens that his associate at Renaissance Golf Design, Brian Slawnik, built and shaped, only four took more than an hour to build.
“I was determined this time not to mess with greens too much,” Doak said. “I've always been comfortable moving things around a little bit, but as we've gotten better at it, at the end of the day, we're the only ones who know if we're good at it.”
To route the course that wound up being a par-71 at slightly less than 7,000 yards from the back tees, Doak made visits six months apart that lasted three or four days each, “stomping around.”
“I had had a topographical map for a little while and I knew the general idea would be to start in the dunes and work my way down to the river,” he said. “But I had to ask the client whether it was possible going down to the river and was it necessary to finish the course where it started.”
Johnston said he was fine with the 18th hole finishing 500 yards from the first tee and, by all means, incorporate the river valley.
The two Horseshoe hills, Johnston said, are among the prominent features in the backdrop to the course. Another was an ancient buffalo run up the bluff that's visible from the 13th and 16th greens.
The course comes back to the first tee at the eighth green, a quirk that lends itself to Johnston and Doak referring to the “front eight” and the “back 10.” The ninth hole, along a ridge toward a bluff overlooking the river, is across the access road to the clubhouse.
“I had done a version of the routing that came back (to the first tee) at the ninth, but when we were working on throwing out the weakest hole we thought it beneficial to throw one out on the front and have one more hole on the back,” Doak said, “And the ninth green gets us to a dramatic place on the course.”
When Doak announced on the GolfClubAtlas website that he had been hired at Dismal River, he wrote:
“Those who think the highlight of my courses are the par-4 holes will not be disappointed with short par-4s like the sixth, ninth and 15th and long par-4s like the 13th, 17th and 18th, while those of you who have opined that my par-3 holes are kind of weak will have to take it back by the time you've played the third hole or for sure by the time you limp off the fifth.”
The finishing stretch, he said for this article, begins with the short par-4 15th with a green on a natural bluff. The par-3 16th, relatively short, has its tee and green close to the river and “it's probably the wildest green on the course.” The par-4 17th is “one of the most unusual driving holes,” with vastly different approach shots depending on whether the tee shot is played to the left or right side of the fairway.
The options on 18, Doak said, start with the two tee locations. One makes the hole a dogleg and the other, high and left of the 17th green, creates a downhill hole. The green, on a bluff close to the river, has a valley guarding its front.
“As a natural course as I've ever seen. It was like laying carpet on what was there,” Johnston said. “This is unlike anything else in the Sand Hills, the topography, the river and the finishing holes. It's not like the Nicklaus course or Sand Hills (Golf Club). It's a completely different feel.”
Johnston said the new course will have multiple tees on each hole, making it “women friendly.” Doak designed it to be walkable and the Dismal River membership will be encouraged to enjoy the walk this year while protecting the young turf.
“We're really happy to have two really cool courses for our members to play,” Johnston said.
Woods considered for Dismal River course
Tiger Woods was among those interviewed to build the second course at Dismal River Club.
“We looked at a lot of people,” Johnston said. “Tiger did come out and look at the project. He was one of the finalists.”
Woods is not known to have previously visited Nebraska.
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