MULLEN, Neb. — Scorecards don't lie.
There mine was, blank for the final four holes of the new Tom Doak-designed golf course at Dismal River Club.
Not that the scores were forgettable — a par, two bogeys and a double bogey. As Chris Johnston held up the card, the majority owner of the private golf club was laughing.
See, he said, scores didn't matter because the surroundings absorb one's attention.
It's a stunning panorama that crescendos to the finish of Dismal River's new Red Course, and adds to the distinctiveness of the state's destination golf courses.
Hills across the river tower 300 feet. A meadow-like valley for the winding stream is habitat for birds, wildlife and insects with its wildflowers and pines.
The hills are distinctive from each other. One that's a backdrop for the par-4 15th and par-3 16th is a remnant of a long-ago buffalo run across the valley floor to the hilltop. There's Little Horseshoe Hill, to the right of the par-4 17th. And Big Horseshoe Hill, to the right of the par-4 18th.
The stream comes into play in that closing stretch of holes, sneakily at times. Beware of a slice (or a lefty's hook) when the wind is blowing out of the south.
For Dismal River, the Red Course is a pleasing complement to the brawnier White Course by Jack Nicklaus that opened in 2006. For the state, it should be the next course to make a splash in national best-of rankings and perhaps give a boost to its older brother from course raters who revisit the Nicklaus course.
Doak's canvas is vastly different than the land Nicklaus chose. Should Jack have looked at this land for his course? Not since his desire was to design a course in the dunes.
As for Doak, he already had a dunes course in his portfolio with Ballyneal in eastern Colorado, near the Nebraska state line, before he won out over Tiger Woods to design the second 18 at Dismal River (Doak and Nicklaus, incidentally, collaborated on Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island).
Doak's design style is minimalistic, in which the existing contours are barely altered to shape the golf holes. He's taken some of his best style points from Ballyneal and embraced some of the prevailing thoughts about the direction of golf architecture — roll back the length of courses, make them eco-friendly, make them easier to maintain and, foremost, make them playable for all levels of golfers so they will want to return.
At par 71, the Red Course is 6,994 yards from the championship tees, a very manageable 6,334 from the middle tees and 4,869 from the forward tees. Johnston said the course won't have tee markers except during tournaments.
As at Ballyneal, the local custom will be to have the player with “honors” — the one who tees off first after winning the previous hole — choose where to play from. Distances to the green from the teeing grounds — many are mowed areas at least 50 yards long — are marked with yardage posts.
The Red will be watered with 1,100 irrigation heads, less than half what was required for the White Course even with super-wide fairways. Don Mahaffey, a course superintendent in Texas, designed the watering system that is being hailed as a prototype for building cheaper and more efficient irrigation. The fairways are the same fescue grass as on the White Course, but the new course uses a different strain of bentgrass.
Doak's greens are not outlandish in their bumps, humps and rolls. Johnston said he sees elements Doak incorporated in the greens complexes that recall the styles of Alister MacKenzie and Perry Maxwell. Depending on who's counting, between 12 and 14 greens took less than an hour apiece to shape. Two of the greens, the ninth and 12th, are “infinity greens” — which, like infinity pools, have the visual effect of extending to the horizon.
There's a unique flow to the course, between holes and between the changes in terrain, elevation and vegetation. Johnston said Doak's intent was to lay out the best 18-hole course, not create 18 individual holes.
For example, the owner said, the two men discussed how the fifth and sixth holes were being designed. The fifth is a monster par 3 of 261 yards from the back tees while the sixth, only 50 to 60 yards longer, is a drivable par 4.
Johnston thought the fifth might have its critics and wondered whether the fifth should be the short par-4 and the sixth the long par-3. Doak prevailed with the argument that because of wind conditions, he considered the holes to be connected and his way was the best way to achieve playing the pair in 7 strokes.
The Red Course begins with eight holes in the dunes, on generally gentle terrain. The first hole is a generous par 5. The fourth through seventh holes are in a cluster.
To get to the final 10 holes that take the course into the valley, Doak designed a par-4 ninth hole that crosses the clubhouse road (Field Club golfers in Omaha, take heart).
While cart trails will be few, one will be needed for the 10th hole, the last par 5. There, a 130-foot bridge will span a chasm to reach the fairway.
Looking north toward the hills from the tee for the par-3 11th, four greens are in view — for holes 13 through 16. Now turn almost 180 degrees to spy the 11th green. The shot is uphill, across an untouched area of native grass, with several bunkers protecting the first of the back nine's two short par-3s (174 from the back, 149 from the middle).
The other short par 3, the 16th at no more than 166 yards, breaks up the homestretch of six par 4s in the final seven holes. Those two-shot holes offer much variety:
>> A sharp dogleg right on 13.
>> A “double Alps” (high mounds on either side of the fairway, the second creating a blind shot to the green) on 14.
>> A reachable green off the tee for big hitters, but watch out for those rippled mounds in the final 100 yards, on 15.
>> A blind tee shot is aimed at a wide fairway on 17 that either creates a level or a downhill approach shot.
>> The home hole, depending where the tee is stuck in the ground, can be played as a dogleg right or a downhiller.
During my round on a postcard day last week, Johnston shared several stories:
>> See that blowout in the dunes in the distance on the second and seventh holes? Aim for it. Doak designed both holes with the blowout as a reference point.
>> Underground springs that feed into the Dismal run under the 15th and 16th holes. They create the mounds on 15. During construction, a excavator sank up to its windows when it hit a spring in front of the 16th green.
>> The two courses initially were called Black and Gold and used a buffalo logo on the flags — homages, Johnston thought, to Mullen High School's colors and to the buffalo run. He was rebuffed by NU fans who saw the combinations as too much University of Colorado-like.
Now, the Red Course has a red rose on a white flag; the White Course a white rose on a red flag. That hasn't satisfied some diehard Huskers, he said, because the motif isn't scarlet and cream.
Johnston's family is the third owners of Dismal River and the new course is giving the club much-needed stability. More than 20 new members have been added in the past six weeks, he said, and some weekends in August are completely booked.
Non-member tee times have limited availability and the access is pricey — daily greens fees and lodging are each in the $200 range. Weekdays are the best time to get on the course.
There aren't likely to be many more courses built in the Sand Hills (we're still waiting for Prairie Club to be build its Old School course). So it's fortunate one of the great practitioners of minimalist design got his opportunity.
Doak has given golf travelers new incentive — a plum of pure golf with the valley holes a unique Sand Hills twist — to visit Nebraska.