Course: In Mullen, Nebraska, Dismal River is in the sand hills region of Nebraska, which is roughly the northwest quadrant of the state. While many from other parts of the country, including me, may think of Nebraska as one of the plain states with flat, bland terrain stretching for hundreds of miles before reaching the Rocky Mountains or the Mississippi River, this part of Nebraska was anything but. Instead, enormous rolling sand dunes prevail in this area of the state, created from the wind pushing the land for thousands of years into these formations. It also happens to be ideal land for golf.
Be that as it may, there are a number of reasons why the glorious sand hills are not full of golf courses. For starters, it’s in a remote location. The closest metropolis is Denver, about 4 – 5 hours away. This creates a number of problems, as anything needed for building a course and its facilities becomes a lot more difficult to come by and even if/when said course is built, getting enough people to work on its staff and attracting enough paying customers for an extended amount of time to continue to stay in business are all very real concerns. About 20 years ago, however, a guy named Dick Youngscap decided to go all in, build a course on a grand scale using stretches of that great land, and create a sanctuary away from, well, society. That course was Sand Hills and is now one of the best courses in the world.
Dismal River is a few miles away, situated on pristine rolling terrain, with the Dismal River on the northern side of the property. The first course was built by Jack Nicklaus, on land he hand selected for the lay out of eighteen holes, now known as the White Course. In 2013, a second course was built by Tom Doak and is now known as the Red Course.
I have desperately wanted to journey to the Nebraska Sand Hills region ever since I found out about it. The terrain is unique to any where else in North America and yields the most fascinating natural formations that just happen to be perfectly laid out for golf. But beyond the courses, the area has a sense of calm, peace and expanse that is becoming more and more rare today. There’s no traffic, no sirens, no helicopters or planes; really, it’s just deafening silence. Almost just as much as playing the courses, I looked forward to sitting on the porch, watching the sky and really, have nothing happen. Whether it was watching the sun rise over the sand hills, watching the full moon and stars illuminate the sky at night or sitting by the fire for hours, the gorgeous scenery and setting made the pilgrimage well worth it.
Speaking of the pilgrimage, there’s a few ways to get to Dismal. From Denver, you can cut an hour off your drive by taking dirt roads for the last hour or so. Or you can drive through North Platte. I actually did each way and am glad I did. While the dirt roads were a little more rustic and it was fun yelling at the cattle to get out of the way, the roads from North Platte showed a gradual transformation of topography that was really cool to see in person and the hills were a little more dramatic and severe in that direction. To me, the drive was certainly part of the experience, but I believe nearby Mullen airport is capable of handling your Gulf Stream if you want to speed things up.
My buddy and I were fortunate to come to Dismal River for a two-man tournament, playing both courses a number of times. As the reception on my cell phone faded to nil and we started relying on signs and fence posts to get where we were going, we finally ended up on the right dirt road and started passing a few golf holes and some cabins, with the clubhouse on top of the hillside beyond. Once you park your car, you get a golf cart to get any where you want to go on the property, including your cabin, which is on the premises. The cabins are well furnished, with deep comfortable beds, a great porch and a bathroom bigger than some clubhouses. All meals are served at the clubhouse, which has a great fire pit in the rear and enough chairs for everyone. Every meal was memorable and the bourbon selection was right up my alley.
We didn’t have much time to get ready for our first match before we arrived, but were playing the Red Course. After warming up on the range, we got in our cart and drove a couple miles down the road we drove in on, which is pictured above. It was shotgun start, so we then had to find the right hole to start on, which was more of an issue than you would think since the holes aren’t numbered. But we finally found it, figured out where the green was and had a blast, ending up playing the course a few more times while we were there.
Dismal Red is set amidst the sand hills, then meanders down to Dismal River for the last few holes. Its routing is virtually flawless, as each hole effortlessly transforms to the next, features wide fairways with challenging tee shots of all varieties, superbly undulating greens and plenty of strategy and options on each hole, with various paths to the green. Bunkers are placed very well as both hazards and visuals while the course is very much designed to accommodate the wind. In fact, the wind can be such a factor that the tees are placed according to how the wind is blowing (which is the reason for the distance range above).
The variety you encounter on the course is terrific. Variety of terrain, style of play, natural surroundings, shots, greens…pretty much everything. It is probably the best example I can come up with of a course I could play on an endless cycle and never feel I was playing the same hole twice. Moreover, the course is very much set up for enjoyment and creativity. The tee areas are 20 yards wide in places and you’re allowed to simply drive your cart right up to them. The tee markers are only marked by cattle skull, with no hole numbers or anything else. You simply get up, put a tee in the ground and figure out where you want to hit the ball.
More than anything else, Dismal Red reflects the true sense of this place. It’s an ideal setting for golf and seeks to emphasize the reasons why we all love the game; memorable shots, several ways to attack each hole, a chance for redemption on poorer shots, idyllic scenery and perhaps most important of all, camaraderie.
It is currently and probably will be the best course I played this year.
The First is a 407 – 535 yard par 5. Again, the tees are set differently each day. When you get to the tee, there is a horseshoe placed where you should tee off from. And the scorecard for the day will let you know the distance for each hole from that tee location. The scorecard provides the range of yardage of each hole as well. A range finder is a must so you can figure out distances, there is no GPS.
As for the First, the tee shot is to a inviting fairway that starts uphill and dog legs right. From the tee, it almost feels like you’re essentially playing to a green 45 miles away, possibly in the sky. The second shot is where the thinking starts, as bunkers start to introduce themselves on the right side and center, short of the green. Figure out where your approach shot should be from while avoiding the trouble. The green is set on what seems like a platform, with deep bunkers on both sides of the front and runs from back to front, yet there are a number of nooks and tiers that make it a little more complex than that. The greens were terrific when I was there, with lots of subtlety and complexity.
Our opponent. His long game wasn’t very good, but boy could he gallop to his ball in a jiff
Moving up the fairway
The Second is a 328 – 472 yard par 4. Yep, 472 yards. If the wind is to your back, it’s actually a fairly reasonable distance. The tee shot is a forced carry over native grass and hills to a semi blind fairway. There’s a lot more room on the right that it appears, but hitting it over there makes the second shot much longer. The fairway cants from right to left while cragged bunker complexes are to the left. The green is in a wide open area, with a pretty large false front. There is a swath of room on the right below the hole, pretty much all the way to the third tee. Again, it’s safe on the right, but the hole gets a lot longer. The green is one of the more subtle on the course. While relatively flat, it runs a lot more from left to right than it appears.
The fairway on the other side of the forced carry from the tee area
Approach shot territory
The Third is a 128 – 195 yard par 3. An elevated green with cattle watching you from above in the backdrop of the hills, the shot is a forced carry over the native grass to a green that falls off the front and has bunkers on either side. The green runs from left to right. It’s almost a reverse Redan.
One thing this hole typifies well is it shows off just how effortlessly it looks the course was placed on the land. It’s almost as if Doak saw a clearing of the native grass, put down some grass seed and voila, here’s a par 3. The entire course has that feeling, which compliments and accentuates the surrounding setting and vice versa.
The Fourth is a 255 – 388 yard par 4. An elevated tee shot to a split fairway below. The benefit of going left is it shortens your approach, but that approach will likely be blind. Going right is easier, but the approach is longer, yet at least it’s possible the green is in view. I think split the difference and hit it in the trouble in the center each time. The approach shot is to a green hidden amongst the mounds, with bunkers short right and long left. There’s also Moriaty’s Shed off to the left, which I some how ended up hitting on my approach one time. It’s a relatively short par 4, especially when the wind is down, with a good amount of strategy and an exacting approach shot.
The Fifth is a 167 – 261 yard par 3. For us, this par 3 played 239 yards. At one of the high points of the course, the wind gets fickle and while I imagine downwind 260 would be manageable, 239 was tough on occasion because the wind turned against us. However it comes, this is a longer par 3. The bunker on the right is actually larger than it looks, but there is a lot more room on the left than it appears and plenty of room short of the green as well. I hit one of the best shots of the trip here, a nice 3 wood that landed 10 feet from the pin. Boy I loved watching the ball sail over the hills, curve around that monster bunker and settle in towards the pin.
A closer look
The Sixth is a 224 – 326 yard par 4. The fairway descends gently from the tee, then sweeps right to left to the green. There’s some temptation here to carry the bunkers on the left if on the left side of the fairway, but it’s a risky proposition. On one of the higher points of the course, the wind continues to swirl and if a gust catches your shot, you’ll end up off the face of the planet in one of the those bunkers. The right side gives you the best look at the green, with only a single bunker to account from in front of the green.
Approach shot territory
One of my favorite photos of the trip. Of course, it helped I got up and down from this bunker for par!
The Seventh is a 279 – 442 yard par 4. Looping around and climbing to the top of the hills in the beginning holes, we now begin to come down into the valley, getting ever so closer to the river. The immense bunker on the right is the prominent feature here and there’s not a whole lot of room on the left, so it’s time for an accurate tee shot to the fairway below. The green is elevated from the fairway with yet another bunker on the right to get you closer to the left side, which drops off severely into a hillside of native grass.
Approach shot territory
The Eighth is a 445 – 554 yard par 5. The tee shot is elevated to the fairway, which gets further down into the valley. One of the more generous fairways on the course, really severe bunkers are on the right while the other quarter mile wide of fairway dog leg right, still going downhill to the green. More bunkers on the right while more fairway is on the left, so really, just stay left, even though the fairway runs from left to right. The green is set on the right on the hillside, running very strongly from left to right. I found it to be one of the tougher approach shots because of how fast the ball runs. You almost need to draw it in there to give the ball some counter force into the hillside. So even though the tee and second shot are fairly easy, things get much tougher on the approach and near/on the green.
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The Ninth is a 231 – 374 yard par 4. After crossing a dirt road, you get over towards the north end of the valley. The terrain decidedly has changed from the prior holes and it seems these may be a list more protected from the wind. The tee shot is a forced carry over native grass, with the fairway running almost perpendicular to the tee. This should be a fairly easy hole, but for whatever reason, always had my number. The green is pretty much straightaway from the fairway with really the only thing to worry about is hitting long, which drops off considerably.
The front nine is outstanding. There is no weak hole, each have distinct identities and quite honestly, are among some of my favorite holes and shots. The combination of wind, terrain, bunkers and native grass meld perfectly and never overwhelm, providing brilliant golf. Ranking them is difficult, but I would go 6, 5, 4, 2, 1, 8, 7, 3, 9.
The back nine starts with the 407 – 546 yard par 5 Tenth. One of my favorite holes of the course, the tee shot is a forced carry to a fairway perpendicular to the tee and trying to get closer to the green on the right means you need to carry further because of the bunkers before the fairway. The fairway sweeps right to left, forming a sideboard on the right most side of the fairway, before narrowing and climbing to the green, which is set on the left side. The green is wide but shallow, with a nice short grass area running off the right, or front. It’s certainly one of my favorite greens of the course as well. Mainly, I love the hole because of its capacity to play so many different ways, either intentionally or unintentionally. It’s incredible fun.
Moving up the fairway
The Eleventh is a 109 – 174 yard par 3. It’s all forced carry to the slightly elevated green, with the green more severe than usual, as its upper portion on the right tiers from the lower portion. Bunkers also surround the green and in conjunction with the challenge of the green, a precise tee shot is necessary. There is a lot of bail out room long and to the right and to the left as well.
The Twelfth is a 307 – 430 yard par 4. The hole seems to go along a ridge line that runs parallel with the river. While the fairway cants right to left and pulls all balls that way, staying as far right as possible is the safer play, although further left gives you a better angle into the green. Similar to the Eighth, the green is what appears to be on the middle of a hillside, with short grass areas and a false front surrounding a larger area around the green. Hitting long, or too far left, on the approach is probably a lost stroke, so try to use the short grass area as a sideboard to get the ball close to the pin.
Approach shot territory
The Thirteenth is a 311 – 496 yard par 4. Another step closer to the river, the tee shot is to a semi blind fairway that runs from left to right, with a treacherous bunker on the right side that needs to be avoided at all costs. The fairway dog legs right and goes downhill and just like a Cape hole, the green can be seen from the tee and tempts from all positions to cut the dog leg and go for it. Really though, the downhill feeds right to the green so can be used to get the ball on to the green and cozy to the green. The bunkers on this hole are penal, which are most on the right and come into play if you give into that temptation and try for the hero shot.
Off right of the fairway, with the troublesome bunker, and the green in the background
Approach shot territory
The Fourteenth is a 318 – 419 yard par 4. The green is completely tucked away amongst the dunes as the fairway snakes through them from the tee. The bunkers on the right and hills on the left create a blind approach for most shots, as most will need to carry the raised bunkers on the right to get there. There’s a lot of room once you get to the green, but it really is a hole you need to play a few times to figure out how best to attack it and figure out yardages.
Moving a little closer to the green
The Fifteenth is a 220 – 315 yard par 4. This shorter par 4 starts downhill, then rises up to the green. There’s a lot more room to the left than appears from the tee and although safer than risking hitting it right into the deep stuff, going left will make the approach blind and longer. There are some more bunker hills that are also on the Fourteenth; these are over on the left side as well. The green is pitched, with the areas around the front of it shaved down, creating all kinds of different lies and challenging wedge shots. Of course, going for the green is an option. The hole played 270 when I was there, so I decided on the old bomb and gouge routine, relying on my wedges to get me out of any trouble I might get in around the green. Aiming towards the left side gives you a better angle into the green, but make sure you carry the bunkers or else you’ll be scrambling pretty hard for par.
Approach shot territory
The left side of the green
The Sixteenth is a 114 – 166 yard par 3. The last three holes play against the river and head back in the direction of the clubhouse. A good rule of the thumb is that everything goes towards the direction of the river, which is essentially to the right. Here, The green is wide but shallow and definitely runs from left to right. There’s a lot of room around the green to miss, but that’s pretty much all on the left and missing over there leaves you with a precarious chip to a green that runs away from you.
In one of our matches, a player on the other team was hitting it great and getting himself in position for a few birdie putts from fairly close to the hole, but kept missing them. Because he kept missing them, we wouldn’t give the putts to him, so on the tee of the this hole, he declared he would just have to get it in the hole to avoid putting altogether. And that’s exactly what he did. The shot landed left of the hole, rolled to the right, then disappeared. We weren’t certain it went it, but once we got up there, we saw it in the hole and had a blast celebrating for him. It was the first hole in one I had ever seen and I loved that he essentially called it beforehand.
The Seventeenth is a 309 – 454 yard par 4. A completely blind tee shot over a hill awaits, with a posted cattle skull as the only aiming point. Once you climb to the fairway from the tee, you see that it is pretty wide and goes downhill to the green. The fairway also drops off on the right side, which leaves a very difficult shot to the green back over the hillside. The approach shot is deceptive, as it appears you can use the hill as a sideboard and make the ball move to the right, there’s a depression between the hillside and green that catches a lot of balls and stops them short of the green. It’s still a nice place to end up, but left center of the green is probably the best aiming spot to allow for some roll to the right. It’s a great hole.
At the beginning of the fairway
The aiming point from the tee
The Eighteenth is a 271 – 447 yard par 4. With the clubhouse and cabins in the far background, the tee shot is a forced carry over native brush to a fairway that runs perpendicular and slopes from left to right, towards the river. My mantra on the tee shot here is you can’t go left enough, as even straight shots well hit always seem to end up on the right of the hole, in a lower portion fraught with deep grass mounds, and the further right you are, the more blind the green is and the more a bunker in the center short of the green comes into play, which has the potential to singlehandedly ruin your round. I never got the hang of this green. While it should run left to right, I feel I had a few putts that ran in the opposite direction. It’s one of the tougher holes on the course, yet a good way to finish the round.
Moving down the fairway
Approach shot territory
The back nine loop down to the river than along it, featuring a difference in terrain and demanding bit more course management and accuracy over length, as it was playing over 200 yards shorter than the front when I was there. The collection of par 4’s are outstanding and again, there are no weak holes. I would rank them 10, 17, 18, 14, 15, 13, 16, 11, 12.
In general, Dismal Red is one of the better courses I have played. The routing, scenery, enjoyment, challenge, strategy, excitement and temptation are all top notch. After each round I played here, I felt a sense of exhilaration and fulfillment. The range of emotions felt, the range of skills tested and the range of shots seen were all what you would hope to experience in a round and tap into the potential of what golf means to us all. I could easily play this course on an endless loop the rest of my days and be a happy man. Each hole has distinct character and a separate identity, yet all of them interact and connect with one another to create a near flawless round.
To get a little existential, as you’re making the journey out to the middle of no where, navigating dirt roads, yelling at cattle, wondering where the nearest hospital is, it may cross your mind what is it exactly that you are going through all this trouble? For me, it was peace and enjoyment; a serenity, that for at least a few days, I could immerse in the game, interact with remote and sensational land, and enjoy things a bit. Dismal Red did a tremendous job accentuating the unique landscape and creating a course you would not encounter any where else, which coincides with what it seems is Dismal River’s general purpose; to provide a special fulfilling experience to those willing to take the trouble to venture out.
Gripes: The only thing that comes to mind is with so many golfers warming up in the morning, they ran out of range balls quickly, which meant many of us had to go out and hand pick our own balls. It seems like they need to have more range balls ready.
Bar/Grill: They do it right, with a great selection of beer and whiskey, including old Pappy Van. The seating inside has long tables with nice leather cushioned chairs while outside features rockers, a large fire pit, all overlooking the river and bluffs beyond.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: It’s pretty much the same as the bar/grill area. In addition to the above, they have a large indoor viewing room with a huge t.v., a formal dining area and an office area. The pro shop has a lot of good stuff and the hat logo is awesome.
Practice area: Grass range and putting green, both of which are awesome. The putting green is fairly large. We had a putting contest one night, where they rolled the greens to 16 on the stimp. Thankfully, cocktails were involved.