I awoke at 4 am on Friday morning to make the three hour drive from Ballyneal Golf Club near Holyoke, Colorado to the Sand Hills Golf Club near Mullen, Nebraska. It was very dark outside as I made my way down the dirt road back toward civilization. There are long roads and fields and very little of anything else between Holyoke and Mullen. I knew there had to be a golf course at the end of my drive because google maps said so. The scenery certainly gave no indication that beyond the hills was a beautiful and challenging golf course.
As I wound my way along the highway with fields of wildflowers and sand hills I came upon an unassuming sign that marked the entrance to Sand Hills Golf Club. I made the turn to enter the grounds still wondering how there could be a world class golf course anywhere near where I was. That didn’t change as I followed the road to a pro shop that was as unassuming at the sign at the entrance.
I parked my rental and entered the pro shop. The fact that there was something very special became evident as I was greeted by the staff of the Sand Hills Golf Club. They were all smiles and warmly welcomed me. I immediately felt at ease. I must admit that there had been a few times during my quest to play the Top 100 US Golf Courses as ranked by Golf Digest for 2017-18, where I’ve felt like an intruder onto someone else’s property. That was not the case at Sand Hills.
After checking in I was introduced to my caddie, Riley. Riley was a tall handsome Nebraskan who had just completed college at the University of Nebraska with a business degree. I think I remember him telling me that he was taking a break before making a run at getting on one of the mini golf tours. Riley and I hopped in golf carts and he led me to the practice range. He then provided me with directions on how to get to the first tee. He said he’d meet me there. At this point I still hadn’t seen any tee boxes or fairways. The practice range was much like the one at Ballyneal. It was a field where the native grass had been cut down. There were again fence posts that marked the distances.
I hit balls into the field under a sky with dark clouds starting to form. I hoped that my round would not be impacted by rain. I then jumped on my golf cart and went searching for a golf course. I followed the dirt trail, kicking up a lot of dust with my golf cart. And there it was Ben’s Porch. Ben’s Porch sat perched at the edge of a beautiful golf course. It reminded me of Ballyneal with its ribbons of green following through the sand hills. Although the ribbons of green at Sand Hills seemed slightly brighter and slightly more manicured.
On Ben’s Porch, I meet Cameron, what a great guy. Like the ladies in the pro shop, he was warm and full of positive energy. He had a delightful spirit. Ben’s Porch was like a combination starter’s shack and 19th hole. Players seemed to gather there before and after their rounds to commune. I too did so following my round. But now I’m getting a little ahead of myself. I need to play the round first before I talk about what I did after my round.
Riley and I headed to the first tee, finally I saw a golf course. Had I not played Ballyneal, this would have been that golf experience like no other. There were no trees in sight, just tee boxes, fairways, greens, bunkers, and sand hills covered with native vegetation. I hope no one is offended by this, but it was like I was playing Ballyneal’s big brother. I’m not sure which course was built first, but they are links that are certainly linked. While I was at Ballyneal, I met Amy. She and her husband had just relocated from Sand Hills to Ballyneal. Her husband had become the golf course superintendent at Ballyneal after having worked at Sand Hills. I believe one of the pro’s at Ballyneal had also previous worked at Sand Hills. While the courses are like each other, they are both very different from any other golf course that I’d ever experienced. The close thing it comes to is Erin Hills.
I chose to play from the second set of tees. They measured roughly 6400 yards. The first hole is a 520 yard par 5. The fairway is offset slightly to the right of the tee box. There are bunkers on each side of the fairway at about 230 yards from the tee box. I smashed my drive. My ball waved at the left fairway bunker as it flew over it in route to the middle of the fairway stopping at 230 yards from the middle of the green.
The green played up hill. Riley advised that I play the hole conservatively and lay up rather than going for the green. I laid up with my pitching wedge to 70 yards out. My first two shots had to have been pure adrenalin. My drive had traveled almost 290 yards and I’d just hit my pitching wedge 160 yards. Rest assured, this did not continue. I had intended to lay up to 90 yards to leave a lob wedge shot to the green. With my pitching wedge traveling as far as it did, I was left with a very uncomfortable uphill approach shot with the ball below my feet.
I hit my approach shot over the green. I pitched back onto the green and two putted to open my round with a bogey.
The second hole is a 370 yard par four. The fairway is slightly offset to the left of the tee box and narrows significantly at about 260 yards out. After smashing my drive on the first hole, I chose a 3 wood for my tee shot on the second hole. I was still working off all that positive energy that the staff at Sand Hills exuded. I hit my drive to the middle of the fairway, just 135 yards from the middle of the green.
I left my approach shot a little shot, chipped on to five feet past the flag. This left a short, but down hill breaking putt for par. I missed the putt and settled for my second bogey.
The third hold is a long par three that was playing 206 yards with a back front pin position. There were two bunkers on the hole. The first one was just over 100 yards from the tee box and the second was way right of the green. Neither really came into play.
I hit my tee shot directly at the flag. Unfortunately, the ball landed short of the green. I pitched on about 25 feet left of the pin. I hit a good putt for par that just slide by the hole. I tapped in for my third bogey.
The fourth hole is just a mano y mano hole. It is long and straight. The fairway narrows at about 260 yards out and has a bunker that cuts into the right side of the fairway at that point. The hole plays 420 yards. I thought about hitting a three wood to ensure I stayed short of the bunker on the right, but was concerned that would leave me with a very long approach shot. I hit my driver to the left side of the fairway but the ball drifted into the first cut of rough less than a foot off the fairway. Had I hit to the right side of the fairway, I would have been in the bunker.
I was 170 yards from the pin. With a massive bunker just short and to the left of the green, I hit a fade for my approach shot. The ball faded a little more that I wanted and landed pin high on just off the right side of the green. The green is elevated, so the ball rolled down the slope to level ground. I pitched up and onto the green and two putted for my fourth bogey in a row. This was now starting to get annoying. I had driven the ball well, hit solid approach shots but missed the green on everyone. I’d also missed some makeable par putts.
From the tee box, the fifth hole looked very troublesome. The fairway was wide, but there was a long carry from the tee box to the fairway. There were also several bunkers to continue with including one smack dab in the middle of the fairway.
The hole was playing 380 yards. I hit my drive into and up against the lip of the right fairway bunker and about 130 yards from the green. I had absolutely no shot at the green, so I pitched out sideways back into the fairway.
My third shot landed on the front of the green. I two putted for yet another bogey. I’d played five holes and made five bogeys. While I maintained my exterior cool, I was boiling with frustration on the inside. I was playing much better than I’d played in Colorado, yet I couldn’t get the ball into the bottom of the cup in the requisite strokes.
The 200 yard par three sixth hole presented another opportunity to card a par. There was native grass for the first 110 - 120 yards between the tee box and the fairway in front of the elevated green. There was also a large bunker right as the native grass gave way to the fairway. I think this bunker was there to get into your head and mess with your depth perception. I think my understanding of how golf course architects get into you head is improving. In the past, I may have been worried about that bunker and lifted my head a little too quickly during the swing causing poor contact.
That bunker wasn’t really in play. The bunker protecting the green was on the right. That bunker shouldn’t have been in play either. The flag was on the front left side of the green. Never-the-less, my tee shot ended up in the right green side bunker. I hit my sand shot just to the left of the flag, the ball rolled right by the flag and off the edge of the green, leaving a twelve foot putt for par.
I again couldn’t find the bottom of the cup with my putt and carded my sixth straight bogey. Riley tried to channel some of that Sand Hills positive energy my way by saying that eventually the putts would fall.
The seventh hole is a very short par four. Surely, I could make par on a 280 yard par for. Not! The hole starts with native grass between the tee box and the fairway. The fairway is rather wide up to about 50 yards from the middle of the green. At that point there is a massive bunker on the right that is shaped like Cinderella’s glass slipper but with no fairy tale ending. There are also bunkers along the right side of the fairway.
Normally on such a short hole, I’d play conservatively and hit something like a five hybrid to leave a very short wedge shot to the hole. With no pars on my scorecard at this point, I decided to bring out the big dog and go for the green. I hit a good drive, but not a great one, down the left side of the fairway to about 60 yards short of the hole.
With Cinderella’s slipper between my ball and the back left flag, I favored the right side of the green. The problem with that was that the green sloped severely from left to right. I pitched onto the green, but my ball rolled off the right side of the green. I putted to within six feet of the pin. Once again, I couldn’t sink the putt for my par. I’d now played seven holes and made seven straight stinking bogeys.
The eight hole is another short par four. It plays just under 300 yards. It looked like such a tame and beautiful hole with golden fields of native grass framing the rolling green fairway. The fairway has bunkers on the right. The approach shot plays uphill to a green that is surrounded by bunkers.
I again chose to hit my driver. I pulled a low shot that went across the fairway and landed in the deep rough on a sand hill to the left of the fairway. The ball was deep in the rough, I had to hit it out sideways to minimize the amount of rough that the way would need to carry to get back to the fairway. I didn’t want to have to hit a second shot out of the deep rough.
I muscled the ball back into the fairway, leaving 174 yards to the pin. I hit my third shot onto the green, 25 feet pass the flag. I missed the long par putt and carded my eighth bogey in a row.
My bogey streak came to an end on the final hole of the front nine. The hour is a 370 yard par four with a left to right fairway. The tee box is set at about a 45-degree angle from the fairway. It set up beautifully for my fade. A drive hit more than 230 yards that didn’t fade would likely go through the left side of the fairway and potentially into the left fairway bunkers. Fortunately for me, my ball did fade and ended up in the middle of the fairway in between the left and the right fairway bunkers.
I got anxious during my swing on my approach shot and topped the ball. The ball traveled just 80 yards. I hit my third shot straight over the flag and then three putted for a double bogey. This was not exactly the way I wanted to end my bogey streak. I finished with par 35 front nine with a disappointing and par free 45.
The back nine starts with a long par four. The fairway has several bunkers on the left and right sides and a lot of elevation changes. I hit my drive into the high fescue on the right. I then hit a provisional to the middle of the fairway. We are unable to find my first drive, so I played my provisional. I left my approach shot short of the green, pitched onto the green and made the putt for a double bogey.
At this point, all those bogeys on the front nine were starting to look better. Riley and I move on to the 11th hole. The hole is a short par four, not as short as the seventh and eighth holes, but short in comparison to most of the other par fours. The hole plays 340 yards. I decided to put my driver away since I didn’t seem to be able to consistently hit it where I wanted to. I struck the ball solidly and it came off the club face on a straight line, unfortunately that straight line put me in line with what must be the world’s largest bunker.
Fortunately, I had a clean lie in the bunker and was only 110 yards out. My bunker shot barely cleared the lip of this deep massive bunker. The ball landed to the right of the green. I pitched onto the green toward the flag, but with the contour of the green my ball rolled to the front of the green. I two putted from there to get off the double bogey train and back onto the bogey train. I was now eleven holes into my round and still hadn’t made a par.
The twelfth hole is the last of the somewhat short par fours. It was playing just over 350 yards. While the scorecard for Sand Hills doesn’t show the handicap for each hole, my guess is that the twelfth hole is the easiest part four on the course. The fairway is wide and virtually bunker free. There is one small bunker on the left side of the fairway, but it should never come in to play. The hole plays slight uphill from the tee box and has a fairway that slopes severely from left to right.
I hit my 3 wood again from the tee box. I made another good swing and the ball landed in the middle of the fairway and rolled down the slope to the right side of the fairway. This but me right in line with the large bunker on the right side of the green. I think the bunker was larger than the green.
The pin was positioned on the back left portion of the green. This was probably as far away from the green side bunker as it could be. My approach faded and landed in the bunker. I was fortunate in that it landed in the sand short of a mound of rough in the middle of the bunker.
I hit my sand shot to 10 feet and a miracle happened. I actually made a putt and recorded my first par of the round. It took 12 holes, but a par putt finally found its way to the bottom of the cup.
My joy was short lived. I made a double bogey on the 185 yard par three thirteenth hole after hitting my tee shot fat and landing 40 yards short of the green. I chunked my first pitch, pitched to short of the green, then chip on and one putted for the double.
The fourteenth hole is a short par five at 475 yards. I continued to use my three wood for my shots. I hit the ball to the middle of the fairway, to 280 yards out.
I decided to play the hole conservatively and hit a lay up with my five iron. I hit my approach shot to the native grass. Riley said that it was unlikely that we would find the ball. I dropped a ball at the same spot and hit my fourth shot. I then hit to the right side of the green on my fifth shot and two putted for double bogey.
At this point I looked at Riley and said enough is enough. I need to make pars and birdies to salvage my round. We had four holes left, it was time to focus and consistently make good golf swings.
Finishing strong wouldn’t be easy, the last four holes were challenging holes. The first of the closing four holes was the long par four fifteenth hole which played 425 yards. The fairway was somewhat narrow with a couple of bunkers along the right side and one near the green on the left side. I hit my three wood to the middle of the fairway, but still had 225 yards to a green that was uphill and offset slightly to the left.
Riley suggested that I consider laying up. However, I was on a mission now, bogeys would not be good enough to salvage my round. I decided to go for it. My miss with my three wood is usually to the right, so I aimed to the left, expecting a slight fade. I struck the ball well and it didn’t fade. We lost sight of the ball after it cleared the bunker on the left. We knew it was hit well enough to make it to the green, but Riley was concerned that it could be lost in the native grass to the left of the green. Fortunately, that was not the case, the ball was in the native grass, but not in the deep grass.
The ball was pin high and on a fairly clean lie. I pitched onto the green and made the putt for a par. One down three to go.
Next up was the sixteenth hole. It was the last and the longest of the par fives. It played 565 yards. After hitting my three wood well for several holes, I felt that my swing was now grooved enough to take the big dog back out. Besides this was a very long hole and I needed the distance if I wanted to reach it in regulation. My decision was a good one. My drive sailed 280 yards down the middle of the fairway.
I then laid up 140 yards. I hit my approach shot to pin high and about 25 feet to the left of the flag. I missed my birdie putt, but made and easy par. Now it was two down and two to go.
The shortest par three on the course follows the longest par five. The 150 yard par three is a nice respite after a long five that followed a long par four. While the hole is short, it is not easy. The hole plays uphill and it is well bunkered. There is a small bunker, that I believe is meant to throw you off on the distance, then there is a very large bunker to the right of the hole that runs the left of the green. There is also a small bunker between that bunker and the green about midway up the green, which was about where the flag was positioned. There are also two bunkers on the left side of the green, both are deep.
As we approached the tee box, there was a group that had just teed off. They asked that I play through. Riley and I had been moving very quickly. We had played the first sixteen holes in about two hours and forty five minutes. So now I had a gallery as I tried to close out my round with a strong finish. One of the toughest shots in golf is the one you hit when someone offers to let you play through and then is standing there watching you hit the ball. This added some stress, but didn’t change the fact that I was on a mission. I focus, swung the club and the ball head straight for the flag.
The ball landed and rolled about twelve feet past the flag. I missed my second birdie putt in a row, but made another easy par. I hadn’t made any birdies, but I’d made three pars and had just one more hole to go to finish strong.
Misters Crenshaw and Coore weren’t going to make it easy. The eighteen hole is a tough finishing hole. The hole plays just over 432 yards. The fairway is narrow and gets even more narrow as it approaches the greens. The fairway is also well bunkered. The left side of the fairway is almost entirely lined with bunkers. There is one just as the fairway begins that runs to about 225 yards out from the green and then other one that runs from about 150 yards short of the green right up to the green. There are a couple of small bunkers on the right side of the fairway. The green as a small bunker on the left and a small on the right. You really have to be unlucky to end up in either of those.
I’d hit the driver well on the sixteenth hole, so I felt confident hitting it on the closing hole, especially since most of the trouble on the hole was on the left side of the fairway. I made a confident swing and hit the ball 260 yards to the dead center of the fairway, leaving 180 yards to the pin. After the lost ball on my first drive on the 10th hole, I had managed to hit every drive with either my three wood or driver, to the middle of the fairway.
Standing in the middle of the fairway, there was only one green between me and my goal of finishing strong. The approach shot was slightly up hill. My ball was in the middle of the fairway, the flag was in the middle of the green. There was nothing between it and me, but air and opportunity. The ball was slightly above my feet. The wind was blowing right to left. But I decided that there was no need to think about hitting a fade or hitting a draw. I just needed to hit it straight at the flag.
I took the club back with a deliberate motion. As my club reached the top of my backswing, I started the down swing. The club brushed the ground ever so slightly before contacting the ball. The ball came off the club face and headed straight for the flag. It landed in line with the flag, just off the front of the green.
Finishing with a birdie now would be a little harder, but I still had hope. I was close enough to the green to putt the ball. Riley and I took our time to make the read. It looked like a double breaker. The ball was breaking right to left until it approaches the hole, then it would turn back to the right. We chose a line just to the right of the flag. I made a good putt, but it didn’t find the bottom of the cup. I tapped in and close my round with a par. I didn’t make any birdies, but I did close out my round with four easy pars. This gave me a 43 for the back nine and an 88 for the full round.
After finishing my round, Riley and I headed to Ben’s porch where there was a nice juicy cheeseburger waiting for me. We had completed the round in just over three hours. This gave me an opportunity to drive back to Denver and try to get a Friday night flight out rather than my scheduled Saturday morning flight. Getting that Friday night flight would ensure that I made it to Atlanta in time to take my son to Dragon Con. I hated to do it, but I grabbed my burger and jumped a golf cart and headed to the parking lot.
I would have preferred to hangout on Ben’s Porch and visit, but I now had a new mission. A mission to get to Dragon Con on Saturday morning.
I’d like to thank Bob for hosting me at Sand Hills, Jeff for introducing me to Bob and all the folks at Sand Hills for making my round there such a great experience. I really enjoyed the course. I’m a little torn between whether I like it or Ballyneal more. I really like them both and could play either every day, so I’ve decided that there is no reason to favor one over the other.