The Dismal River Club, Nicklaus Course Rankings:
Golf Digest: #5 Nebraska
GolfWeek: #168 US modern
Designer: Jack Nicklaus (2006)
Coupled with our trip to The Prairie Club in Valentine, Nebraska, my friend and mentor in the golf writing industry, Brian Weis and I decided to add one more stop to an absolutely legendary golf trip: Dismal River Golf Club in Mullen, Nebraska.
We went out of our way for hours from Valentine to Mullen, which is locally known to be America’s biggest little city. Hooker County is home to just over 700 residents, and we were driving in Mullen for about 45 minutes (30 of which was on one-lane back roads) before arriving at the Dismal River Club.
Dismal River is rated as one of the finest private golf clubs in the country, and the Jack Nicklaus course is considered to be one of the nation’s most challenging and controversial tracks.
The story goes that when Jack was hired to cultivate this stretch of land in the Dismal River Valley of the Sand Hills, he was told to create the most exciting, challenging course imaginable. With out-of-this-world elevation changes, rolling land and pastures, massive sand, prairie grass and yucca-covered dunes and everything else that goes along with the Sand Hills region, the potential was infinite.
Some say the course is challenging for the point of being challenging. The sand trap in the middle of the uphill green on ten, for example, cannot be seen from the tee boxes but would make for an un-welcomed site if hit in to. This trap makes the green complex like a donut. With a back pin location, I was happy to have flown it left.
“Play like a champion today,” the sign says, and that’s about all that can be done if wanting to “Tame” the Nicklaus course at Dismal River.
Outside of the tee boxes, there are very few spots at Dismal River that are level, and that goes doubly for the fairways. For example, take a look at the fairway on one:
The second hole tee shot is blind, so trust that it will appear atop the hill. The fairway slopes left to right and a little downhill, with the green being well below the level of the playing surface, making the approach rather daunting.
Short and left is the best way to hit the second hole green complex:
The first par three on the Nicklaus course has a massive sand trap to the left and a dramatic false front that surrounds the front trap.
A look back to the tee boxes from the third hole green complex:
The first par five on the Nicklaus course, the fourth is also perhaps the property’s signature hole. The website shows the windmill that guards the flight path toward the green area to be the only spot on the Nicklaus course where water can be found.
This authentic windmill adds great character to the fourth hole, personally, although I have heard some people say they cannot believe a man-made structure was placed where it can block the path of an approach. To me: How does that make it any different than a massive tree, other than that it adds a certain element of rustic charm to the hole and property? I love it.
A look at the approach area on four, including the rustic windmill:
The uphill par five fifth hole is mostly blind over the front greenside bunker. Account for enough change in elevation, or find the tee shot bounding back down the hill to set up another blind approach.
One of the most exciting holes on the front nine, the sixth is a short par four with one of the trickiest approaches. The fairway narrows approaching the green before rising sharply to a green perched well above the playing surface. This is a really beautiful golf hole.
Another short par four, the eighth can actually be reached from the tee – Brian did it. The smart play, of course, is to lay up to the fat side of the fairway and leave a short iron in over the mass of sand traps that divide each side.
A more conventional drive [than trying to drive the green off the tee] leaves a straightforward approach over sand.
Brian’s tee shot, which was on the green under regulation:
A long par five, the front nine finishes downhill with a true three-shotter. Playing around 600 yards, the drive will run out a little, but hitting this green in two would be a monumental achievement given all the sand surrounding it with the exception of a narrow false front on the right.
One of the most polarizing holes on one of the country’s most controversial golf courses, the aforementioned par three tenth features a mostly blind tee shot to a green that is ringed around a craggy, inlaid sand trap.
The massive green complex on ten falls sharply downhill half-way through the green, as well as off the front-right.
Although controversial from a design perspective, I loved the green’s interior trap… Probably because my tee shot did not find it!
A look from the back of the tenth hole green complex, showing the back half of the green and inland bunker:
Visibility from many of the tees on the Nicklaus course at Dismal River can be somewhat limited. Keeping with that theme, the par four eleventh plays uphill and then down and right. The fairway actually bowls inward over the fairway’s horizon, making the tee shot much less challenging than it appears from below.
Twelve is a great par five. With a long fairway that juts in and out of the natural grasslands, staying on the fairway is obviously important, but not always easy. There is very little rough area on the Nicklaus course, which sticks well with Nicklaus’s ongoing efforts to design courses that fit well with the land while promoting the utmost in sustainability (for watering, number of different grass cuts, etc.).
The thirteenth is one of the most straight-forward holes on the course at Dismal River. A modest carry over the prairie grass leads to a fairway that ends before a forced carry over native grasses and sand that front the green complex.
Fourteen is a great driving hole! The fairway runs sharply downhill and right, which is troublesome considering the size of the traps that lie in front of the uphill green (not to mention, at 441 yards, it’s bound to be a long approach over them).
A mid-length par three, the fifteenth is tricky given the angle of the green (heavy right-to-left) and the sizable trap that resides short-left.
We ran in to some fellow traveling golf nuts on the tee box at sixteen, who let us play through and also asked us to snap a picture of their group – we figured we would have them do the same for us:
The sixteenth plays left-to-right with a tee box offset from the right side. I always enjoy these kinds of tee shots as they work well with my fade.
The recessed green on sixteen is best run up on:
A look at the sharp decline from front to back on the sixteenth green complex:
The elevated tee boxes on seventeen play out to the left alongside the dramatic sand hills in the distance.
Bending right-to-left and downhill, the seventeenth is again approached in a recessed green complex.
Quite possibly the most beautiful, and also intimidating, tee shot I have seen in my entire life is found at the eighteenth on the Nicklaus course at Dismal River.
The cart ride to the tee boxes takes a few minutes of winding uphill. When the teeing areas finally appear and this amazing vista shown below is unveiled… WOW!
The first thing you’ll notice is the elevation: It’s tremendous! The second thing: The vast ocean of sand that lines the left side of the green. The third: The right side is for all intents and purposes dead. Then, “I’m going to have to get the ball somehow on to that fairway, and then up that giant hill in three shots. Really?”
“Jack’s Shack,” a post-round bar and grille, resides above the eighteenth hole to the right. The drive back to the clubhouse is a little lengthy, and who wouldn’t first love to have a drink overlooking this spectacular golf course? It was, unfortunately, closed while we were onsite. We also had a daunting 14-hour drive hanging over our heads after finishing the round, which would put us back in Milwaukee with about an hour left before I would have to be at work.
My tee shot on eighteen – “He hauls off and hits one – a big hitter that Lama – straight in to the crevice of a ten thousand foot glacier.” I obviously hit the middle of the desert on the left, which might as well have been the crevice of a ten thousand foot glacier…
… And almost there:
I consider myself to be blessed for all of the amazing opportunities that I have been allowed during my “Golf writing career.” Dismal River, and our entire Sand Hills experience including The Prairie Club, is among the very best golf I have ever been blessed to play.
If you ever have the chance to play Dismal River, play it. This is a bold statement I am about to make, but the Dismal River golfing experience was WELL worth driving hours in the opposite direction before our trip back!
Location: Mullen, NE
Yardage: Tips-7368, Members-6638, Forward-4965
Slope/Rating: Tips-149/77.0, Members-139/73.2, Forward-135/69.6
Weekend Rates: Private