Bucking the Trend

More golf courses are closing than opening these days. But two audacious projects within easy reach of Colorado—The Prairie Club and Huntsman Springs—boldly debuted this summer.

THE PRAIRIE CLUB (VALENTINE, NEB)

While not on par with the discovery of gold in California, the 1995 opening of Nebraska’s Sand Hills Golf Club triggered a spate of golf development in the rolling dunes of flyover country. During the last decade, wonderful clubs such as Sutton Bay, Dismal River and Ballyneal sprouted from the rolling silicate above the Ogallala Aquifer. All are exceptional experiences. All are private.

Missing until now was a club to which golfers from all over could make pilgrimages without having to know a member, a remote destination with courses so distinct it would take more than a day to experience them. Thus required, an overnight stay would necessitate onsite accommodations so comfortable and food so good that the following year’s golf trip would be pre-booked, unquestioned, at checkout time.

That place is The Prairie Club in Valentine, Neb.

Located near the South Dakota border, some six hours by car from Denver, the club opened May 31 with three courses—the Dunes Course, designed by Tom Lehman; The Pines Course, by Graham Marsh; and The Horse Course, a 10-hole par-three by Gil Hanse and Geoff Shackelford—and a sleek Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired 31-room hotel/clubhouse/restaurant that also houses lockers for the club’s 200 members.

In a setup similar to Red Sky Golf Club’s, The Prairie Club alternates member and guest play between its Dunes and Pines courses. Stay-and-plays run between $180 and $250—and they’re booking up quickly.

Be sure to play both courses, as they offer vastly different experiences: the open Dunes and the conifer-lined Pines. Walk, don’t ride, and, especially on The Dunes, pony up for a caddy. Not only will he save you strokes; he’ll save you time, as most of the green-to-tee is intentionally—and bewilderingly—devoid of signage.

Except for the par-four second, where the exposed roots of an enormous oak spread spiderlike above the green, the Dunes bears the treeless, rugged hallmarks of an inland links—dramatic, strategic blowout bunkers; wide, heaving fairways; and expansive greens that invite run-ups. Its 7,583 yards play into and with the strong prairie winds, and the elevated tees amplify the sense of enormity.

Marsh’s Pines course glimpses some of that openness as well, but most of its 7,403 yards thread through pine groves along the Snake River Canyon, suggesting the Sandhills of the Carolinas rather than of Nebraska. Though appearing gentler than Lehman’s design, the Pines is tighter off the tee with wavier greens and greater shot variety.
With truly memorable courses and a top-flight “golf experience,” The Prairie Club should quickly become the Bandon Dunes of the Heartland. Buoyed by a flood of early bookings and an enthusiastic membership, the club’s easygoing mastermind, South Dakota venture capitalist Paul Schock, okayed Hanse and Shackelford to build The Prairie Club’s third 18-holer called Old School, which should open by 2012.
The Nebraska Golf Rush is on.
The Prairie Club
Highway 97, Valentine, Neb.
888-402-1101; theprairieclub.com

HUNTSMAN SPRINGS (DRIGGS, ID)

Scottish-born golf-course architect David McLay Kidd specializes in transformations. He recently shed 40 pounds through teetotaling and triathlon training, dropping his body-fat percentage to 4 percent. If those numbers seem impressive, consider the 4 million cubic yards of earth he moved to alchemize a flat pasture in southeastern Idaho into 7,877 rippling yards of rugged, provocative, exhilarating golf.

To put it bluntly, Kidd’s course at Huntsman Springs is an engineering marvel that’s as miraculous as the growing herd of sacred rare white buffalo penned near the 1,350-acre development’s entrance. So deft was his legerdemain that were you not to know about the millions spent on excavation, importing sand, laying turf, dredging ponds and creating fingers of wetlands, you’d swear building the course required little more than mowing grass, cutting holes and planting flags. “And that’s the way we want it to appear,” he says. “As if it was always here.”

The course is indeed of a piece with the appropriately named Big Hole Mountains to the west and the Tetons to the east. Its enormous fairways and greens run up against some nasty native grasses, snaking burns, omnipresent ponds and more than 150 whiskery bunkers. Because of the imagination and work involved, Kidd says he’s more proud of Huntsman Springs than he is of Bandon Dunes, the brilliant first entry on a resume that now includes such courses as The Castle Course at St. Andrews and Tetherow in Oregon.

Kidd, of course, could not have accomplished what he did in Idaho without a blank check from billionaire industrialist Jon M. Huntsman, who has already sunk approximately $250 million into the project. Situated in the town of Driggs, just 45 minutes over the Teton Pass from Jackson Hole, Huntsman Springs represents a sort of homecoming for the patriarch of one of Utah’s—and America’s—family dynasties. He was born in nearby Blackfoot, Idaho, and has for decades repaired to the Teton Valley to escape the stress of running his multinational chemical corporation.

He and his wife of 54 years, Karen, envision Huntsman Springs to have the same wholesome effect on residents as the Teton Valley has had on them, their nine children and 56 grandchildren. “This is a place where generations can disconnect from their iPods and connect with each other,” says Karen Huntsman. “They can take cooking classes, go riding, learn to fish or watch the buffalo.” To watch the family investment, their son David, is in charge of the development, which could eventually comprise as many as 620 homes. 

Jon Huntsman’s not a golfer (“My golf naïveté was a plus,” he says. “We put our complete trust in David Kidd’s vision and expertise”) but a fisherman, and he’s made sure the ponds containing rainbows, cutthroat and browns are fully stocked—including the one off the 12th green, where a barrel of food pellets invites golfers to create feeding frenzies. A two-mile-long elevated boardwalk traverses the 500-acre wildlife refuge, rewarding you with sightings of foxes, moose, deer, pheasants, trumpeter swans, geese and more.

According to Operations Manager Tony Snoey, “Golf is like fourth on the list of activities to do here.” Those include mountain biking, fishing and skiing at nearby Grand Targhee or Jackson Hole. It’s a short drive to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

Just as there’s more to do than just play golf, there’s much more to Huntsman Springs than selling lots and golf club memberships. The Huntsmans have invested heavily in the town and community of Driggs (among the contributions are a new county courthouse, community playgrounds, high-school ball field and state-of-the-art hospital equipment) and in reviving land ravaged by flood irrigation and cattle ranching.

Above all, Huntsman Springs is a font of philanthropy. A significant portion of the proceeds generated by the community will be donated to the world-renowned Huntsman Cancer Institute and Hospitals at the University of Utah to support its genetic research and clinical treatment programs. Huntsman, whom The Chronicle of Philanthropy continually ranks among the most generous Americans, has beaten cancer four times (“The bullet keeps skidding right by me,” he says) and takes considerable pride in the center’s considerable research advancements and hotel-like accommodations. “If you spoil patients, then they’ll recover more quickly,” he says. “I’ve walked in their moccasins; I know.”

As with everything else that bears his name, Huntsman has spared no expense in creating at Huntsman Springs something that will endure for generations. The development currently includes membership initiation in the golf club with any home or property purchase. In keeping with the family focus, for this summer only, non-residents can buy family memberships for $25,000. They’ll never pay a cart, bag storage or locker fee. There’s no F&B minimum, and the affable PGA Professional staff offers complimentary lessons for all members.  At press time, only 30 non-resident memberships remained.
   
Huntsman Springs
501 Huntsman Springs Drive, Driggs, Idaho
877-354-9660; huntsmansprings.com
Driggs is a 45-minute drive over the Teton Pass from Jackson Hole Airport.

Colorado AvidGolfer is the state’s leading resource for golf and the lifestyle that surrounds it. It publishes eight issues annually and proudly delivers daily content via www.coloradoavidgolfer.com.

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