The Wonderment World of Dismal

A new Tom Doak course doubles the allure of Nebraska’s magical Dismal River Club.

Never regret anything that made you smile. So said Mark Twain—and one of the prominent signs at Nebraska’s Dismal River Club.

You haven’t even slid a tee into the sandy soil and you’re already smiling because there’s no way you’d regret the five-hour drive here from Denver—especially the final 20 miles that meander along a cow path, the eyes of Bessies upon you.

Wonderment. Chris “CJ” Johnston, Dismal’s co-owner, CEO and occasional bartender, repeats the word often when describing the club. “Everywhere you look, you’ll see sparks of wonderment,” he says over steak-and-lobster and a chalice of Trappistes Rochefort beer. The dining room buzzes with members from across the country—pilgrims to this surreal shrine deep in the American heartland.

Johnston is Dismal’s third owner. The club’s founders—six CU alums inspired by nearby Sand Hills Golf Club—opened it in 2006 with a demanding Jack Nicklaus layout and magnificent clubhouse. They sold it to a group of charter members who softened the course but fell victim to a soft economy. Enter Johnston in 2009, at the time a member of Sand Hills.

“He’s doubled the value of the membership,” says Lincoln-based member David McEwen. His empirical evidence unfurls across the rugged river valley beyond the clubhouse porch: Dismal’s new Tom Doak designed “Red” course.

Johnston initially considered Tiger Woods to design the complement to the Nicklaus course, but McEwen says, “CJ hit a home run with Doak.” After playing the course, you might call it a grand slam.

Having achieved notoriety across the state line two hours away with Ballyneal, Doak seized another opportunity to draw a line in the sandhills. He started drawing it a mile from the clubhouse and ran it 7,000 serpentine yards along the vast land’s natural heaves, ripples and hollows, jumping the dirt road that runs through the property and traversing a lush meadow before dropping towards the river and the brawny dunes towering above it.

The seamless flow supports the cliché about architects uncovering golf holes rather than building them. “On holes 2,3,5,6 and 8, Tom moved less dirt than you could fit in our bar area,” Johnson says. Some those holes will rate as your favorites on the front—especially the 472-yard par-4 second, the par-3s on Nos. 3 and 5 and the drivable par-4 sixth.

Back nine challenges include blind tee shots on the par-4 13th and 17th, where an ancient bison run and a cattle skull on a stake respectively serve as aiming points. Doak has called the 420-yard closer, with its multiple teeing options and riparian orientation, “one of the best finishing holes I’ll ever get to build.”

While the tee shots on 18 and a number of other holes require carries, you’ll find yourself hitting stingers and bump-and-runs to stay beneath the wind—or just for the joy of seeing the random rolls and bounces produced by the firm fescue fairways and bent greens.

Pin flags with red and white roses distinguish the Doak and Nicklaus courses, but even Gertrude Stein (“A rose is a rose is a rose”) could tell the two apart. As PGA Director of Golf Patrick Kilbride puts it, “one requires a ground attack; the other an aerial assault.”

It’s that kind of variety that makes Dismal River more than twice the experience it previously was. Johnston justifiably believes members and guests will now stay twice as long in the well-appointed cabins, savor twice as much of chef Eric Thompson’s gourmet cuisine, and smile twice as wide, regretting absolutely nothing.

The private Dismal River Club welcomes prospective members. dismalriver.com; 308-546-2900.

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