They Call the Wind Awarii

Designer Jim Engh blows into Nebraska with Awarii Dunes, a stirring sandhill layout just minutes from the Interstate, hotels and downtown Kearney.

“You’re not going to write about the windmill, are you?” Jim Engh asks as we walk the first fairway of Awarii Dunes Golf Club in central Nebraska. The “Elgin Wonder,” a symbol of the land’s agricultural heritage, stands in the right rough, its vaned wheel limp and bowed. “You tell people there’s a windmill on a hole,” Project Manager Mitch Scarborough jokes, “they’ll want to know which one has the clown’s mouth.”

Let the quips come. The windmill is legit. Axtell, the town in which the course is officially located, calls itself “the Windmill City” (more than 125 stood here at the dawn of the 20th century), and Awarii is the Pawnee word for “wind blown,” although on this March day, the gusts that defined yesterday’s tour have dwindled to the occasional zephyr.

Furthermore, there’s nothing even remotely clownish or tricked up about this rolling, rollicking dunes layout less than five miles south of the Kearney exit off I-80.

The only mildly crazy thing is that such a course exists amid such apparently flat terrain. As opposed to the dramatically undulating, “golf holes everywhere” sandhills region that spawned courses like Sand Hills and Dismal River, the topography near Kearney, although still part of the sandhills (thousands of sandhill cranes arrive here every spring, after all), inspires little more than cattle grazing and corn growing.

“The key to this place, what’s so cool about it, is you don’t see anything from the road,” says Engh. “People’s expectation from the drive in is this little course on the prairie. Then it turns into this big, dunesy course. Keeping expectations low makes people appreciate this even more.”

The first people to appreciate the golf potential of the site opened The Links at Craneview, a nine-hole Gene Bates design, in 2004. But by 2006, the bank had foreclosed and a Colorado Springs attorney named Kent Freudenberg, who had visited the site on his way back from watching his Missouri Tigers lose in Lincoln, purchased the 150-acre property for $410,000

Freudenberg later bought the adjacent 150 acres in order to build 18 holes. After flirting with having Nebraska native Mark Calcavecchia design what he’d planned on calling Nebraska National, he met Engh by accident at Four Mile Ranch Golf Course in Cañon City. The two hit it off immediately and teamed up after a visit to the site in 2008.

“Looking around at the original nine holes, I could see there was potential,” says Engh. “But I couldn’t feel it until my feet were on it—the rolls and contours. I could see there was incredible potential to let the land tell its own story. My biggest challenge was to keep my hands off it and let character of the land shine through.”

And that he did, scrapping the existing holes (which had interminable walks between them) and replacing the existing bluegrass (which was thick with thatch) with T1 bent (a “poa-resistant supergrass,” according to Engh). The existing irrigation system remained. Once they cut down the native grass, “everything just popped out.” So, rather than thin ribbons, he made the fairways wide emerald swaths that accommodated windblown shots and exposed the land’s nuances—its pockets, ripples, heaves, hollows, ridges, rises and humps. “There’s a wacky Irish quality to this land,” says Engh, who finds his muse in the links of Eire. “The ball’s going to bounce all over the place.”

That expansive unpredictability evinces itself from the opening hole—a 604-yard par five—and continues throughout the round. The huge landing areas rarely leave an even lie, and the tight lies created by the bent make tests of those 50-yard pitches. The bunkers, wooly and naturally fringed blowouts, sprout bushier eyebrows than Andy Rooney’s. Engh “barely scratched away a few fingers of grass and let the wind create them.” You’ll hit through chutes and gaps. Golfers accustomed to being served Engh’s greens-in-a-bowl will find a few, but they’ll also find plateaus, benches and even a double-green shared by holes 4 and 7 that stretches more than 40,000 square feet.

There are hidden “speed slots,” such as the one on the par-5 ninth, that could lead to eagles, and blind shots and false fronts, like those on the monstrous 587-yard 12th that could repel all but the most well-struck approach. The 109-yard par-three that follows it “will catch people,” says Freudenberg. “You think you’re getting a breather, but then you end up in a putting contest on this enormous green.”

Few trees and no water come into play, but some long carries—such as on 16 and 17—will test how much you have left in the tank. So will the double-dogleg 612-yard 18th, which features a fairway as wide as all Nebraska. “I love it when it’s still like this,” Engh says as the wind dies down over 18 and the birdsong picks up. “A big fairway plus no wind equals low numbers.”

Freudenberg obviously has big numbers to consider, but optimism animates his entire being. He loves the project and knows how special it is. “Everyone I’ve ever brought out here thinks I’m crazy,” he says. “I could have build a very average golf course twenty miles from my home, but I wanted to create something special.”

“How an attorney could have had the creative vision to see what this could be is beyond me,” Engh says. But the affable, 47-year-old Freudenberg, a coalminer’s son who once taught at West Point and can quote arcane movie lines with the same facility as he recites legal precedent, isn’t your typical lawyer. His plan wasn’t to be a carpetbagger but a contributing presence in the Kearney community.

“Kent has done a great job of getting to know people in town,” says Club and Community Director Elizabeth Lydiatt, whose husband, Chad, serves as Awarii’s Director of Golf, runs the club’s indoor-outdoor learning academy and coaches the University of Nebraska-Kearney’s golf teams, which will both use Awarii as their home course. The Lydiatts are also the ones who introduced Freudenberg to the property in 2006. “He made great sacrifices to be out here every other week and had multiple one-on-one conversations with every prospective founding ($40,000 to join) and charter ($25-$35,000) member.”

Those memberships number 53.  Perhaps Freudenberg’s most important conversations have been with Paul Younes, the president of Heartland Hospitality of Kearney, whose five hotels and newly constructed convention center host more than 300 conventions and countless groups a year. Although Awarii Dunes is private, with regular memberships starting at $5,000 and monthly dues of $250, anyone staying at one of Younes’s hotels can play Awarii Dunes for stay-and-play rates starting at $142 per person.

“It’s a win-win situation,” says Younes, who became one of the first members, although he doesn’t play golf, and also bought one of Awarii’s 90 one-acre lots. “Everyone I mention it to is excited. It’s a good economic boost for the community and a great incentive for sales.”

The relationship could mean as many as TK,000 rounds for Awarii Dunes in just its first year, which should make Freudenberg’s $1.4 million construction costs easier to justify.

A good number of those rounds should come from Colorado golfers willing to make the five-hour drive to test their game on what promises to be one of the more highly regarded courses to open this year. Awarii’s clubhouse remains on the drawing board, so food and beverage will be basic. However, as Engh, Scarborough and Freudenberg well know, Kearney’s restaurants and bars will treat you like family.

You’ll find the best dinners at Venue and the ornate Alley Rose. The Palm Gardens has a great jukebox and coldest beers in town, while Copperfield’s lets you continue what you started at Awarii on its Golden Tee. A late-night taco run to Amigo’s will fuel you for the next day’s round.

The fun all starts Memorial Day weekend, when Awarii Dunes opens. As Freudenberg, mimicking Flounder from Animal House, might say, “Oh boy, is this great!”

Awarii Dunes Golf Club
524 S Road, Axtell, Neb.
Stay and Play:; 308-237-5971

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