The Prairie Club: Pines Course (Valentine, NE on 08/03/14)

We got done at Wild Horse the day before and actually had enough daylight left for another round on the way to The Prairie Club. However, Mother Nature had another plan for our afternoon. We paid $25 at Iron Eagle Golf Course in North Platte for a late afternoon round hoping to zip around before a line of storms hit, but we didn’t have any luck. We got in only seven holes before the rain, thunder, and lightning were upon us. After an hour of sitting in the car waiting for it to pass we gave up and decided that we would tackle the two hour drive on the two lane highway up to Valentine. We stayed off site on Saturday night before arriving at The Prairie Club on Sunday morning. Our package was $391 and included unlimited golf, a night stay at the lodge, and a free breakfast.

We were setup for 36 holes on the Pines course on Sunday then 36 holes on the Dunes course on Monday before heading back to Denver. The Prairie Club is billed as a links golf experience and the chatter in the golf community is that it ranks up there with Bandon Dunes. Much like Bandon Dunes, the only thing to do at the resort is golf so this isn’t going to be couples get away, unless that special someone loves the game too. The courses are highly revered on the golf forums that I browse and all the golf magazines rank the courses among the top 100 public courses in America.

The resort property sits on the edge of the Snake River Canyon and the Pines course, as the name indicates, plays among the pine trees that line the canyon. The Dunes course is on the other side of the range out in the prairie so the property allows for a diverse mix of holes. We hit a few range balls and were off on a wild ride. The Pines course plays as a par 73 with five par 5’s and the first time around I played the white tees which play 72.4/127/6825 while I decided on the black tees for round two which play 75.1/133/7403. I enjoyed the course more from the black tees even though it plays longer than I normally like. From the black tees I had a better mix of irons into the greens and had to debate on how to handle some of the longer holes. Plus, there were a few fairway bunkers that I couldn’t reach from the blacks. I think that quite a few golfers will be forced into playing the white tees which might be more than they can handle. It seems the designer missed a chance to mix up the tees as the next set forward plays only 6080 yards which is quite short for a par 73.

The opening holes are on the prairie in the hay bales before the course heads into the pines. It alternates some stretches of holes between the two terrains throughout the round to showcase the impressive property. The prairie holes are lined by fescue, the holes near the canyon by pine trees, and both feature plenty of natural looking bunkers. The bunkers are odd shapes and sizes, cut around hillsides, and many have fescue grass growing on the lips. Visually, they looked stunning. While they did require some creativity to play out of (I had to try to hit the ball on the equator playing left handed from one) they were in pretty ugly shape. That might have to do with the rugged feel that the course tries to present though. No matter what the reason there wasn’t much sand in the them, weeds were growing in them, and they weren’t raked. In fact, I couldn’t even find a rake around many of the bunkers. The attempt to make the bunkers natural looking seemed to bring an element of luck into the equation when playing from them.

From the tee I found the course pretty easy, even the first time around. The fairways are wide to accommodate for possible strong winds and there was GPS in the cart to help out on the few semi-blind tee shots. I thought that the mounding in the fairways added to the natural look and they could kick the ball around once it landed. The story really starts when trying to hit an approach into the greens. The greens are fairly large and have as many knobs, valleys, ridges, and levels as I think I’ve ever seen. There were holes where I had to land a full shot within a bath towel sized area just to keep it on that section. The pin locations on this course could determine the score more than any other course that I’ll play all year. We got a few “gift” pin locations where the ball would trickle towards the hole in a bowl, but I could hit a small bucket to others and not get it close. I don’t like to use the word “gimmicky”, but I think it actually describes maybe a third of the greens. Once on the greens, putting was a joke on some of the crazier ones. Putts had to run across large spines and it seemed that a 15 foot putt would have to go up and over a ridge from two or three sides of the cup. A putt easily could have 10 feet of break, even when pin high. The greens seemed to hinder my ability to play a smart shot. It seemed that I was sometimes forced to play to the fat part of the green leaving a 40 foot putt with a great chance of three putting or try to attack a sucker flag. In the end I found that the greens were more than I wanted to tackle.

I think Graham Marsh, the course designer, could have improved the routing. The course is named the “Pines” course so I would have liked to have had more holes play through the trees. I love the look of the pine trees because they seem so out of place for the hilly and barren area. Plus, if more holes were closer to the canyon that would have added some interest for me. I don’t know where the property line is but those would have been my ideas if designing the course. As far as the actual course layout goes, I think there are some missed opportunities there too. The par 3’s all range from 148 to 168 yards from the white tees and 159 to 183 from the black tees. I wore out the face on my 8 iron out hitting it on three of the four par 3’s. It would have been nice to mix up the yardages on the par 3’s especially considering the length of the course and to mix up the angles into the those greens from the different tee boxes. Also, I thought there were two quirky par 5’s.

I had plans to blast the courses in my review for the poor condition that they are in this year. The key words here are “had plans to” so I’m just going to hit the highlights for the benefit of those who might be considering a trip this year. Make sure you read the next paragraph to see how my issue was resolved! Both the Pines and Dunes courses were not in good shape but I think the Dunes course gets the edge for being better conditioned. There was winter kill everywhere and at least two thirds of the greens were patched with sections of turf from the putting greens and the short course. The fairways were longer, patchy, and the white tees had divots all over the place. The greens actually rolled a lot better than they looked (with some speed) and I ran in a few putts which was surprising. Apparently the area had a cold and dry winter which hurt the courses. While driving back to Colorado on Monday I felt cheated after paying a bunch of money for such horrible conditions.

I typed an email to the general manager to express my disappointment and debated on sending it. I decided to send it off after making sure I communicated my thoughts in a respectful and honest way. I came up with a fair price for the package (to me) considering the conditions, the layouts, and the fact that we played 72 holes while there. I asked the general manager for a credit to get to my price. He responded in a thoughtful way and honored my request so I’m not bitter about my visit after the awesome customer service. The general manager changed my opinion about the experience and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the courses if they are in good shape or go back myself if driving along I-80 or I-90.

The Pines course has some nice scenery but my preferred course is the Dunes course which I think is a stronger design. I’ll add that the room, restaurant, and staff were all top notch and made for a great time off of the course. Other nice touches were bottled water in coolers every three or four holes, coolers on the cart, and free play on the short course so there were a lot of “extras” included.

Here is the hole by hole review with the yardages listed for both the black and white tees. Note that the pictures aren’t all taken from one set of tees.

#1 (419/400 yard par 4):

This is a fun opening hole. The tee shot is wide so someone doesn’t have to open with their best. The green has a ridge that divides the left side from the right side and it might be tough to get an iron close to a flag on the left.

1-1 1-2

#2 (548/489 yard par 5):

From the white tees there are fairway bunkers that could be carried to allow for a chance to get there in two. From the black tees I really needed to know a distance to lay it up to as the layup is blind and has some more bunkers.

2-0 2-2

#3 (168/154 yard par 3):

The key here is trying to the tee shot to the right level on the green to leave a decent birdie putt. The flag was in a bowl just over the bunker when I played so it allowed a chance to hit one close.

3-1

#4 (479/434 yard par 4):

This is a long par 4, but there is plenty of room out to the right off the tee. The trouble is left with a fairway bunker and a miss short and right on the second shot is going to leave the easiest chip to any flag on the right half of the green.

4-0

#5 (416/379 yard par 4):

Make sure to pay attention to the GPS on this hole. The hole moves right and a solid tee shot down the left side can run into a fairway bunker. A tee shot down the right center of the waste bunker (in front of the tee) with a cut should end up just fine. The approach is played to another multilevel green.

5-1 5-3

#6 (159/148 yard par 3):

This hole has one of the more tricked up greens on the course. There is a valley in the middle of it and multiple tiers. A pin high shot here could end up with a putt that breaks across the planet. I was too busy trying to pick a line for my putts, but there are some nice views of the canyon from the green.

6-2 6-3

#7 (616/530 yard par 5):

The par 5 is a bit of a double dogleg as it goes left then straightens up and moves right. The distance between the black and white tees here is significant, but it shouldn’t have anything to do with how to play the hole. The prudent play is a shot of 200 to 230 yards off the tee from the black tees. From there it is another layup to a fairway that gets wider and a short iron which plays to a green with multiple ridges in it. If someone wants to hit a driver off the tee the fairway is maybe 15 yards wide and at an angle from the tee. There is a small margin for error with the canyon off to the right the length of the hole. I don’t like par 5’s that force a layup and I think that is the case here.

7-0 7-3

#8 (462/427 yard par 4):

Even though I struggled with this hole, I liked it. It is a long, uphill par 4 that played back into the wind when I played it. A tee shot down the left side challenges the high grass but leaves a clearer view of the green. There is plenty of fairway to miss right, but that leaves a blind shot over some bunkers into the green.

8-1 8-3

#9 (314/299 yard par 4):

I like that this is a driveable par 4 as it plays downhill. However, that is the only thing that I like about it. The green isn’t very deep and there is a false front which I think will be very difficult for the average golfer to deal with. The false front is maybe five or six feet high and there is trouble behind the green so that could lead to multiple shots to get it on the useable part of the green. A few tweaks could have turned this into a great hole.

9-1 9-3

#10 (173/161 yard par 3):

This is a mid length par 3 that plays a bit downhill to a large green. It offers a chance to hit the green with an average iron and still make a par with a nice putt. I do think a tee could have been moved to the left to create a different angle into the green.

10-1

#11 (602/558 par 5):

This is the first, and only, hole to play deep in the pines. It is a good, long par 5. The tee shot should be played down the left side or the layup might have to be curved from left to right. There is a deep bunker short and right of the green which should be avoided at all costs.

11-1 11-2

#12 (461/443 yard par 4):

This was my favorite tee shot on the course. The tee shot plays from a chute of pines out to the prairie before the hole doglegs left. The green features the pine trees to the left and the prairie to the right.

12-1

#13 (422/381 yard par 4):

This par 4 looks easier than it was, at least for me. It isn’t overly long and has a wide fairway. However, it plays uphill and was into the wind when I played. I ballooned a couple tee shots and had a long ways into the green which plays as a blind shot from the fairway.

13-0

#14 (345/326 yard par 4):

This is a short par 4 with plenty of options. A driver is going to leave a shorter club into the green, but it might be tough to stop a shorter shot with less spin to certain flags. I ran into a downhill lie from about 70 yards out in the fairway and couldn’t get it to bite near the flag. A play out to the right is going to leave the best angle into the green, but there is a fairway bunker that can come into play.

14-1 14-2

#15 (581/562 yard par 5):

The tee shot can be played to anywhere in the large fairway. The shot that sets up the score is the layup. The hole moves right and a layup needs to be played out over the right side of the massive fairway bunker. Something too far to the left is going to end up in the deepest rough on the course and something too far to the right could be a lost ball in the fescue. The green is another one of those with multiple levels and an average iron could be punished.

15-1 15-2

#16 (460/417 yard par 4):

The yardage gap from the black and white tees here is pretty good. I hit a 4 iron into the green from the black tees and had to bounce it short of the green while from the whites it was a mid iron. The tee shot is semi-blind but there is plenty of fairway out there. Make sure not to go left as the canyon could come into play.

16-1 16-2

#17 (183/168 yard par 3):

From both tees this is a mid length par 3 with a large green. It is pretty, but it just didn’t capture my attention while playing it.

17-1

#18 (595/549 yard par 5):

This long par is one of my least favorite holes on the course. The tee shot, which I don’t have a problem with, is played out towards those bunkers with some room to miss right. The layup should be played to a narrow section of fairway out to the right which leaves 120 to 150 yards into the green. A layup to that part of the fairway creates a third shot that is played across a deep greenside bunker to the back flag when I played. The other option is to lay it back to 180 yards from the green and fire up the gut. There is more trouble to carry on the third shot that way but less risk on the layup. I wish the layup area was larger from 100 to 150 yards out.

18-1 18-2

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