David McLay Kidd made a name for himself by building a course in a far-flung outpost far from any major cities. His Bandon Dunes layout was the fuel that propelled the resort of the same name into the national spotlight a little more than 20 years ago, despite the effort required for golfers to reach the now-famous destination on the southern coast of Oregon.
Now Kidd is tackling a new project in a region known for out-of-the-way yet exceptional golf: The Nebraska Sandhills. But his new course might be a little easier to reach than most of the top destinations built in the Sandhills in recent decades.
Kidd and his crew have broken ground on the private GrayBull, a Dormie Network project just north of tiny Maxwell, Nebraska – less than a 30-minute drive from North Platte and its commercial airport. The site is in the southern reaches of the Sandhills, more than an hour south of several top courses such as Sand Hills Golf Club (Golfweek’s Best No. 1 Modern Course in the US) or Prairie Club (with the Dunes, the No. 1 public-access layout in Nebraska).
Kidd just had to cross a river to find it.
Dormie Network is a private course operator based in Lincoln, Nebraska. Currently available to its members are six courses spread about the central and eastern regions of the country: ArborLinks in Nebraska City, Nebraska; Ballyhack in Roanoke, Virginia; Briggs Ranch in San Antonio, Texas; Dormie Club in West End, North Carolina; Hidden Creek in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey; and Victoria National in Newburgh, Indiana. Members of the network have access to each course – many of which rank highly among private clubs in their states – and its amenities, which include on-site cabins.
Dormie began considering the addition of a new facility near North Platte several years ago, starting the search south of the Platte River. Kidd was recruited to scout one proposed site, but he didn’t like what he saw that far south.
“The Sandhills of Nebraska, which are the famed area where Sand Hills (Golf Club) and Prairie Club and Dismal River and others are, are all north of the Platte River, not to the south,” said Kidd, who has built more than 20 courses around the world. “The first time I went there and we crossed the river headed south, I immediately thought, ooh, this is not the direction I want to be going in. I want to be going north, not south.”
To the south, Kidd said, he saw steep terrain with dense vegetation and heavy soils – “Not great golf terrain.” He and his group turned the car and headed north across the river into the Sandhills, starting a long search for a new site for what will become GrayBull.
After months of seeing proposed sites that didn’t tick all the boxes – great golf terrain, sandy soil, unspoiled views – Kidd was pitched a parcel that was part of a ranch. He loved it from the moment the topo charts loaded on his computer, and the Dormie Network set about acquiring almost 2,000 acres from the rancher.
“I learned that bad ranch land turns out to be great golf land,” Kidd said with a laugh. “The ranchers on the Sandhills want relatively flat land because they want the cattle to just eat all the grass and not exercise, so they just keep putting on weight. We golfers don’t want the flat land. We want the rumply sand with ridges, hummocks, holes, bumps and all that going on. The cows would be climbing up and down hills all day, damn near getting exercise. That’s no use. Skinny cows are no good. …
“This site, it’s like the Goldilocks thing: not too flat, not too steep. It’s kind of in a bowl that looks inwards, and there are no bad views. It’s wide open, no big roads, no visual contamination – ticks all the boxes.”
Kidd and his crew broke ground in June with an unspecified target opening in 2024. It will become Dormie Network’s seventh facility, and unlike many Sandhills courses, it will not require a long drive from the North Platte airport.
Kidd said the course will continue in his ethos of playability, a mantra he has preached since building a handful of courses more than a decade ago that were deemed too difficult for most players. His more recent efforts – particularly the public-access Gamble Sands in Washington and Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley in Wisconsin – have been lauded for their fairway widths, creativity and playability. Kidd said GrayBull will retain those sensibilities, even if he does add a few more testing shots, especially around the greens.
“The landscape is so expansive, it’s hard to imagine building a 30-yard-wide fairway and it doesn’t look ridiculous in the landscape,” the native Scot said. “For sure, the golf course is going to be brawny. I would want it to be forgiving for the average guy when they make mistakes, but I also think the Dormie Network is for golfers… who are probably a little more into it than the guy who makes that once-in-a-lifetime trip somewhere . I’d think these golfers are a little better players, so we’ll adjust accordingly but not by a whole lot. We still want it to be super fun, and we still want them to be able to screw up a little and still get back into the game to some extent.
“The site is extremely unique. It’s like nothing I have ever seen before. Because of that, the golf look, the golf feel, the golf design will be responding to the site. I don’t think anyone who plays Mammoth Dunes or Gamble Sands will show up and say this is an exact copy of those because the site is so different. But, will my ethos change massively? No. I will be staying in my lane, creating golf of that ilk – broad fairways with tight scoring lanes with wide areas to recover.”
GrayBull likely will become a big part of the golf discussion of the Sandhills, a geologic region blessed with incredibly rolling and bouncy terrain that has exploded onto any well-versed traveling golfer’s radar since the opening of Sand Hills Golf Club in 1995. And GrayBull is not alone as a new development in the state, as architects Rob Collins and Tad King of Sweetens Cove fame plan to open the public-access Landmand Golf Club on the eastern side of the state, not in the Sandhills but also on dramatic land.
“(Bandon Dunes developer and owner) Mike Keiser proved that a good location for golf design was more important than a good location for demographics,” Kidd said when asked about building in far-flung locations instead of near larger cities. “The demographics were surmountable, but a poor golf site was not. You just can’t build a good golf course if the site doesn’t allow it. Doesn’t matter how much money you throw at it, chances are the golf course will almost always be inferior because you started with a poor site. …
“The Sandhills are incredible for golf, and this is by far the largest site I’ve ever been given for one 18-hole golf course. Everywhere you look there’s a golf hole.”