Golf in the Nebraska Sand Hills: A Review
By Torleif Sorenson on 11/26/13
Over the last four years, this writer has become a serious and enthusiastic student of golf architecture — especially the wild-and-woolly "retro-traditionalist" brand practiced by Tom Doak, David McLay Kidd, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, Gil Hanse, Jim Engh, and by Greg Norman in some of his recent designs. So when a 170-page paperback called Golf in the Nebraska Sand Hills appeared on Amazon.com, I immediately put it on my wish list.

Golf in the Nebraska Sand Hills
by Dean G. Kratz
DGK Enterprises
ISBN: 978-0-9881777-1-0
US $29.95
170 pp.

The author is a lifelong Nebraska resident who has practiced labor and employment law since 1949. With his distinguished legal background, having authored a legal procedure textbook, and having lived in Nebraska for his entire life, it is reasonable for us to assume that that Golf in the Nebraska Sand Hills would be nice, well-written, and a fascinating study.

Specifically, I expected good photography and some authoritative "local knowledge" about eight notable "sand hills" and "prairie dunes" courses across the region, all of which are also on my personal "golf bucket list":
  1. Sand Hills Golf Club, Mullen, Nebraska (Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw; 1995)

  2. Dismal River Club, Mullen, Nebraska (Jack Nicklaus; 2006)

  3. Wild Horse Golf Club, Gothenburg, Nebraska (Dan Axland, Dave Proctor; 1999

  4. Prairie Club, Valentine, Nebraska (Tom Lehman, Chris Brands, Graham Marsh; 2010)

  5. Ballyneal Golf Club, Holyoke, Colorado (Tom Doak, 2006)

  6. Highlands Golf Course, Lincoln, Nebraska (Jeffrey Brauer, 1993)

  7. Bayside Golf Course, Brule, Nebraska (Dan Axland, Dave Proctor; 2000)

  8. Awarii Dunes Golf Club, Axtell, Nebraska (Jim Engh; 2011)

Unfortunately, Kratz's book is an underwhelming disappointment.
Bait-and-Switch

Golf in the Nebraska Sand Hills turned out mostly to be a 170-page promotional brochure for Jack Nicklaus' Dismal River Club. Since Kratz is a member, he spent the majority of the book on Dismal River, which turned out to have a smaller impact on the golf world than its more famous neighbor, Sand Hills. He even spent four pages taking us through various ownership changes at Dismal River, when one page would have sufficed.

Virtually all of the information Kratz presented on the more critically-acclaimed Sand Hills Golf Club consists of second-and third-hand quotes from writers in other publications. One chapter turned out to be six pages noting Sand Hills's place in various world golf course rankings. Almost no original research, first-person experiences, or important design details made it into print.

While Kratz did spend time on the development history at the Prairie Club in Valentine, he wasted far too many words and too much paper on details that ultimately don't matter. The author spent so much time reporting on the ownership changes that I skipped ahead to the next chapter, just so I could get to the salient details about the actual golf course.

Somehow, Kratz managed to grind out four paragraphs on Wild Horse Golf Club, using mostly second-hand quotes from people like Golf Digest architecture critic Ron Whitten. This is obviously because Kratz couldn't be bothered to play the course, let alone travel there. At the least, he could have taken some time to interview and quote course architects Dan Axland and Dave Proctor, who also shaped and built the course themselves. In the end, one of the Midwest's best golf bargains, located close to Interstate 80, doesn't command Kratz's attention, since it is not a private Jack Nicklaus club that is available only to a privileged few.

With that in mind, you should not be surprised that the author also completely ignored Axland and Proctor's rugged design at Bayside Golf Course near Brule, as well as Jeffrey Brauer's kinder-and-gentler prairie dunes layout at Highlands Golf Course in Lincoln.

(Perhaps Kratz could not risk being caught dead at some grubby little public-access course, infested by the unwashed masses that make up golf's proletariat?)
The course that never was

Especially irritating was Kratz's chapter, "The Watson Course." This turned out to be an eight-page excursion on how the five-time Open champion had plotted a tentative layout for the second course at Dismal River, but after five paragraphs, Kratz finally gets to the point that the design job ultimately went to Tom Doak.
Photography

This may be the most infuriating element of the book. Unbelievably, Kratz saw fit to include only two hazy, 3-inch by 5-inch, low-resolution images of actual holes at Sand Hills. Instead, Kratz spent most of his time and effort including 11 pictures of himself, his friends, his children, and his grandchildren.

Why would Kratz deliberately short-change his paying readers, denying them any new, updated, and remotely nice photos of a world-renowned course where he (at least) was a member? This writer's guess is that he had a falling out with ownership and management at Sand Hills, who may have refused to let him print an interview with Coore and Crenshaw, or time to photograph the course in any detail.

Kratz may be an experienced attorney, but as a photographer he is an uninformed beginner. For example, page 26 features a dim, poorly-composed, and completely irrelevant picture of the author and a grandchild relaxing in front of the patio fire pit at Dismal River. Then on page 62 (the beginning of a chapter on Jack Nicklaus), the author supplied a photograph of Nicklaus with his daughter and granddaughter, taken while the sun was directly overhead. The picture is so bad that Nicklaus' face is completely obscured by the shadow from the bill of his ball-cap. If the picture were not captioned, we would never have known that it included a famous golfer. Not even a beginning photography student at a two-year college would send such a poor photograph to press.

His photographs of the Dismal River course are more plentiful, but only marginally better. At least some detail is visible, but Kratz fails to show the notable natural, wind-blown features that Nicklaus took obvious care to leave untouched in his design. It is reasonable to assume that Kratz doesn't know what those elements are, since he did not bother to write about them.

Apparently, Kratz also could not be bothered to travel to the Prairie Club or Ballyneal. Fortunately for us, he called upon professional photographers in those cases. Mark Adamson of Valentine, Nebraska supplied many stark and beautifully composed images of the nearby Prairie Club, while Coloradan Dick Durrance II expertly captured Tom Doak's magnificent design at Ballyneal.

Aside from the Prairie Club, the best of the remaining public-access courses, arguably, is Wild Horse. But just as Kratz spent precious few words of his own on "The Carnoustie of the Corn Belt," he gave us only four pictures by Lincoln-based photographer John L. Hall.
Writing and Editing

For an attorney who has practiced law for six decades and authored a legal textbook, Kratz is a surprisingly mediocre writer. His writing style is occasionally quite stilted, to the point that he occasionally seems to "talk down" to his audience, or at least assumes that the reader can barely read at an 8th-grade level.

Since this is a self-published book, Kratz attempted to edit his own writing — with painfully obvious results. He missed necessary hyphens and other punctuation in several places, then failed to correct other syntax blunders and missing verbs in others.

He even failed to catch some blindingly obvious misspellings, too. For example, the "About the Author" chapter on page 147 includes a picture of Kratz and his son with "Jack Nichlaus" [sic]. Worse yet, the picture itself seems to have been taken when Nicklaus was talking, rather than posing for the camera — poor timing, to say the least. The caption is necessary since the Golden Bear was wearing sunglasses and a hat, and would be otherwise unrecognizable.
Value

The list price of this book is US $29.95, which is overpriced by at least $15 given the author's poor and often irrelevant photography, coupled with the lack of proper editing.
"I Dreamed A Dreeeeam..."

Given enough time, money, and a really good digital SLR camera, I would eagerly bet dollars to doughnuts that I could turn in much better information and pictures than Dean Kratz did. But since I lack the connections and clout to be invited to Coore and Crenshaw's magnum opus, my deep yearning to see, play, and breathe Sand Hills Golf Club may go unrequited.

At least I have a proverbial "snowball's chance" of playing the Prairie Club and perhaps also Tom Doak's starkly beautiful Ballyneal, if I am fortunate enough. And I would be quite happy spending a week navigating Interstate 80 for multiple rounds at Bayside, Wild Horse, Awarii Dunes, and Highlands.
The Verdict

The golf courses of Nebraska's Sand Hills region and surrounding territory are absolutely worth exploring, but Dean Kratz's book is an incomplete and rather unhelpful guide, as well as a tremendous missed opportunity. Only the photography by Adamson and Durrance prevented this from earning just one star.

Save your money — if you buy this book, buy it used and do not pay more than half the original price.


Author's site


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Oh, the irony.
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Nebraska, golf's vacation land.
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