The drive from Sutton Bay into Nebraska was due south through the central portion of both states. The deer, antelope & pheasants we had been seeing in South Dakota disappeared as the rolling grasslands showed little sign of anything aside from herds of cattle. The countryside became very desolate on the 300-mile journey to North Platte. After hitting two quilt shops in Pierre, SD (population 13,860), the road passed through only two other towns: Mission, SD (population 1,209) and Valentine, NE (population 2,760). The only other sign of human habitation along the route was a casino on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, just inside South Dakota across the border from Nebraska. It was evident from our drive that working windmills provided water from ground wells for the cattle, as there were no power lines to supply electrical power.
The Rosebud Casino on the South Dakota / Nebraska state line
Sign in parking lot designating the state line (Rosebud Casino is in the background)
A working windmill on the Wild Horse course (inscription on windmill vane: "The Aermotor - Chicago)
Windmill driven water pump
My first choice for a course in Nebraska was the Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen. It was similar to Sutton Bay in South Dakota from the standpoint of being located in a very remote area of the state. The Sand Hills Golf Club is rated as the 9th best golf course in the USA by Golf DIgest. Although the club has members, it is actually owned by a small group of investors who maintain tight control over the number of guests allowed to play the course. My attempts through two different members failed to gain entrance to the club; phone calls to the General Manager from one of the members went unanswered. I had no other choice but to select a different course in Nebraska.
Designed by Dan Proctor & Dave Axland, the Wild Horse Golf Club in Gothenburg opened in 1999. An advertisement along roadside leading to Wild Horse indicated that it is ranked in the top 20-courses in the USA, but it was not clear who provided the ranking. Golf Digest rates the course as the 4th best in Nebraska. With its proximity to I80, it was an easy stop on our route back home. I was ready to play.
Roadside sign leading to the course
Location: Gothenburg, NE
Golf Digest Best-In-State Rank: #4
Date: 15 Aug, tee off at 9:00 AM
Conditions: sunny, 2 MPH wind, 66 degrees
Lost balls: 0
Score: 77 on a par 72
Sometimes it just happens. The golf gods show up to provide me with a smooth swing and Lady Luck makes her presence known at the same time. It happened in Nebraska.
I was scheduled to tee off at 9:50 with two other players, just ahead of a group outing. I was anxious to tee off early with Julie wanting to quilt shop in Nebraska that afternoon and planning to meet with an old friend in Des Moines the following morning. Another motivating factor was to complete play before the afternoon temperature climbed to an estimated 99 degrees. The pro shop said I could tee off at 9:00 AM by myself; I jumped at the opening.
Painted horse shoes marked the tee boxes (black-tipped = 6,335 yards)
Horse skulls were used for the 150-yard markers
After starting with a par-bogey, I left a birdie putt 6” below the cup for a par on hole #3. I followed with another par-bogey on the next 2-holes. My tee shot on the par 5 hole #6 landed in the fairway; my 3-wood carried the next shot through the fairway up into the rough. Lady Luck was on my side when a 110-yard approach shot from the native grass hillside stopped 3’ from the cup. I made the birdie putt this time. After a bogey on hole #8, my tee shot on the par 3 hole #9 missed the green. The chip shot rolled over the edge of the cup but failed to drop. It did stop short enough for an easy par putt wrapping up the front nine with a 38.
527-yard par 5 hole #6 (view of the approach shot from the native grass hillside)
143-yard par 3 hole #9
The back nine started with a drive that stopped short of the trap on hole #10. After making par-par, it was hole #12 that really told me Lady Luck was helping me out. After a foursome let me play through on hole #11, I was determined not to hold them up on #12. I walked onto the tee box where an obstructed view prevented me from being able to determine a good target. I did what any good engineer would do in the situation: make a guess! Good or bad, the drive was straight on the chosen target over a native grass hilltop. I drove down the fairway to discover the ball had kicked off the hill, past a hidden fairway bunker and rolled to a stop 120-yards from the green. An easy approach shot and 2-putt gave me the 4th par in a row.
382-yard par 4 hole #10
393-yard par 4 hole #12
Hole #12 (view of the green & bunkers from the fairway)
The view from the hole #14 tee box was just as bad as #12, but catching up to a twosome assisted me by providing visibility of their golf cart. I was also helped by very wide fairways - I walked across the #14 fairway to estimate it’s width at 96 yards. The course really consisted of wide fairways separated from the native grass roughs by a single mower width of a “normal” bluegrass rough. Lady Luck continued to help when a poor shot from the 14th fairway stopped 3’ short of a fairway bunker. I tapped in the par putt after the chip shot stopped 6” from the cup.
490-yard par 5 hole #14
Hole #14 (view of the 2nd shot from the fairway)
Apparently my quota of good luck was exhausted by the time I played hole #18. After reaching the green in regulation, a mis-read resulted in a long birdie putt that broke away from the hole. A 3-putt resulted in a bogey finish to a great round of golf.
I avoided hitting into the bunkers for the entire round. That was a very good thing when you see the hazards they posed.
Fairway bunker on hole #4
Fairway bunker on hole #8
Fairway bunker on hole #16
Fairway bunker on hole #18 (the top of this bunker was ~10' above the fairway)
The natural, rustic setting at Wild Horse was further enhanced by unpaved cart paths.
The distant sound of truck traffic on I80 and freight trains rolling down the tracks were subtle reminders of the dramatic changes brought to the Great Plains within a relatively short period of time. Buffalo herds that once roamed the area were estimated to have numbered 50-million. An army of hide hunters almost drove the buffalo to the point of extinction in a little more than 10-years.
After playing golf at Wild Horse, we visited two sites in Gothenburg that provided insights into the past. The Pony Express that began in St. Joseph, Missouri in April, 1860 utilized “way” stations every 10-miles along the route to Sacramento, California for riders to change horses. One such way station, the Midway, is located on its original ranch site just south of town. A 2nd station, the Sam Macchette, was relocated to the center of Gothenburg in Ehmen Park. The Sam Macchette station served as a fur trading post and ranch house along the Oregon Trail prior to its use for the Pony Express from 1860-1861. The cost of maintaining 500-horses and 200-men on the Pony Express proved to be prohibitive. It ceased operations after 18-months upon completion of the Overland Telegraph. We were able to mail post cards to our grandkids from the Sam Macchette way station after dropping them into a “mochila” (mail pouch) hanging on the station’s front door.
The Sam Macchette way station
Pony Express historical plaques
Historical map of the Pony Express trail & way stations
The mochila used to collect outgoing mail
The 2nd site that attracted our attention was a replica sod house. Constructed as a memorial to the area’s first settlers, the site features a barn, sod house, windmills and life-sized barb-wire sculptures. Such houses were built by the settlers on the prairies from thickly rooted prairie grass. Sod was used in the absence of standard building materials such as wood or stone. The houses were naturally very cheap to build and surprisingly well insulated, but were susceptible to rain damage and dampness.
Replica sod house
Inside view of the sod house
Barb-wire sculpture of a buffalo (constructed from 4-1/2 miles of wire)
A rest stop along I80 inside Iowa provided a visual display of the disappearing topsoil in the Great Plains region. The 14” layer that existed in 1850 declined to 11.5” by 1900, with a further decline to 7” by 1975. Perhaps we are missing out on the natural fertilizer left behind by 50-million buffalo!
Representation of soil composition on the Great Plains in 1900