The best vacations take time to process.
More than six months after my visit to the confluence of the Great Plains, McKelvie National Forest and Snake River Canyon not far from the Nebraska-South Dakota border, I still think about The Prairie Club, and the journey it took to get there, nearly every day.
And with each passing week, I appreciate the vision — some might call it lunacy in the 2011 world of startling unemployment and economic woes — it took for a man named Paul Schock to create the perfect blend of private club and resort golf in a blip on the map recognized only by the few who call this expansive stretch of America their home.
To paraphrase a classic remake of a classic movie, it takes true grit to embark on an adventure like this.
Not that The Prairie Club is any kind of a remake. It’s something altogether new and different, a unique hybrid of a destination club that melds the needs of those who pursue the privileges of membership with others who cherish the opportunity to play for a day — or, better yet, a week — now and again.
“I know that if we decided to close off public play, we would immediately sell another 100 memberships and be well on our way to the 500 or 600 members that we believe we can easily handle, maybe even more with the third course,” Schock told Fairways + Greens back in November as The Prairie Club wrapped up its inaugural season. “But I feel really strongly about this: I do not like the fact that avid golfers can’t get on great golf courses, so I want this to be a club where there will always be a place for somebody who can’t afford to be a member. But the original business model was to be member-oriented and allow the general public to fit in when we’re less busy — and I think we’re headed toward that. So if I had to pick an answer [as to how we hope to evolve in the marketplace], I would say that we’ll be member-oriented, but there will always be a place for the public.”
Music to the ears of any wandering golfer.
And after our inaugural visit to the “middle of nowhere,” as even Schock himself refers to The Prairie Club occasionally, it’s hard to argue with the business plan — or the businessman himself, who has done quite well in the private equity sector over the years and both loves and understands his golf, having been an original member at the oft-No. 1-ranked Sand Hills Golf Club, little more than an hour’s drive south of The Prairie Club, and a key player in the Sutton Bay golf, hunting and fishing club in South Dakota.
Perhaps that’s why Schock was able to envision the usage of this unique location and, more importantly, assemble a somewhat unheralded yet creatively talented design team — Tom Lehman for the Dunes Course, Graham Marsh for the Pines Course and Gil Hanse for the wickedly fun par-3 Horse Course — to maximize the many features this land provides.
As with many of our favorite golf havens (Oregon’s Bandon Dunes Resort, Colorado’s private Ballyneal come to mind), it takes a travel commitment to reach The Prairie Club, especially if you drive from California — through Salt Lake City and Casper, Wyo., on the inbound trip and Colorado and Nevada on the return route — golfing and trout fishing along the way. Even if you fly, there’s still some serious rental-car time to log from Denver, Omaha or Sioux Falls. But it is the remote location south of Valentine, Neb., that makes a Prairie Club visit all the more rewarding. Just the short drive from Route 97 into the Lodge — all gravel road, winding between vast stretches of the Dunes Course on each side with little more than a single Old West saloon-style building (which serves as the course’s halfway house) dotting the landscape — sets the tone for an experience that transcends mere getaway; this is total golf immersion for Schock’s kindred spirits, those who love and appreciate the game and its many facets.
“I was just really captivated by the somewhat recent shift in the golf world to natural golf and places where the land is very suited to links golf,” he says. “I love the ground game, and I’m an Alister MacKenzie nut with his comments that it’s a ball, and it was meant to roll, and so I believe great golf courses are courses where you can roll the ball. ... And I also feel strongly, and again this is a MacKenzie thing, in the concept that a lost ball should not be part of the game. You should be able to find your ball and play it. Obviously the farther away from the best strategy, the harder it is to recover. So the first thing about the Dunes Course is there’s just a lot of width — big fairways, big greens. I think people have a lot more fun chipping and putting around greens than they do hitting out of a bunker, so most of the bunkers are not in the main line of play for the holes. We want people to basically finish with the ball they started with.”
It’s a welcome philosophy, and one that’s not lost on golfers who take to the Dunes’ great wide open — or the Pines’ slightly tighter, more tree-lined corridors — with abandon.
But it’s also what’s so enticing about the 10-hole Horse Course (call your next shot, just like the favorite schoolyard basketball game) where Gil Hanse — who has been tapped to build the club’s third 18-hole course as well, along with collaborators Geoff Shackelford and Jim Wagner — turns the idea of a par-3 “short” course on its wedge for those seeking quick afternoon short-game relief or even a bit of bet-settling with beers, and clubs, in hand as a colorful sunset paints the horizon. And at a resort with many great golf holes throughout the Dunes and the Pines, the Horse might just have the best green of them all, hanging on the edge of the Snake River Canyon with a variety of teeing options from multiple sides.
“It’s interesting, one of the things Gil told me is that The Horse Course was one of the funnest projects he’s ever done because he didn’t have to think about convention — he could just be unbelievably creative and quirky,” Schock recalls. “And we’ve had talks about this — we might apply the same philosophy to the third course because of how much people like what he did out there. Obviously, it’s different when you’re talking about 40- to 80-yard shots on the Horse Course, and you wouldn’t do all the things he did out there on a full-length course. But people have had so much fun out there, and it’s really been neat to see that.”
And when you match the unforgettable golf — both the Dunes and Pines have been racking up honors since last year’s opening — with stylish, high-end accommodations aimed at meeting the needs of the discerning golf traveler and sometimes-demanding club member, you can’t help but feel at home here ... if your home is a rustic ranch with one-on-one service and some of the best trout flyfishing in the known universe just down the hill (although it takes one of the club’s Sportsman Memberships to access the glorious stretch of catch-and-release private river in the canyon below).
But even with all The Prairie Club has accomplished in a relatively short time, Schock the businessman recognizes room for improvement and the need to work out the kinks encountered during the resort’s opening campaign. When we spoke back in November, he was already working to improve food and beverage service and thinking about ways to make the golf courses even more walkable and playable, all the while tight-roping that line between private club and accessible resort.
“One of the things we like about our business model is that it gives us the flexibility to respond to what the market wants,” Schock explains. “One of the things we don’t like about our business model is that it keeps us, perhaps, from focusing on one or the other — resort or private membership. And I have to say that I’m not sure — because what we certainly want to allow for is the possibility, especially with the third 18-hole course and the Horse Course, that we could be a Bandon-type place where people from around the country feel like they need to get here at least once and then want to come back.”
We have no doubt The Prairie Club will get there — if it hasn’t arrived already.