OMAHA, Neb. -- It seems to be a paradox that Nebraska -- a mostly rural, working-class state -- would have a golf reputation based predominantly on its private clubs.
The state's most noteworthy play is Sand Hills Golf Club in Mullen, an exclusive, links-style masterpiece by Bill Coore & Ben Crenshaw. Dismal River Golf Course, a remote Jack Nicklaus design, came along soon after. Then, Prairie Club, a members club with stay-and-play, opened in 2010 as another links golf and fishing getaway, hundreds of miles from any coastline.
And back towards civilization, the longstanding Omaha Country Club, established in 1899, is host of the U.S. Senior Open in 2013.
For public-access courses close to where residents work and live, options are kept a little more low key. But there are more than 200 courses available to the public in the Husker state, which is home to fewer than 2 million residents. And most public courses are meant for the wallets of the middle and rural class, making the state one of the better value-golf destinations.
Nebraska's lineup isn't as deep compared to Michigan or Wisconsin. But you don't need a NetJets membership or Warren Buffett-type connections to access some great golf in Nebraska.
Eastern Nebraska: Golf around Omaha and Lincoln
Nebraska's topography boasts both endless plains and the remote Sandhills. But the eastern side of the state, where most of the population lives, takes on a rolling, lush shape with rivers and valleys.
Omaha, the state's largest city, sits beside the Missouri River and is home to a handful of Fortune 500 companies such as Berkshire Hathaway and Union Pacific. It also hosts the College Baseball World Series each year and opened a brand new stadium in 2011. Omaha Steaks are proudly served in restaurants all over town, while the best spot in the city for dining and nightlife is historic Old Market district in the heart of town.
Making the best of the grassy, valley terrain between Lincoln and Omaha are two quarry courses, both very different from one another.
A candidate for best public course in Nebraska is Quarry Oaks Golf Club, which features a mix of woodland holes and those played beside quarry lakes. On the back nine, several holes play beside the Platte River and train tracks.
The rolling, forest setting at Quarry Oaks gets even better come fall. The changing of colors on the trees make it a sight rivaling the foliage of autumn in the northeast.
"You come out here in the fall and it doesn't compare," said David Honnens, executive director of the Nebraska PGA. "And on Saturdays (because of Husker football), the course is empty."
Near Quarry Oaks and beside Mahoney State Park is a course with an even larger quarry presence,
Iron Horse Golf Club. A Gene Bates design, the golf club and residential development encircles an old limestone quarry and several standout holes are squeezed beside it. It's the holes that play along the quarry that require utmost precision, like the narrow 10th and 18th that leave no room for error.
In Lincoln, when residents aren't at Memorial Stadium they're teeing it up at nearby Wilderness Ridge, set beside the city's Wilderness Park and is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2011.
Accessible, links-inspired golf off I-80
From eastern Nebraska, there is no easy way to get to Sand Hills, Dismal River or Prairie Club. But the outer edges of the Sand Hills extend down towards the main east-west artery of I-80.
Drive along to Gothenburg, population of about 3,500, and you'll encounter a little local club that has gained national recognition for value and quality, Wild Horse Golf Club. Seeing a need for a new golf course that wouldn't flood as much as its current course, a local ownership group sold shares to area residents to help finance construction.
Local farmers helped sculpt the course after a full day's work on their own farms. Dave Axeland and Dan Proctor, who shaped Sand Hills, also offered to design the course at a relative penance compared to what a celebrity architect name would ask.
Eighteen holes were built for about $1.1 million, plus a little more for a modest clubhouse. The club also hired away the assistant superintendent of Sand Hills, Josh Mahar, who delivers private-club worthy conditions and shot values for every wallet size.
With green fees around $50, it's become one of the best bargains in the nation and club officials say last year golfers form 41 states and 11 countries came to see what all the fuss was about.
Head east along I-80 from Gothenburg towards Kearney, and Nebraska's newest Irish-inspired course is taking shape. Awarii Dunes opened in 2011 as the centerpiece of a residential development and will offer stay-and-play until membership goals are met.
Designed by Jim Engh, the course brings another wild and rugged, links-style play to the gently tumbling, sandy hills around Kearney. While green fees are a little steeper than WildHorse, as long as the club continues to offer public play, it makes a fitting one-two punch for golfers looking to play sand hills-type golf without having to head to remote Mullen.
For more information on Nebraska golf, see GolfNE.org.