Just south of Exit 273 on Interstate 80, a new type of landform awaits. Gentle rolling hills, not quite of the dunes scape that made Nebraska golf famous when Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw discovered Sand Hills south of Mullen, but some of a more subtle form.
Those hills certainly lead to more great golf in a state that — with only 1.2 million folks — has plenty. Awarii Dunes, however, is a bit different. It’s a story of second chances. Founded as the Links at Craneview in the early 2000s it failed financially only to be purchased and given new life. None of the original Craneview (we believe) remains.
Colorado Springs attorney Kent Freudenburg bought the 9-hole golf course out of foreclosure in 2008, then purchase some land where the back nine and clubhouse now sit. He then hired Colorado-based Jim Engh to build what they dub on the scorecard as, “Where Ireland Meets the Heartland.”
Engh, coincidentally, got his start down the road in York where I learned the game. He designed the final six holes of the back nine (current holes 12–17) at York Country Club in 1988. It’s believed to be his first solo effort with the help of Landscapes Unlimited.
Just south of Kearney, Engh hit a home run that some might consider a late bloomer. The course had some initial grow in problems in 2011 and 2012, but not a thing was wrong now in my fourth trip around since 2013 last August.
We (my brother and an AD member) toured the course on a cool morning taking these shots along the way. We played the genius Benmullet tees (a combination of the black and blue tees). The back tees (black) play 7,001 yards to a par-72 while the blues are 6,236 yards. The combination tees are 6,512 yards with a 70.7 CR and 119 slope.
Hole 1 — 534 yards, par 5
A wonderful welcome played to a generous fairway with a bunker front and center. Generally into the wind, the hole plays shorter to the right. The second shot plays back to the right to an open green that will accept any kind of shot.
Hole 2 — 176 yards — par 3
Having played this hole to the top tier on each occasion is was fun to get one in ‘the bowl’ on this trip around. Three tee shots came from a bounce from the right, one from the left and a shot that landed just short of the pin. A hole with wonderful flexibility that was an 8 or 9-iron for us, but could play all they way up to a hybrid club.
Hole 3 — 374 yards — par 4
Another hole with fantastic flexibility. The eye draws you right off the tee since you can see the flag in the distance. But with a green that moves from front left to back right the left side of the fairway is the best approach. Excellent restraint from Engh, that we will see many more times, with this straightforward green complex that has fun movement but is not bunkered and surrounded by short grass.
Hole 4 — 362 yards — par 4
One can imagine when Mr. Engh created this hole that he thought it would be driveable even from the back tees and the prevailing south wind. But, a wonderful false front makes the prudent leave a 75–100 yard pitch to a green that slopes back to front.
Hole 5 — 199 yards — par 3
“The golf course really begins here,” my brother noted. Especially when the wind came at us and from the right forcing a play with a hybrid for me. This hole is right out in front you, but the restraint is welcome. “You could have really screwed this up with some silly bunkers in front of that green,” he added.
Hole 6 — 404 yards — par 4
The sixth will forever be noted for its high left side of the green. Simply, you could have your greens fee worth of fun just putting on this green for a few hours. Playing into the wind yesterday, the hole gave you a semi-blind approach. That said this is a hole that lends itself to multiple options when trying to approach the pin: run it up, use the slopes, fly it all the way home.
Hole 7 — 378 yards — par 4
Restraint again evident here, this time with unique ‘lay of the land’ bunkers that dot the center of the wide fairway. They can be challenged with an aggressive drive rewarded with a simple pitch. Or, the drive can be played in the 240-yard area leaving a short iron approach to a green that is not quite as unique as the previous hole, but maybe just as fun, as seen below from the fifth tee.
Hole 8 — 364 yards — par 4
If you are reading in Kansas, we thought this one had a little Prairie Dunes in it. Especially at the green site; another that showed great restraint. A fun little drive and pitch hole, defended by a sloping green site that is smaller by AD standards.
Hole 9 — 470 yards — par 5
Probably the one Benmullet hole that could be moved to the back tee if they felt like it at 539 yards from there and downwind. That said, a massive fairway that is best hit on the right side. Then a massive uphill approach to a skyline green. The green is something else with a large lower bowl and an upper shelf some five feet above.
Hole 10 — 365 yards — par 4
A drive full of thought here. The two bunkers are 265 yards from the tee. The best spot, ideally, is just to the left of them. With an elevated shot, the more closer you get to them, the more you can attack on the approach. Exactly how golf is most enjoyable.
Hole 11 — 157 yards — par 3
Yardage is just a number here, much like the second hole. Playing 167 yesterday to a back right pin was full of fun. You MUST clear the front bowl or else. Literally from the blue tee any club from wedge to 5-iron is available to the green keeper. Nothing wrong with that.
Hole 12 — 508 yards — par 5
A roller coaster par-5 that would be downright mean from the tips at 587 yards into a prevailing south wind. Many options from the Benmullet tee, however. A “cut off as much as you want” left-to-right drive and a blind approach to a green that is blind on the right half. Engh at his best here.
Hole 13 — 106 yards — par 3
Having played the 7th at Pebble Beach, I find this short hole to be not quite as difficult but just as fun. It reminiscent to some of the Mike Stranz pitch holes at both Tobacco Road and Caledonia Fish Club. The green is very big for a short pitch, but each area that is appropriate for a pin is equally hard to hold. A perfect place in the round to test the player’s nerves with a half pitch. But also a good place to make an easy par if you need one.
Hole 14 — 508 yards — par 5
In my estimation, the best use of a property boundary and out of bounds in the state do Nebraska. The fence is hard down the right and you must force the ball left on the drive. The approach to, I think, the smallest green on the course, is best missed short and right. Birdies galore, but others are definitely is the bag here. A golfer in our group was 5-under par until his ball was pulled slightly and buried in the deep grass near the bunker on the left. The result was a 7; five shots from 15 yards away.
Hole 15 — 225 yards — par 3
The last par three might be the best. Wonderful use of deception with the mounds some 30 yards short of the green which is one of the flattest on the golf course; appropriate given this one plays 244 yards all the way back.
Hole 16 — 373 yards — par 4
Normally here, you’d head for home with a wind that favors the right handed player blowing off the right. Yesterday, we turned for home and played the final three holes into the wind; a wonderful challenge to finish the round. Here at 16, two bunkers make you think about your tee shot. While they look next to each other from the tee, the one on the right is a good target as you can fly that one. Another lay of the land green site with a prominent bunker front left.
Hole 17 — 397 yards — par 4
A massive landing area for your drive and then followed by a “hit and hope” approach to a punchbowl green that funnels nearly everything to the pin. But, you must clear the front bunker that is staring at you.
Hole 18 — 612 yards — par 5
A real brute yesterday, no one in our group managed par, that features a wide landing area, but a semi-blind approach that you can’t seem to get far enough to the right side. The green is placed well from front right to back left hugging a bunker.
The ‘go-back’ factor is wonderful way to rate a golf course: would you go back for the price you paid? The answer at Awarii Dunes is yes, in spades. We were guests for a mere $53.50. Our third playing partner is a family member for an astonishing $1,500 annually. Ownership should be commended for putting together an excellent product at rates Joe Golfer can pay and enjoy. This in an age where great golf seems to come with a $200-plus price tag. You, most definitely, should make a trip to AD when you venture to Gothenburg from the east. Or, if you come for the week from a coast to play in Mullen, and like a different round at Wildhorse or Bayside, the extra 40 minutes to Awarii Dunes is worth your effort.
Check out the gallery of photos below!