A well-coordinated strategy has led members and guests from all corners of the country to discover “the Plains truth.”
The global economy and World Wide Web were supposed to have ended provincialism, and made everyone aware of all parts of the planet, long ago. But Patrick Kilbride, PGA Head Golf Professional at The Prairie Club in Valentine, Neb., sheepishly admits he’s a living example of how that’s not the case, at least where the western half of the Cornhusker State is concerned.
“I’m a native Nebraskan, from Omaha,” says Kilbride. “I’d never been to the [state’s] Sandhills [region] before I came to work here. It’s kind of pathetic, I know—but pretty typical for a lot of people who are where I’m from.”
And because that’s typical for people just a few hundred miles from the Sandhills—a striking expanse of mixed-grass prairie on stabilized dunes—it provides a glimpse of the challenges involved with establishing The Prairie Club as a destination golf resort since it opened in 2010. Even getting to the property after you’ve made your way to Valentine, a population-2,800 map dot nestled up against the South Dakota border, takes some effort. Completing the trip requires another 17 miles down a state highway and then close attention to spot the sign for the gravel road that leads the final mile or so up to the club.
Sharing the Secret
Some golf enthusiasts, of course, have been finding their way for many years to the Sandhills from all parts of the world, drawn first by the Sand Hills Golf Club (70 miles south, in the even smaller town of Mullen), with its acclaimed Bill Coore/Ben Crenshaw-designed links-style course that opened in 1995, and then again by the nearby Dismal River Club, featuring a Jack Nicklaus design (with another, by Tom Doak, set to open soon).
These clubs now stand as long-lasting testaments to why the region is seen as one of the best places in the world to build a golf course. Even though western Nebraska hasn’t seen (or will not see, hopefully) any hint of the ocean for many epochs, golf there can still evoke playing in Scotland and Ireland, with the added appeal of much warmer and drier conditions, seemingly endless summer evenings (the Sandhills are on the westernmost edge of the Central time zone) and astoundingly star-filled skies to be marveled at once it finally does get dark.
Golfers also get giddy over how the area’s deep sand base and wind-swept hills and plains, with plentiful grass that’s easy to grow and maintain, combine to help leading course designers use their talents to the fullest and create challenging, memorable holes that offer unusually consistent and firm conditions, from tees through the fairways to the greens.
Being able to experience and enjoy these conditions at the other very-private clubs in the region, however, has been limited to a select segment of the golfing world with the means and connections to gain access to those properties.
That always nagged a bit at Paul Schock, a South Dakota native who was himself a Sand Hills GC member. Despite having earned all the privilege he could buy through success with his private-equity firm, Schock still thought it would be nice if more people could come to know and love the Sandhills region as he did. And not just for golf—while Schock is an accomplished player, he has equal passion for fly-fishing and other outdoor pursuits.
Fishing, in fact, started the sequence of events in the mid-2000s that led Schock to get serious about finding a way to give more people the chance to enjoy golf and other attractions of the Sandhills—and why he decided to do so farther north.
After hearing of a great spot to cast for trout, Schock’s persistence in trying to find it led him to Cleve Trimble, a retired surgeon who, it turns out, was also a Sand Hills GC member. Trimble owned land near Valentine, an area that offers the spectacular bonus of a robust cut of the Snake River Canyon, and had a home perched on a rim above the canyon (and the prime fishing spot Schock sought).
The two men discovered they shared the same vision for expanding the reach of Sandhills golf, and that they both wanted to do so in a way that could help promote and preserve the other special attractions of the area. An agreement was reached for Schock to buy some of Trimble’s land and partner with him in a venture to build new courses, as centerpieces for a destination resort that would invite the world to come discover “the Plains truth” about what made the region special.
Long Time Coming
It took several years from when Schock and Trimble first met before The Prairie Club opened, in 2010, as a semi-private operation with two 18-hole courses (The Dunes, designed by Tom Lehman and Chris Brands, and The Pines, designed by Graham Marsh), plus a unique 10-hole, executive par-3 layout, The Horse Course, that has no tee boxes or routings (players are encouraged to emulate the basketball game and create their own shots). The Horse Course was created by Geoff Shackleford and Gil Hanse, the designer of the 2016 Olympics course in Brazil who is also in line to create a third 18-hole layout, Old School, that is in The Prairie Club’s future plans.
Gaining momentum after the club opened was also a bit slow at the start. “We didn’t ever think it would be easy, but it took longer and was harder than we thought; the first year was bumpy,” Schock says. “The biggest challenge was operations, and finding the right people to work in a remote location.”
In part, Schock adds, the initial difficulties stemmed from his feeling that management firms were too “expensive and corporate,” which led him to start out trying to run the club “on our own,” which he now terms a “mistake.” A partnership he then formed with a regional restaurant operator for the club’s F&B business helped to break down that bias, and at the start of this year, realizing the club would be “better served by someone who knows about all parts of the business,” Schock entered into a management contract with KemperSports.
That transition brought a new General Manager/Director of Golf, Mark Aulerich, to The Prairie Club in March. Aulerich, who has opened six clubs in his career, says he has focused on implementing KemperSports’ proprietary “true service” training program, to elevate customer and member service levels and help ensure experiences characterized by “warm welcomes, high energy, and leaving people excited to come back.”
Feedback he’s received this year has made it clear that these efforts are paying off, Schock says. “We’ve been making steady progress,” he says. “We’ve been busy on the public side, and selling memberships, too.”
The Prairie Club now has over 300 members, reports Membership Director Connie Kier, thanks in part to aggressive sales and marketing efforts that have included cocktail party presentations at private clubs around the country. “We’ve gone to clubs in California, Minneapolis and Denver, as well as Nebraska,” Kier says. “We have a slideshow at these mixers, but we stress that the best way to really see and experience what we have to offer is to come out and stay at least two nights. That makes such a difference in showing how there’s a lot more to do here beyond golf—fishing, tubing, hiking, or just enjoying the incredible serenity.”
Available membership categories include two individual levels—regional, for South Dakota and Nebraska residents, and national for those from all other states. A corporate membership, covering four individual memberships with the option to add other designees, is also available.
As the club’s membership has been built up, The Prairie Club team has been surprised by the strength of interest that’s come from the regional segment. “We have 40 local members from the Valentine area, and I thought we’d get maybe five,” Schock says. Overall, about half of the members have come from Nebraska, Kier reports, and the regional category accounts for about 70% of the total member count. No doubt the club has also benefitted from good timing, with Canadian pipeline development and the North Dakota oil fracking boom creating significant trickle-down effects to help the region’s economy.
Steve Skinner, Chief Executive Officer of KemperSports, thinks The Prairie Club’s experience in this regard may also indicate a rebound in the overall market, even for off-the-beaten path properties. “The second-home market seems to be coming back to life, and I think that can also be reflected in club membership sales,” Skinner says. “We’re seeing properties like Victory Ranch in Utah be successfully redeveloped under new ownership, and destinations like The Prairie Club are having good success selling memberships as well as sponsored play.”
Keeping the Door Open
The key to The Prairie Club model, Schock says, is to have members bring guests who can then become members themselves. It may very well be that The Prairie Club will eventually go entirely private. Despite the busy activity from the public side that was seen at the end of this season, Schock still considers the level of public play (about 30% of total rounds) “disappointing” over the first three years of the club’s operation, while acknowledging this may have been largely due to a still-poor economy during its first two years.
As he looks down the road, however, Schock says he is reluctant to think that The Prairie Club would never be open to all who would like to enjoy the property. “We very much want this to be a member-oriented club,” he says. “But it’s difficult to think there might ever be a time when we’d cut out the public entirely and not have a place for someone who just wanted to come here and play.
“I’ve never liked it when I’ve seen clubs that are so extremely restrictive, yet there are so many days when no one’s there,” he adds. “I think there has to be some balance and some type of open-door policy; I think the game needs that type of philosophy, to be able to grow.”
Schock also envisions ways to stretch The Prairie Club’s appeal beyond the golf season. “There are certainly opportunities to expand the shoulder seasons and do more to develop recreational activities like hunting, fishing, horseback riding or canoe trips,” he says. “I can also see this becoming a destination around Christmas and New Year’s for family gatherings.
“My daughters don’t play golf, but they still love canoeing here, or just looking at the sunset or the stars,” he notes. “That’s what I first felt was the appeal of the place when I came here, and what guests always comment about—the silence of the setting. Tom Lehman told me every time he visits here, he leaves feeling he’s a better man for it.
“Our lives are noisy enough, and there’s something to be said for having a place where even doing nothing is doing something,” Schock says. “In that sense, I think there might be value in making sure what we’ve created here stays available to everyone, all the time.”