Tatanka Golf Course a diamond in the rough

by Kurt Johnson

Golfers looking for adventure and challenge can head to northeast Nebraska to see and play a new course getting rave reviews on the rolling hills of Knox County where buffalo still roam.
Touted by Golf Digest in 2014 as one of the best new courses in America, Tatanka Golf Club at Feather Hill is rapidly maturing into a destination venue, a must play for both the avid golfer and those who just enjoy the combination of incredible scenery and good sport. Tatanka is all that, and more, well worth the 2-1/2 hour drive from Aurora.
On a hot, dry day in July, one of many, our local foursome ventured north to card a new experience, and hopefully, a respectable score.
The motivation to build a new course was a marketing strategy from the get-go, as the Santee Sioux Nation decided the Ohiya Casino Resort needed something more to give guests a reason to stay longer. It’s a template that’s been used by other Native American tribes and early reviews suggest this particular course exceeded those expectations.
“They use the golf to create a destination resort, more of a weekend trip instead of a simple visit to the casino,” golf course designer Paul Albanese said in an interview posted on the course website.
“We offer stay-and-play packages which have been a huge success,” added Justin Kitto, the 29-year-old general manager who grew up with the tribe and has been involved since the early stages of course design. “We get the pure golfer as well as those who come more for the casino and just want to play some golf. It’s been a learning curve in that sense, but now in our second full year I think we’re picking it up and going.”
Golfers are flooding in from all over Nebraska and the Midwest, particularly Lincoln and Omaha, Kitto reported. Weekend rounds are booked steady, though he said players can usually get on easily during the week or if you call in advance for weekend play.
Based on the experience of my foursome, which included Todd Jensen, Kelly Grossnicklaus and Glenn Obermeier, the golf course is creating its own draw. Our group wagered little at the slot machines and won just enough to pay for breakfast, though the focus of the day was entirely on the inviting layout adjacent to the hotel and casino. Albanese apparently had that same anticipation when he first signed on to the project.
“This is easily one of the nicest pieces of property I have ever been involved with and it has been incredibly interesting,” he said in a posted interview regarding land that features bold movements of rolling hills and ridges with views that stretch for more than 30 miles.
Kitto had the opportunity to roam those hills on a four-wheeler 3-1/2 years ago while the course was being mapped and flagged. He’s proud of the end result and said the course is steadily maturing into a wonderful, scenic challenge for golfers of any skill level.
“There are a lot of surprises out there on this course,” he observed. “With all the undulations, there aren’t many flat spots out there, which was by design. We wanted it to be enjoyable for all types of golfers so there was a lot of thought put into its design.”

Massive greens
Among the unique features at Tatanka are the humongous greens and variety of tee box options. There are six sets of tees, more than most modern-day courses, playing 7,450 yards from the tips all the way down to 4,784 yards from the reds. The blue, white, yellow and green tees are a blessing in disguise because many tee shots, though spectacular to view and photograph, offer little to no bailout so you’re either in the fairway, on the vast greens, or good luck finding your ball.
The par-4 409-yard 14th hole, for example, features a two-tier green tucked against a lake, creating a stunning visual and a challenging approach shot and putt. (See attached photo) What that inviting image doesn’t tell you about this hole, however, is the tee shot. Playing from one of the mid-range tee boxes, our group was looking at a narrow right to left fairway which demanded a nearly perfect uphill 200-yard carry, with trouble long and disaster short. A stiff breeze in the face made it that much more intimidating.
The par-3 12th hole was equally daunting, with a 180-yard carry straight up a tree-covered hill making it play more like 200+ yards. We could see the very tip of the flag stick from the box and later learned that the massive green, which tilted away, provided a 40-yard target, though you couldn’t tell that from down below. I took a bogey and ran on that hole, happy to still be playing the same ball.
Just because you’re on the green doesn’t mean it’s a makable two-putt, by far. Kitto said the 18 greens cover more than seven acres in and of themselves, meaning the course can play vastly different each day depending on where the maintenance crew places the pins. The tee boxes add to that daily yardage disparity, with some measuring 75 yards in length.
There aren’t an abundance of sand traps, but the obstacles out there are big and deep, some smack dab in the middle of the fairway. A word of caution: steer clear of the bottomless pit on the par-5 second, which I couldn’t get out of in four tries. Ugh! I was happy with my final score that day, though it was marred by an asterisk.

High-maintenance course
I’ve travelled through the hills of northeast Nebraska many times over the years visiting my wife’s family near Creighton, but the setting at Tatanka caught me off guard given the newness of the course. There are many photo opp settings that beg you to put down the club and pick up your cell phone camera, which we did several times.
In fact, Ron Whitten, architecture editor for Golf Digest, described it as “Nebraska’s Sandhills with trees.” By any description, this course is a visual treat.
Some of the scenery has a story behind it, including the small graveyard on the second hole. The course was built around the private gravestones of a Native American family, not far from a fenced in heard of buffalo. Tatanka, by the way, is a Dakota word that translates to buffalo.
“You can actually hit a tee shot and have buffalo 20 feet from you,” Albanese said. “We were very careful on where and how we routed the golf holes close to the buffalo, but we felt it was important to have them within the course to be true to the culture of the area.”
Stories of the land and the Santee Sioux Nation are reflected in the design as well. During the construction, Albanese researched the history and culture of the Sioux Nation in order to incorporate cultural stories into the design. With each creation of a fairway, green and bunker his team would discuss ideas presented by the Sioux Nation.
“We took the history and the culture of the area and the Sioux Nation, and used it as a design inspiration in a subtle and respectful way,” Albanese said. “We looked at the land forms and designed something that might reflect local stories. For instance, how a certain mountain looked and got its name would be the kind of thing we tried to incorporate.”
A crew of nearly 30 employees has its hands full, no doubt, particularly in the midst of a bone dry summer. There were a few subtle signs that the course and staff are relatively new, which is understandable.
Nonetheless, Kitto said he and his staff are thrilled with the steady play and initial reaction at Tatanka Golf Club. In his view, the course is meeting its mission, both from a golf and marketing perspective.
“The seed has only been in the ground 3-1/2 years so it’s still maturing,” he said of the bluegrass fairways and bent grass greens. “There are always going to be hiccups and our main one has been lack of rain. We are really dry, without rain for almost 2-1/2 months now (as of this July 24 interview), but overall I would say it’s in pretty good shape.”
Most golfers would agree!
The combination of challenging golf and unique Nebraska landscapes will bring me back to Tatanka, not to play the slot machines, but to try my luck again at polishing a genuine diamond in the rough.
KURT JOHNSON can be reached at kjohnson@ hamilton.net

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