From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten: Quarry Oaks Golf Club lists its address as Ashland, Neb., but in truth it's closer to the little town of South Bend, named for the big turn of the Platte River as it makes its way east to the Missouri River.
The Platte bends south because it butts up against limestone bluffs. The river has deposited a lot of sand here, which has been mined for generations, along with the limestone. Towns like Ashland were established around sand and gravel pits and cement and lime factories.
This is the river whose banks I explored as a kid. I also explored it once as an adult, back in 1989, when my friend Dick Youngscap, who had established Firethorn Golf Club in Lincoln a few years earlier, invited me to join him to scout out a possible new course location.
Dick had been following the progress of the then-proposed Mahoney State Park, midway between Omaha and Lincoln, right off I-70. He knew the state was planning to build an interstate exit there, so he figured he'd bring in Pete Dye (who'd done Firethorn) and have him build a boffo public course easily accessible to tourists.
The land we looked at was an old limestone quarry-turned-cattle farm owned by the Abel family, George, Betty and their son, Jim. Dick and I wandered around the high pastures along the south edge, then moved north into good-sized hills covered in oaks. We stopped abruptly on cliffs some 70 feet above the Platte River Valley, a marvelous view, then trudged down rugged bluffs, up a couple of narrow draws (the perfect width for golf holes) and back down again. We came upon a chasm that had slumped down to the river (a possible dramatic par 3) and toward the end of the day, we found a secluded mine pit nearly encircled by vertical cliffs, with a small pond in the middle. I was especially captivated with this quarry, envisioning it as a finishing hole, with a clubhouse on the rim. Youngscap wasn't sure the quarry was big enough for anything but a par 3.
On the ride back to Lincoln, Dick asked me what I thought. Interesting site, I told him, and great location, but if it were me, I'd buy some land out in the sand hills of central Nebraska and build an authentic links. "The sand hills?" Dick said. "Who the hell would go out to the sand hills to play golf?"
A few years later, Youngscap attended the wedding of a niece out in the sand hills and called me that night. "You weren't kidding," he said. "There are golf holes out here everywhere you look." He soon bought some land, hired Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and the rest, goes the cliche, is history.
Meanwhile, the Abel family liked the idea of a golf course on their land and in 1995 hired John LaFoy of South Carolina to design them a public course on the very piece of property that Dick and I had scouted. The course, named Quarry Oaks, opened in 1996 and so impressed Golf Digest panelists that it was named Best New Affordable Public Course of 1997.
On a site that looks like the Smoky Mountains, the use of a South Carolina golf architect makes perfect sense. Fairways rise along oak-dotted hills and tumble through valleys punctuated by rock outcroppings. The par-5 12th, a boomerang luge run offering the first glimpse of the Platte beyond the green, is in a draw that Dick and I had walked up and back some years before. The 15th is the par 3 over the chasm that Youngscap and I had envisioned.
The kicker is the 394-yard 17th. The quarry that had so enthralled me was indeed big enough to contain a par 4. From tee boxes atop a sheer wall of rock, the 17th plays down into a quiet glade of cottonwood and birch to an apostrophe of a fairway that turns left to a green fronted by a dark pool of water. Shots echo in this secluded enclave.
But the Abels didn't build a clubhouse on the rim of this quarry. I don't know if they even considered it. The clubhouse, parking lot and practice range are out on sensible pastureland, reached by the par-5 18th, which emerges up a draw with a cascading stream along the right and the green tucked beyond one last cluster of oaks.
I admit I'm smitten. Just two minutes from the Mahoney State Park exit ramp, Quarry Oaks is definitely a course worth getting off the interstate to play.