Engh Reaches Top Rung with Awarii Dunes

“We’re efficient with our construction budgets,” award-winning course designer Jim Engh said yesterday, after giving me a guided tour of his new Awarii Dunes course in Kearney, Neb. “That has to be my niche. I didn’t win a Masters. I have to put out high-class golf courses for modest budgets.”

Jim Engh

Colorado architect has two courses in Top 50. (John Garrity)

The fact checkers at our Catch Basin headquarters tell me that Jim was truthful. He didn’t win a Masters.*

*The course-designers-with-green-jackets club has eight living members, using an arbitrary definition of “course architect.” They are Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Nick Faldo, Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd and Tiger Woods. (Tiger’s membership is contingent on one of his designs actually opening for play.)

The “modest budgets” claim Jim had already backed up by pressing me into service as his driver, flag planter and photographer’s assistant. For a couple of hours on Monday afternoon, I followed him around as he engaged in a duel of wits with the setting sun, trying to capture shadow-rich photographs of his new course for his home page and promotional brochures. Like the professional course photographers who charge five figures for their product, Jim had lashed a stepladder to the bed of a utility cart. But it was a used stepladder, to save money.

“I see Awarii Dunes as a template for what golf will be in the U.S. when we start building courses again,” Jim said during a break in the inaction. “Maintenance expenditures have to come down. That means less precise irrigation, so you don’t get that trimmed-out look. That means sand-and-gravel cart paths instead of concrete.” As for the fairways and greens, “hard and firm and fast and brown is great.”

Jim Engh at Awarii Dunes

Engh photographs a par-3 at Awarii Dunes. (John Garrity)

With that buildup, I half expected Awarii Dunes to resemble the battlefield at Agincourt before it rained. Instead, the newly-planted fairways and greens are a deep green framed by fescue-covered dunes, golden fields of wheat and elegant cottonwood trees. When it opens for play next spring, Awarii Dunes will provide a closer-to-I-80-and-more-affordable alternative to Crenshaw-Coore’s acclaimed Sand Hills Golf Club, No. 19.

The price tag for Awarii Dunes, according to Jim, was “a million and a half,” mostly for irrigation. “The sand was here, we didn’t have to move a lot of dirt.”

The only obvious corner-cutting is on the greens, which do not have actual holes or flagsticks. (“We’ll take care of that before we open,” Jim said dryly.) For his photography, Jim carried a flagstick with a sharpened point, which he plunged into various greens with the ferocity of an explorer claiming new lands.

I got to get me one of them.

Top 50 on TV: Nothing this week, but last week’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship featured a final-round 66 on the 16th-ranked Old Course at St. Andrews by the hottest player in golf, Martin Kaymer. Kingsbarns, No. 40, and Carnoustie, No. 203, were the other venues for the European Tour’s annual pro-am/frostbite festival, which features actor Hugh Grant and various knighted athletes and news presenters in wooly sweaters and oven mitts, with knit caps pulled over their ears and eyes to hide their identities.

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