Some of the best golf is close to home

Thursday, May 26, 2005

When Heritage Hills Golf Course opened on the western edge of McCook in 1980, traditional golfers shook their heads in disbelief. "What in the world are those guys thinking about? There's not a flat place on the course. It's difficult to see the pins and the rough is impossible."

In other words, Heritage Hills was much more difficult than any course the golfers had every played before.

As hard as it was to believe at the time, that turned out to be exactly what dedicated golfers were looking for: a stern test of their skills. And -- as a result -- Heritage Hills launched a revolution in Western Nebraska, sparking a wave of links-style, natural terrain courses which have brought the area both state and national recognition.

Picking up on that fact, Perry Strombeck of Holiday Express in McCook suggested to the then Heritage Hills golf pro, Denis Vontz, in 1997 that the hotel and the golf course unite to promote a golf package. Denis agreed and convinced Tim Rowland of Meadowlark Hills in Kearney to join in the promotion. Thus, in the late 1990s, the "Play the West" golf package was born.

"We only had a couple of hundred participants that first year," Strombeck said. But the Play the West package has grown steadily since then and -- in recent years -- has exploded into one of Nebraska's most successful tourism programs.

"We had 2,200 participants in the Play the West program in 2004," said Lee Maiden, who now serves as the golf pro at Heritage Hills. "If things keep up like they are now, that number could reach 3,000 this year."

That's phenomenal growth. According to Strombeck's estimates, the Play the West package generated an economic impact of at least $695,000 for Western Nebraska in 2004, and that number could come close to $1 million this year.

The reason for the success is the quality of the courses. In addition to Heritage Hills and Meadowlark Hills, the Play the West package now also includes Bayside Golf Course in Ogallala, Wild Horse Golf Course in Gothenburg and Cross Creek Golf Links in Cambridge.

They are symbolic of an upturn in golf course quality throughout the area.

The close-to-home courses are spotlighted today in the Golf Guide, a 16-page section featuring photos, course descriptions and the 2005 Golden Plains golf tournament schedule.

As the Golf Guide illustrates, you don't have to travel far for outstanding golf action. Some of the best courses are right here at home.

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