Prairie Dunes Country Club is an inland links jewel, which is set in the heart of America. The inland Kansas location is about as far away from the sea as you could possibly be but the course has many characteristics of a classic seaside links.
The course, or at least 9 holes, opened for play in 1937 and Perry Maxwell laid them out. Maxwell believed absolutely that “the golf course should be there, not brought there,” and he surveyed the 480-acre site day after day for weeks before making any decision on the routing. Perry’s son, James Press Maxwell extended the course to 18 holes in 1956.
Naturally, the end result is a course that is natural, and although there’s no salty taste of the sea on your lips, there’s everything else that is essential to make a perfect day’s golf. First of all there is sand and sand to spare, secondly there is the ever present Kansas wind – the energy from which is being harnessed liberally across the state – thirdly the land pitches and rolls in a delightful seaside style and fourthly the holes are designed in a thoughtful, cunning and strategic fashion. The sum of this is pure golfing heaven.
Writing in Tom Doak's Little Red Book of Golf Course Architecture, the author commented as follows: "What makes Prairie Dunes special is the severity of the greens and the wonderful choice of green sites. Interestingly there are a lot of uphill approach shots, which a lot of people don't love and some don't like about my own work, but those green sites are what makes the course challenging. It's also a special place in terms of atmosphere... it takes some effort to get there, but they are always so hospitable to people who have made the trip to see them, and they are really humble about what a good course it is because they aren't there to impress anybody, they are there to enjoy it themselves."
Prairie Dunes is a private club and casual green fees are not accepted. If you want to experience this stunning inland links course (renovated by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw in 2004) and you are willing to make the long journey to Hutchinson Kansas, we suggest you ask your home club to prepare a letter of introduction. Who knows you might find yourself teeing it up at the 1st “Carey Lane”.
Me and my long time golfing buddy had the chance to play Prairie Dunes yesterday. We lucked out on weather. It was hot but not all that windy. So we teed it up thinking the course was "gettable". WRONG. This place demands accuracy off the tee and precision around the greens. Frankly, for the 16th best course in America, the front nine did not overwhelm me in anyway. I would consider #8 (classic dogleg left, with rolling terrain) and #9 straightaway par 4 from an elevated tee to be the best holes on the front nine.
Then you make the turn. The back nine starts off with a par 3 with the teebox right by the clubhouse. Great little hole. Number #11 is a difficult par 4 visually from the tee and then you get to #12 which is aesthetically the prettiest hole on the golf course. It is a gorgeous par 4 with an elevated tee and big cottonwood trees that frame the green.
Two other memorable holes on the back were #15 a par three through the chute (big trees framing the tee box) and #17 a great par 5 that offers a generous fairway that narrows to a green that sits on a plateau. The back nine was beyond good and made the day into a memorable experience.
The conditioning of the course was probably a bit subpar for a course of this caliber but I'm sure the heat has something to do with that. And I only mention that because the course is so highly ranked and I can't find a whole lot of other negative things to say about it. It is a very HARD golf course. Play it if you get the chance but go ahead and forget about posting a score unless every part of your game is firing on all cylinders. It will jump up and bite you at some point. It did me by hole #3.
The scorecard at Prairie Dunes says the course is a Perry Maxwell Masterpiece and I would have to fully agree. Ben Crenshaw, the designer of Sand Hills has said of Prairie Dunes, "this is golf on the first order." Jack Nicklaus called it the Pine Valley of the West. I was lucky to play Prairie Dunes on a nice day and with a two-club wind, which is enough for you to get a good feel for how the course should play, without being overbearing. The greens almost all have at least two tiers so placement of your ball on the correct spot on the green is of paramount importance.
I can see the similarities in the two Perry Maxwell designs - lots of sharp doglegs and intelligent use of the terrain, particularly the uphill shots required into the greens. In almost no instance on the course is your shot to the green a level approach. Maxwell also took a minimalist approach to fairway bunkers which works out very well since the rough is quite penal and you don't need additional hazards.
Two holes in particular are truly world class - the 8th hole, which is the #1 handicap hole is a 430-yard dogleg right that plays uphill all the way. The feature that makes it unique are the massive ripples in the fairway that look like waves coming in from the ocean.
The 12th hole is a 390-yard par four where you hit your tee shot from an elevated tee to a fairway below. The strategy of the hole comes from two large cottonwood trees that are on either side of the fairway about 75 yards from the hole. These force you to either lay well back off the tee and then hit a high shot over them to the green or more typically to have to hit a low trajectory shot to a well-protected and difficult green.
Although it is a difficult to get to course, it is easily worth the journey and rewarding to visit.
John Sabino is the author of How to Play the World’s Most Exclusive Golf Clubs
I bogeyed Number 1 and made a 60-foot putt for par on Number 2. Number 8 was picked by Sports Illustrated for its “Best 18 Holes in America.” I got a double bogey. On Number 9, Jack Nicklaus once scored an 8, and I actually beat Jack Nicklaus on that hole. Wait till I tell him. Number 11 is a 442-yard downwind par 4. I am not a big hitter, but I was a 9-iron away. According to the yardage book, “The approach shot must negotiate a knob in front of the green that is specifically designed to prevent roll-up shots.” I hit my 9-iron high and short in front of that knob. The wind was so strong that my ball went up and over that knob onto and off the back of the green. Now that’s windy. Larry Berle.
After a 0430 alarm call from my 14-month-old daughter, I started out on my four-hour drive from my home in NE Kansas; my pilgrimage to Hutchinson, Kansas began. Hutch, as the locals call the town, is pretty quiet: a typical mid-western agricultural small town. The area is generally disparaged by people from both coasts, but is full of really genuine good folk: People without pretense and who welcome in strangers with interest and generosity. I arrived at the club at 0900 excited and ready to get going.
The course is sensational and fully deserving of its place in the top 25 in the world. There is not a weak hole out there; but there are some that stand out from the rest. I enjoyed the first four holes enormously, the par 4 first offers a generous landing area but you must be long enough to get a look at the green, hidden behind a dune on the left. The hole toughens up as you advance towards the raised green which is protected by a bunker right and a swale left. The putting surface is treacherous and a foreboding sign of things to come: big undulations and remarkably quick - even though the last signs of a stiff Kansas winter only passed 2-3 weeks ago. I advise any golfer to spend at least 20 mins on the practice green before starting their round!
The second, a 160-yard (gold/championship tees) par 3, is up hill to a tiny green with a gapping bunker in front and bunkers and the local rough behind. This rough is ever-present on this course, lurking and ready to swallow any wayward shots. It is more than a simple hazard! It must be avoided at all costs: thick fescue, plum thickets and the local yucca plants conspire to severely punish any errant golf shot. After a short climb up some steps to the 3rd tee box the front nine is displayed like a model display, even if you don't play from the gold tees do go up to the tee to take some photos and see the lay of the land. The tee shot, when you get to it, is extremely intimidating especially in to a stiff northerly wind as I faced yesterday. Just such a great hole. The fourth, another uphill par 3 plays a club longer and again anything missing the green will present a difficult 'up and down.'
The next great hole is the 8th. It is one of the greatest par fours on planet earth. Fact. A 470-yard dog leg right with a fairway that looks like an tempestuous ocean; four rolling dunes, which get bigger and bigger, take you to the corner of the hole at about 300 yards from the back tee. The approach shot is to another small raised green with trouble both left and right. I made bogey...and it felt like a birdie!
After a quick stop in the delightful clubhouse, full of welcoming staff and friendly members, to refill my water bottle, I stepped out onto the 10th tee. Wow! In front of the dining room, where members and their guests watch through the large windows, it is one of the most intimidating par threes I have ever played. In part due it is due to the clubhouse being so close behind and also because yesterday it was into the teeth of the wind but mainly because visually it is such a good ones shot hole. Regardless of the double bogey I recorded on my card, I still rate it as one of the best par 3s I have ever had the privilege of playing. I agree with Perry Maxwell, the course designer, "It is the best par three in all America." Bold statement. Difficult to dismiss.
The 12th is another fabulous par 4, after driving from a raised tee the approach is to a green protected by two cottonwood trees standing like sentinels 70-yards short of the green. Only a well thought through strategy has any chance of offering up a par or better. The 14th is a great risk/reward hole: a short par four at which you bite off as much corner as you dare. The green is treacherous with a four-foot high ridge running across the center. Ball control is everything for a back pin position. The 15th is a 200-yard par three called 'The Chute'. An apt name considering the tee shot must be hit through a narrow gap in a range of cottonwood trees. The last hole of note is the 17th, a short par five(530-yards) which demands that after a well struck drive the golfer attempt to get on in two. But, a small green and buckets of trouble suggest that a lay-up be the more prudent approach. I leave it to you to make up your own mind on the day!
I loved Prairie Dunes and consider myself extremely lucky to have played there. The course is tough, really tough, and is made infinitely harder by the Midwestern wind that sweeps across the area. Yesterday it blew at 25mph and gusted 10mph faster. I suspect that it is nothing in these parts! But for me it meant that I played the course 10 shots over my handicap; and I felt I played pretty damn well! If ever you get the chance, you must go. MUST. It will be a trip you will remember for a long time.
For what it’s worth I think that this is a better course and club than Sand Hills, I never thought I'd say that after I stayed there last year. The only thing Sand Hills does better is allow a repeat round at no extra expense. Prairie Dunes unfortunately want yet more money (after an already substantial green fee) for another 18 holes. I was priced out of the market. None-the-less, I think that this course should be rated higher than the 25th position it finds itself in the latest Golf Digest rankings. In fact I think that Prairie Dunes and Sand Hills should swap places.