I made my fist trip to Flint Hills National and Prairie Dunes in late-May, 2016. Bad weather was forecasted as I drove towards Witchita, Kansas from Ballyneal. The route is on I-70 with basically nothing to see for about five hours before you turn south off of I-70 onto Kansas highway 14. I had the radio on as the skies had gotten very dark. Had I not turned south and continued on I-70 for twenty minutes I would have been on I-70 at the exact time a tornado passed over the interstate near Abilene.
Did golf save my life or put me at risk that day?
I made it to Witchita and played Flint Hills National the next day in nice weather although the course was saturated. I had the first tee time as a single and was finished by 10:30. I then drove towards Lawerence, Kansas to tour the campus and see their athletic Hall of Fame in their famous basketball arena. As it turned out, another nasty, high wind storm came through while I was inside the arena and I had to stay an extra 45 minutes. I finally risked returning to my car as the skies got brighter and made a run to my car to go see the rest of the University of Kansas campus. 30 minutes later the skies quickly darkened again and I had to put my suv in an underground parking garage to avoid the high winds that was rocking it. 20 minutes later, I exited the parking garage. It took me awhile to find a path back to the interstate due to the downed trees, a few overturned cars, and missing pieces of houses all of which were blocking various roads. Yes, another tornado had come through. I drove back the two hours to Hutchinson through another endless rain.
When I checked into the hotel the clerk informed me a tornado had just passed near Hutchinson. It was one of the darkest nights I can ever recall. Then it preceded to rain so hard that I could not do any exploring of the small city. That was a pity as I wanted to find the location to Strataca – an underground salt mine located 650 feet below the surface which was once heavily used to store film and costumes from major motion pictures. It poured rain through the night.
The next day I went to the Prairie Dunes as I had the first tee time. It was easy to see the flooding on the course as you drove down the entrance road. I went inside the friendly pro shop and was told they would make a decision at noon as to whether to open. At 11:30 they told me the back nine would be open for the day so I played it twice with a caddie.
After playing it twice as a single in two hours, I got permission to take a putter to walk the front nine with the caddie. We could not walk between the second tee and the second green as it had become a pond. There were other areas of standing water on the front nine fronting the many false fronts and raised greens. But the biggest detour we had to take was on the par 4 sixth hole where the flooding was such that essentially from about 50 yards in front of the tee nearly to the green it had become a lake. Our choice was to go back the way we came or to walk straight from the tee through the tall, wet grass to the road which is what we decided to do. We were able to walk down seven, eight and nine before I left for the hotel as I had a 10K race the next morning.
There are two reasons I rely this story. The first is to demonstrate how bad the weather can be in Kansas as well as how quickly it can turn. Be prepared for it. The second point in telling this story is that whatever it takes to play Prairie Dunes, one should do it. It is a superb golf course. I made a point of going back the following year and ensuring I stayed longer (after stopping at Flint Hills National again).
The original nine holes was designed by Perry Maxwell in 1937. Some twenty years later the course was extended to 18 holes with the next nine holes completed by his son, Press. in 1956. The holes that Perry did are the current #1, #2, #6 through #10, #17 and #18. They are the slightly better holes simply because they have the better land and certainly the better locations for the greens. Yet the completed course is so good that the holes designed by Press Maxwell fit seamlessly with the original nine. One could make the honest mistake of believing the holes were done by either Perry or Press and could be either the outward or inner nine rather than a mixture.
When I think of Prairie Dunes I think of three characteristics.
First, the greens are small and expertly contoured with a rise or fall-off at the back of most of them. Many are uphill requiring one to expertly judge the approach shot. While they are small, there are numerous pin positions on the greens.
Second, it is a course that reminds one of links courses along the sea due to the wind, dunes, sand, contoured greens, and rolling fairways. Yet the land does not get quite as firm and fast as it can in Scotland and the presence of cottonwood trees reminds one that they are in the Kansas. The penalty for missing is often a lost ball or a wedge back to the fairway such is the height and thickness of the “gunch” as it is called.
Third, the par 3’s are some of the best in the world. When I think of the best golf courses in the world, it is rare that they do not have four or more outstanding par 3 holes. Four excellent par 3’s can be found at Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills, Royal Melbourne (both courses), Pine Valley, Swinley Forest, Merion East, Cypress Point, Pebble Beach, Ballyneal, Sand Hills, Muirfield, Royal Dornoch, Carmargo and about fifteen others. I love the par 3’s at Prairie Dunes.
The Gold tees are 6947 yards while the Blue tees are 6563. The par is 70 with the Gold tees rated at 75.5/148 and the Blue tees rated at 74.1/144. There is a combo set at 6741 yards as well as three sets of tees less than the Blue. It total, there are six tees. In addition to the many small, raised, and very well contoured greens many of the bunkers have taller grass at the front of the bunker. This is a course that definitely tests one’s game. I have played both the combo and the Blue tees.
A few people I know have stated the par 3’s are too similar, all playing uphill and approximately the same length. My argument against that notion is that the green sites and green complexes are vastly different. To the eye they neither look the same nor require a similar type of shot depending on pin location, even if one is using the same club off the tee. To follow is my response I sent awhile ago to a friend of what makes me think so highly of the par 3’s at Prairie Dunes.
“The second is 164 yards and does play uphill but you hit from shady trees to a thinner green with a steep fall-off in front if you avoid the fronting bunkers. The left side of the green is very small and the right side is not overly large either. Going long over the green means you are either in tall grass or in a back bunker facing one of the speediest downhill greens one will play. Five bunkers surround the green which is set hard into the hill. The second smallest green at Prairie Dunes is severely tilted with only a handful of pin positions which means missing in the bunkers short of the green is preferable to missing long over the green.
The fourth is 171 yards uphill but the tee shot is out in the open, although nearly over the corner of the third green. The green is angled away from you and not set nearly as tight against the hill. A ball hit long has a better chance at recovery than on the second. The second back bunker leaves a much better chance at recovery than it would appear. The two fronting bunkers must be cleared but the obvious bailout area short and long has another bunker. You can land short of the green and the ball has the possibility of staying but likely will roll down the hill possibly forty yards leaving a blind recovery shot if the pin is in the back. There are numerous pin positions on this hole.
You cross through the parking lot to arrive at the tenth which is 190 yards playing right in front of the rear of the clubhouse where a lot of people can watch you. This is substantially uphill and often a blind tee shot. You can only see the front right bunker as the left bunker is mainly hidden as is the second bunker on the right a bit farther from the green. The green is framed beautifully by tall grass with several humps in it. It does have another false front but not nearly as tricky as two and four. This is an excellently shaped green which has swales in it before ultimately falling away at the rear. The green sits on a high point offering a good view of the golf course and a splendid view of the clubhouse.
Fifteen is 200 yards and I do not consider it to be truly uphill although the green is raised. You hit inside a small tunnel of cottonwood trees to another exposed green. There are two bunkers right that the green slopes towards and one at the rear for the person who over-clubs or takes an extra club because they lack confidence or conviction in their play. The green is a circle with shaved edges front and left and actually sits a bit right of the tee. The correct shot is to the left or left center as the green falls away to the right and particularly to the back right. It is a tremendous par 3.
In summary, because the inclusion of the trees on two of the holes, proximity to the clubhouse for the tenth, the shape of the greens, the angle of the green versus the tee, the contours of the greens, and the locations of the bunkers, the par 3’s at Prairie Dunes visually look different and play differently.
I don’t think they are in the top 5 set of par 3’s in the world on one course, but I think they are somewhere in the top 10.”
As for the other holes, this is one of those rare courses where I like every one of the holes. Not all of them are great, but none of them are merely average to me.
I think the most under-rated hole on the golf course is the first, a par 4 of 452/435. I really like this hole which starts one on a dogleg left where longer hitters will cut the corner. There are three bunkers on the right side of the corner which share a defense with the third hole. The fairway has some smaller ripples to it after the turn. The approach is to a heart-shaped green with a bunker right and one behind. The green has a good slope of a couple feet to it with a lower back right. It is located in a collection of trees with an area of shorter grass surrounding the green to allow a chance for recovery if one misses the green.
The third offers the option of climbing a hill for a magnificent tee shot on this short par 4 of 355/315. The option is to stay slightly lower for the tee shot. From the top of the hill which is the highest point on the golf course, one has to carry very tall thicket and grass. You cannot get too greedy here and miss it to the left in the gunch. From the lower tee you still have to carry some of the gunch and it steers one to the right. This dogleg left has a fairway that runs away from you. The green has three bunkers fronting it and is tiny, yet I thought it to be one of the easiest greens to hit.
Five is an excellent par 4 of 477/430 playing from an elevated tee with gunch on either side as well as a single fairway bunker on the left. The land slopes to the right. The green is raised above you and is one of the better greens on the course with two bunkers fronting it and a hidden one behind on the left corner. Bigger hitters have a big advantage on this hole as they can chase their ball pretty far down the fairway. To the left of the green is higher ground and tall thistle and grass. The green is long but not very wide and has two spines in it creating two depressions.
Six is a straightforward par 4 of 387/370 playing from another elevated tee. You hit over a valley trying to avoid the fairway bunker on the left on a raised dune. A bunker is on either side short of the green and then there is a bunker on the right and one on the back left to this green. Those “short” bunkers often cause one to hit a shot shorter than they intended leaving their ball in a swale fronting the green. The green is placed off to the left creating a dogleg effect but really is not. This hole is a lot of fun.
Seven is a short par 5 with the tee nearly at the entrance to the golf course. This 512 yard hole plays as a gentle dogleg right. This hole has a gorgeous green complex surrounded on all sides by bunkers and a small green that has terrific shaping with a large spine in the middle creating two tiers. There are raised dunes to either side. It might be the best visual of a green that there is on the course save for #12.
Eight is perhaps the best hole on the course although ten, twelve and seventeen are in the discussion. It is an uphill dogleg right of 468/440 and feels to me like it could be found on Seminole, Gullane #1 or Tralee. There is a bunker on the high side of the green (the left side) and four bunkers sitting below the green on the right. There is a lot of gunge to either side of this rippling, undulating fairway rising in waves so there is no need for fairway bunkers. The green rises four feet from front to back with a spine nearer the back. This is a near perfect golf hole.
Nine plays back down the hill from an elevated tee. It is a straight hole with a large bunker on the left to consider on another undulating fairway with four bunkers at the green. This is the fairway that has the most ripples in it with numerous little rises from two to four feet. The green has a large shaved area fronting the green providing an opportunity for recovery. This par 4 of 452/426 would likely be considered more highly if not for the splendor of the eighth hole.
Eleven is a par 5 of 535/453 where the Gold tee is just to the right of the tenth green and for shorter hitters brings the pond on the left into play. This double dogleg right to left has a bunker on the left corner that is deeper than many others. The gunge is high on this hole. The green is elevated atop a false front and has three bunkers surrounding it. For me, this is a hole that I felt could use a set of cross bunkers about 90 yards out for a better visual. From the Blue tees it is perhaps too easy.
On my goodness the twelfth is breathtaking. The climb the high for the elevated tee of 395 offers the reward of an outstanding view that one would miss from the white tee. There are two bunkers left and a small one on the right and a series of trees on the left. After the gorgeous view from the tee, a beautiful view that will rival any inland golf course comes next as your approach shot goes through “goal-posts” of trees on either side of the fairway nearly closing the fairway. These are located about 75 yards short of the green. Behind these trees are two bunkers left and one on the right. The most dangerous bunker for me is the hidden one about fifteen behind the raised green. This green, like many others, is expertly contoured with its tallest point in the middle. A ball struck too hard or too low will definitely run off the back and perhaps into that bunker. I think this is another outstanding hole.
Thirteen is a par 4 of 445/395 dogleg left which is a semi-blind shot for longer hitters who want to cut the corner. There is gunge on the left and two large bunkers while there are three bunkers staggered on the right corner of the turn. The bunker on the left is deep and has yucca plants in it. The green is raised again with a bunker fronting either side. I find this green to be much quicker than it appears with fall-offs and various spines and depressions. I like this hole a lot.
Fourteen is a second consecutive dogleg left par 4 of 405/377. The tee provides a clear view to the green, enticing those trying to cut the corner or to stay as left as possible to shorten the hole. Yet this desirable line to the green has heavy gunge and two bunkers. The better play is to play away from them even if it results in a longer club to the green and a semi-blind shot if one does not clear the ridge 130 yards from the green. But it is possible to have a wedge or less in one’s hands. Two large bunkers are at the front of either side of the slightly elevated green that is subtle in its slope.
Sixteen is perhaps the other hole that some might think is a lesser hole but I do not share that opinion. This par 4 of 426/408 dogleg right is a more “standard” hole with a bunker on either side of the landing area and then a bunker fronting either side of the elevated green. This false front green is another gem as is the shape of the green running from front left to back right. Downwind it is nearly impossible to stop a shot on the green.
Seventeen is the second par 5 on the golf course at 523/500 with a couple of lower areas in the fairway (I know this from the small ponds that formed the first year I played it), There are no bunkers on the hole until you arrive at the green nestled up high in the dune where a single large one awaits on the right. It is a tiny green and you have to hit it. If you are short you will come back about 30 yards from the front of the green. The green has a dune ridge on both sides but a lesser one at the rear which can allow a ball to escape down a slope. The interior of this pinnacle green is expertly sloped.
Eighteen is a dogleg right par 4 from an elevated green with a fairway sloped slightly right to left of 390 yards. This is another rolling fairway hitting to a green surrounded beautifully by four bunkers. The tee shot has to carry some amount of gunge with the bolder line down the right requiring one to carry even more of it. A tee shot missed to the right will pay a heavy price. One could question the second bunker directly behind the first bunker on the left as to why it is there, but I have seen players in it. A double bunker at a green is rarely used but should be used more often. These greenside bunkers are some of the larger ones on the golf course to a green with swales and a slant right to front left. Mr. Maxwell offers a chance at recovery with a chipping area to the left front short of the two bunkers.
Putting aside the “modern” courses built by Tom Doak, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, David Mclay Kidd, Gil Hanse and a few others that built on the “classic” courses in the UK & Ireland, the Sandbelt of Australia, and a scattering of other courses around the world, if one wants to truly study golf architecture they should come to Prairie Dunes. Prairie Dunes belongs in a handful of courses in the USA that include National Golf Links of America, Pine Valley, Merion East, Shinnecock Hills, Chicago Golf Club, The Golf Course at Yale, Myopia Hunt, Pinehurst #2, Seminole and maybe five-ten others, where on can truly learn how to properly route a course, take advantage of natural terrain to locate teeing areas and green sites, expertly placed bunkers, and build small but crafty greens.
Prairie Dunes is a golf course one could play over and over again and never tire of it. It has four outstanding holes in eight, ten, twelve and seventeen. It has six very good holes in two, five, six, nine, thirteen, fifteen and eighteen. The others are merely “good.” I advise one to make the trip. From the tee shot to the last putt, it is an amazing golf course. But do keep an eye on the weather....
Date: April 21, 2020