Since I moved to Kansas with work nearly two years ago I have hoped to be lucky enough to play golf at Prairie Dunes. A call to the club manager last autumn suggested that it would be possible, even without an introduction. Unfortunately, when I called him back a month ago, as he had instructed me to do, his message changed: club policy precludes golfers from playing without an introduction from a member. This is my serious gripe with golf in the USA. It seems contradictory that such an egalitarian society guards its privacy (as a sign of wealth and status) so jealously. However, thankfully an acquaintance of mine knows a member who turned out to be extremely generous and offered to sponsor me: a complete stranger. An email or two later I was booked in to play!
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.
Date: March 20, 2011