The Designer from the Great Plains
Armed with the recently released book by Mal Elliott and several photocopied sections from the original history of the course done in 1987, a long study session was done into the wee hours the night before the three-hour drive up to Hutchinson. Going north on K61 to 30th Street and taking a right was one of the most eagerly waited moments in memory. But for 4 miles it is nothing but trees and housing editions, then abruptly there it is. A large sand dune just stares you in the face and on the other side is the 5th green that you can just get a glimpse of as you drive by. A half-mile further and you are at the entrance to one of the greatest courses in the world, at least that’s what everyone keeps saying. After strolling through the proshop for about 20 minutes, an interview with Stan George, the super of the course, and Randy Hunt, the manager of the club that comprised an hour took place. Some very enlightening information about how the course is being maintained in preparation for the U. S. Women’s Open.
The course itself was in immaculate condition. That same morning the Hutchinson area had received over 2 inches of rain, but by tee time the course was drained and looked as if nothing had happened. Oh the beauty of sand based soil. As most people know the course is comprised of two groups of nine holes constructed by Perry Maxwell and another nine constructed by his son, Press 20 years later. The nine holes are interspersed throughout the course with holes 3, 4 and 5 being added to the front nine and holes 11 through 16 being added to the back nine. The holes that Press built may be the only ones that people may find fault with on the course, due mostly to the involvement of the cottonwood trees on holes 12 through 15. Hole 15 really stands out because it is the only par 3 that is affected by trees that really only come into play if the player is hitting a lofted club from the back tees. The tee shots on holes 12, 13 and 14 are all in character with the rest of the course as the elevated tees of 12 and 14 provide some dramatic tee locations, while 13 is a shot over the ‘gunsch’ to a fairway that bends around the large and deep bunker in the corner of the dogleg. So the approaches to the holes are possibly the only area of concern. Hole 12 does present an issue with a tree that could affect the approach, but to have this on one hole is not totally out of character with the design philosophy of Perry Maxwell. If you drive to the incorrect side, you better be willing to pay the consequences. But all is not lost, as I hit an approach directly over the tree and onto the green and sank a 15-foot birdie putt. So a recovery is possible. The trees do not really come into play on the other two holes, but just add a nice framing for the green locations. The remainder of the holes employed by Press are not as controversial, simply because they blend in so well with the remainder of the course. Holes 11 and 16 are excellent long par 4s that use some wonderful imagery and ground characteristics to present interesting problems to the player. On the front side, hole 4 is a wonderful compliment to the world-famous 2nd. It has been noted that no one is certain that Press had any plans that his father left behind to do the remaining nine holes. If he did, then Press did an excellent job in implementing them. If not, then this is definitely an exhibit of how well Press understood the design philosophy of his father and knew how to construct a course based on it. As wonderful as many of the holes by Press are, there is no comparison to the original nine holes though.
Where do you begin in describing some of the best holes in the world? I guess with the greens. The greens on the entire course are exquisite. The rolls and slopes provide a variety of conundrums to the player. Not only in how do you approach them from the fairway, but how to deal with them if you have to chip on or if you have long putts. Even the short putts aren’t without some thought. The holes themselves from the original nine contain 4 and some would argue 6 world-class holes. The 1st is an excellent opener to a wide fairway. The approach to the green is tricky as the hole bends around the base of a dune. The 2nd is the first of the world-class holes. It is a short to mid-length par 3 that is cut into a large dune. The player approaches the hole from an odd angle that requires the shot play along the edge of the dune to a green that is heavily bunkered. The most famous hole on the course is the 8th. The 8th is a long dogleg that plays 420 yards. The green is set upon a plateau with the fairway running out over terrain that looks like rolling waves. The shot values on the hole scream to me, ‘Road Hole!’ The only thing is it is flipped and doglegs left to right. The bunkers protect the right side of the green; though not like the deep pot bunker at St. Andrews, provide an amazing amount of challenge to avoid and to hit out of with yucca plants providing additional pressure. The 9th again uses the rolling wave like fairway feature and provides a wonderful approach to an interesting green with a Maxwell Roll protecting the left side of the green. The admiration of this hole jumped up immensely after making a 5 footer for birdie. After a brief water break on the 90-degree day, the best par 3 on the course was next. The 10th is an amazingly wonderful hole that was on this day between clubs for me. The natural green setting just makes the player sit there in amazement with a cold glass of water in their hand. If you miss the green, you are basically looking at 4 unless by some miracle you hole out on the 2nd. After this, comes another world-class hole, the 17th. This hole has been called by some the best short par 5 in the country. What no one ever realizes is the amount of elevation change on this hole. The tee shot goes downhill about 20 to 30 feet and the approach goes back up almost 40. The player that reaches this hole is extremely skilled. The mounding short of the green even adds to the problem as anything just short gets deflected away and provides an interesting pitch or chip shot. The last hole is often overlooked simply because it is not considered a stern test as a finishing hole, being roughly 380 yards. Many see this as a knock against the hole. In reality it is a finishing hole as it flows so naturally with the terrain from right to left and with wave like motion in the fairway. As for not difficult, that must be for the people who always hit the green in two, as anything else is amazingly difficult, as I can testify.
Prairie Dunes, along with Crystal Downs, is among the two best courses that I have ever seen. Good play helps to reinforce that opinion. The greens are among the best in the country when taken as a whole as they provide different problems and no two of them are identical. They also point to a different perspective on design. Most people think about it from tee to green. Obviously, Maxwell was able to see it in the opposite direction, green to tee. This makes the player think from the tee two shots ahead at times. The course looks and plays like it was molded by hand over a long period after the green sites were carefully scouted out. The elevation changes on the course provide some wonderful views and were the most surprising part of the visit. The bunkering on the course was impeccable and some of the most natural looking in the country. If Prairie Dunes isn’t among the top 10 places to play on someone’s list in the United States then they must have one that shouldn’t be on the list.
After recovering from the high heat and humidity in Hutchinson a day of travel back to Tulsa is planned along the Kansas-Oklahoma border. The day starts with a brief visit with the author of the new Prairie Dunes history, Mal Elliott. Mal is a wonderful gentleman who has been doing this sort of thing longer than I’ve been around and has seen the best places in the country. To him Maxwell and Prairie Dunes are the epitome of great design and designers. After talking with him, I can’t argue. From our meeting in Wichita, the next visit is a brief stop in at a course in Arkansas City to take a couple of photographs and get a copy of the original course drawing by Perry Maxwell. Maxwell was commissioned to design 18 holes and build nine. The course then built the other nine, but altered the plans from what Maxwell originally designed. The Maxwell work is now the back nine. The course itself is situated on top of a hill that is just east of Arkansas City (or Ark City as the locals call it). It features some amazing elevation changes as several of the holes go down and back up to elevated greensides. A wonderful surprise, that if not for the rain during the visit would have been enjoyable to walk around. Next is an hour drive to a little town called Coffeyville.
Coffeyville, Kansas is just north of the Oklahoma border and has a fairly new Maxwell course, the Hillcrest Golf Course. Or at least to them it is fairly new. It was only recently discovered to be a Maxwell course after some research and following up on the words of a local legend that brought forth the proof that Maxwell designed the course. After finding out that their local course was designed by a world-renowned architect the local community decided to use this as a centerpiece to rejuvenating the community park program. They hired Jerry Slack to come in and restore the course to its former luster and add 9 new holes. Slack did that and added nine holes that are similar in character to the originals. The course at Coffeyville was also a concept-based design. The clubhouse was situated atop of a hill with a gentle slope down to large open area. Maxwell decided instead of using the hill to shape some of the holes to use the open area and make the hill a large spectator mound, thus creating the first stadium style course in the country. Some 45 years before the TPC group of courses were even conceived. The original nine holes were built with some wonderful holes themselves. The 3rd hole is a wonderful par 3 that has a green set upon a ridge with a deep pot bunker protecting the green that has some amazing rolls in it. The 4th hole is a long par 5 that ran between two small ponds. Ironically, in the 1980s when ponds were being added to courses around the country, these were being filled in. The 7th hole runs over a rolling wavelike fairway to a green that is just mad crazy with Maxwell rolls. The finishing hole of the set was built along the base of the hill and is the only green that was even cut into the hillside and has some steep drop-offs on two sides and a steep incline if the player misses to the left. In designing the holes themselves, Maxwell did a very good job but didn’t break any new ground. The fact though that he developed the first stadium style course in the country again points to his innovative nature.
After having two such pleasant surprises in the day, would a third be possible. Only a mere 30 minutes away on the other side of the border is a course in Bartlesville, Oklahoma called the Hillcrest Country Club. That’s right, two Hillcrests within a half hour of each other. The Bartlesville course was one I was told by many that I have to see if I make a visit to Oklahoma. Always willing to take good advice a trip to Bartlesville was eminent. The Hillcrest Country Club was one of the first courses Maxwell designed way back in 1925 and completed in 1926. The course has been renovated by Ed Seay, but the routing and most of the course is exactly as Maxwell laid it out. The main difference is that some creeks and ponds were altered. Hillcrest, much like Muskogee is a really good country club for a mid-sized town. The routing features another core routing by Maxwell and has some extremely beautiful holes. Unlike the course at Muskogee, the Hillcrest routing takes advantage of many more large undulations, hills and valleys that aren’t present at Muskogee. The front nine of the course features some good holes but two really stood out. The 4th is a mid-length par 3 that is almost exactly like the 2nd at Prairie Dunes only the player is looking straight into the green as opposed to it being angled. The only problem with the hole is that some trees have started to grow into the possible lines of play and need to be eliminated. The 5th is an uphill drive that really reaches a crescendo when you look back down the hill to an odd shaped green that is narrow and angles away from the player. Also the green slopes away from the downhill shot. Short of the green is a swale that takes away the opportunity to run a shot directly on the green. A hole that just makes the player feel awkward and rewards the player who hits the best shot. Hole 11 is one of the most unique and naturally built holes in the world. It goes down to the green some 70 feet with the fairway going down in rolling shelves to the green. Truly beautiful! Hole 12 is an uphill par 3 that uses the land amazingly to create an opportunity for the player to hit either an aerial approach or to use the ground to shape his shot. As awkward as 5 is to the player’s eye, this hole just screams the way to play it correctly. The 16th features the most complex green on the course. It is two tiers with the back sloping away from the water hazard with multiple rolls and the front sloping to the water hazard, thus creating a very intimidating front pin position for this 140-yard hole. Two holes at Hillcrest are almost the blueprints for what holes at Crystal Downs appear to be today, the 15th and 18th mirror the 13th and 16th, respectively. This is not the first time on the trip that these little comparisons have popped into the head. But more on that later. Tomorrow involves a trip to the most famous Maxwell course, Southern Hills.
Ladies and Gentlemen, on the first tee hailing from Noblesville, Indiana is Chris Clouser. Then a loud applause followed. Or at least that’s how it went in my head as I woke up. Today is the trip that I’ve waited to make, the drive to Southern Hills. The drive to the course wasn’t bad, but when you pull up to the gate to get in you can tell this is a serious country club. There is an armed guard with a crossbar to prevent anyone from getting in who shouldn’t get in. The course is famous for hosting national championships and famous tournaments, but the half-mile drive from the gate up to the clubhouse is really one of the longest half miles in the world. You try not to hit anything as you peer out the window trying to get a peak at the holes on the course. The clubhouse is one of the largest I’ve ever seen. The inside is almost palatial. I felt like I needed a tie and wingtips instead of my dryjoys and polo shirt or someone would escort me out. All I can say is impressive and intimidating to the uninitiated. Southern Hills is one of the clubs that is identified with Perry Maxwell by almost everyone, or maybe it’s vice versa, but if any club understands the value of Maxwell to golf course design it is this place. Now we go on to the course.
Let’s just put this out on the table. Southern Hills is a course that has no bad or quirky holes. Just good, great or excellent is at this place. And after walking the course I can see why it is such a popular place to hold major professional championships. It has the tradition, atmosphere and playability that the pros just love. Almost all the holes feature very visible playing lines that require a lot of thought for their games. But that is the beauty of this course, for the members it is quite the opposite. It is a thinking mans course for the average Joe. Not only is it a great members track but also the maintenance is top notch. Enough of the superlatives, what about the holes you ask. The front nine is basically a stretch of very good holes. The 1st through 4th are a series of par 4s that test different aspects of the player’s game. The opening tee shot is towards the Tulsa skyline and the hole tests length and accuracy. The second hole contests the ability to carry a hazard as the tee shot must carry a creek and bunkers to have any shot of reaching the green in two. The third tests the nerve of the player on hitting a green that is fronted by a creek with a short iron. The fourth runs up hill and requires a strong shot from a valley. As with Prairie Dunes, the elevation changes on the course at Southern Hills are not truly evident from photos or television. The 6th is the first of perhaps the most underrated part of the course, the par 3s. The par 3s at Southern Hills are all beautiful and make wonderful use of the natural features. The 8th contains the best green on the front side of the course and is a really good long par 3 of 215 yards. The 9th begins a wonderful stretch of holes as it runs back up the hill to the clubhouse and is the little brother of the much more famous 18th. The rolling fairway of the ninth is what makes this hole so tough as the approach fades while the green requires a draw to successfully play it. Now the fun really begins as the back nine is not just a bunch of good or great holes, but great holes with some excellence thrown in for good measure.
The 10th hole is one of the best mid-length par 4 holes that Maxwell ever designed but it is only the second best on the back nine at Southern Hills. This hole features a dogleg that flows along the base of the ridge the clubhouse sits on. The approach must go back up the hill to a green that has a steep swale in front of it. The green is literally cut into the side of the hill. The 12th is a dogleg with a sloping fairway. The hole is made on the approach to the green. The green is located on the opposite side of a creek with a slope shaved at fairway height to push anything short or right into the creek. The fame of the 13th at Augusta must have been spreading as the second shot on this hole is so much like the 2nd on that hole it is scary. Bunkering protects the left and back of the green. Perhaps too much was expected, but this seemed like the 2nd best hole on the course for some reason. The 13th is hands down the best par 5 on the course. The risk/reward factor of going for the green is almost too tantalizing with a large green inviting the attempt to carry the two small ponds and the bunkers in front. A birdie possibility for the courageous player, but a sure fire par for the conservative player. The 10th was a wonderful hole, but it is topped by the 17th. The drive goes somewhat downhill and the approach is to a wildly undulating green that is tightly bunkered. On paper it looks like a scoring chance but in real life you hope for par as the green doesn’t accept many shots and with the rolls in the green anything over 10 feet is a more than likely 2 putts. The last and best hole on the course is a long par that plays down to the level of the creek that bisects the hole with 3 bunkers just to the other side. If a player can get down to the flat short of the creek, they have a 5 iron up to the green. If not, the player should just lay up and take their chances with a pitch onto the green. Though somewhat penal, it does provide the most serious test of precision golf on the course. If possible, a combination of the back nine at Southern Hills and the original nine at Prairie Dunes would be the ultimate examination in golf. Though it is the most famous course designed by Maxwell it is definitely not the best from a design perspective. The course though is among the top 25 in the country due to the strength of the holes and the challenge it does present to a variety of different golfers.
Ok, so where do we go from here? What did we learn about Maxwell during this Magical Mystery Tour? Maxwell is said, in some sources, to have designed about 70 courses and to have touched about 50 others through some other work. The numbers can be documented to be closer to 50 and 30 respectively. So we know he had a prolific and long career. His work evolved over time as well. A comparison of his two courses in Oklahoma City is a perfect example of this. His career spanned over 30 years from 1920 to 1952 with production spread out evenly over those years. The number of courses he produced during the Depression was more than any other designer of his generation and it included some of his best work, (Southern Hills, Old Town and Prairie Dunes). His career even carried over beyond World War II, that is more than can be said about most if not all of the people who were designing courses in the ‘Golden Age.’
The work he created was some of the best ever, including his famous greens and his talent for routing a course through extreme sites. So much so that he was in demand by some of the best courses in the world. Pine Valley and Augusta National hired him to do work and until recently he was the only architect to have worked on both sites. He was seen by the best of many eras as being among the best ever. MacKenzie is quoted as saying, ‘Mr. Maxwell speaks of my ability to make a good fairway or develop a worthy green, but I wish to tell you that in laying out a golf course and to give it everything that the science and art of golf demand, Mr. Maxwell is not second to anyone I know.’ He was personally asked by Donald Ross to join the ASGCA as a founding member. He was also the only architect C B Macdonald allowed to touch the course at the National and then referred him to other courses in Long Island. Robert Trent Jones was asked to make alterations to Southern Hills and stated, ‘You’ve got one of the greatest golf courses in the world. You’d be a fool to let anyone make any further changes.’ Current design icons Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw are quoted as saying they think, ‘Maxwell hung the moon.’ So obviously he is in high regard from many in the fraternity.
He was an innovator. He was the first person to develop grass greens in Oklahoma, even though no one thought it possible. That experiment allowed him to develop his ideas on green design and to eventually shape the path of golf in the state of Oklahoma for the next 50 years. He developed the concept of the first documented stadium course in the United States at Hillcrest in Coffeyville, Kansas. He was also the first outside architect brought in to prep a course for the US Open at Colonial, thus becoming the first ‘Open Doctor.’ Before this the work was either done in house or by the original architect. He was also one of the partners in what appears to be the most powerful combination of talent in the history of golf course architecture in America, with MacKenzie. Often MacKenzie was seen as the driving force then leaving Maxwell to construct the courses. It appears through studying his early work in Oklahoma we can find evidence of the same hole concepts before he even met MacKenzie and thus may have been more of a driving force than first thought in the partnership.
How do his courses stand up to the top players of the game? This is a good question and any architect loves to see his courses challenge even the best, even if the member is the one who must really be happy with the course. Maxwell courses have hosted 24 USGA events (more than any other designer except for Ross and Tillinghast), 4 PGA championships, 16 PGA and LPGA tournaments, 14 NCAA championships and several other national tournaments, including the Trans-Mississippi Amateur 15 times and the Maxwell Invitational each year at Dornick Hills. I’d say that is a pretty good indication his courses test the best.
But do his concepts still survive in this day and age? Yes, the whole concept of minimalism is what his design philosophy was about. Move the least amount of dirt at the lowest expense. Make the course appear natural, give it a distinct character and don’t leave your mark on the site. He made the most of natural features on the terrain, such as creeks, ravines, swales and rolls. Even when he had to construct features, he did so with manpower and not machinery. This may have taken more time, but it was often less costly and gave better results. He is what the Minimalist Manifesto is all about. Would he survive today as an architect? I would like to think so. I don’t know if this all makes him the greatest designer ever, but it does put him on the short list worthy of discussion and isn’t that enough.