Prairie Dunes Country Club
Green Keeper: Stan George
Prairie Dunes enjoys a colossal reputation in the world of golf and yet, curiously, not but so many people make the trek to Hutchinson, Kansas to see the course. They know that the wind, humpy-bumpy fairways, plum thicket and firm playing conditions make it play akin to the great links in the United Kingdom. But, unlike in the U.K., where for instance, Turnberry, Prestwick, Royal Troon, and Western Gailes are in a cluster, Prairie Dunes stands alone. Also, too, they reason that a visitor must be accompanied by a member as is the typical policy at leading private clubs in the United States.
In this last regard, Prairie Dunes is more like a British club whereby a proper Letter of Introduction can help a visitor gain access to the course at certain times through the week. In short, the good people here in the Midwest believe in sharing, which effectively makes Prairie Dunes the very definition of a national treasure. And given the ease of travel and the Wichita airport being readily accessible, there is simply no reason that any student of the game doesn’t beat a path to play this course.
The best way to convince someone of the merit in doing so is simply to showcase each hole because they are individually of such a uniformly high standard that no architectural education is complete without studying them. One reason that the Maxwells achieved so much here is that Perry was instrumental in selecting this location. Initially, another parcel of land was being considered but Perry convinced the founders of the merits of today’s prairie site with its random dunes. Once this exceptional property was secured, Perry knew exactly what to do, as we see below!
Scorecard of the Course
(side note: While Perry Maxwell routed eighteen holes in 1937, the Carey family elected to open only nine holes prior to WWII, and in general, they were the holes closest to the clubhouse. Four years after Perry’s death, his son James Press Maxwell completed the job in 1956. As Perry Maxwell‘s original eighteen hole routing plan may not exist (like Pete Dye, one can imagine him saying ‘Plan? Why do I need plans? I’m always there!’), the question arises as to whether Press Maxwell followed his father routing and/or whether he perhaps found some of the holes himself. Regardless of who routed what, the man who built each hole is noted below).
First hole, 430yards, Carey Lane,(Perry); Though the diagonal angle off the tee makes it a first rate driving hole, the golfer is confronted with one of the primary design tenets that the Golden Age architects followed: Defend par at the green. In this case, the green starts as an extension of the fairway before rising to form a back right bowl. The hole remains a delight to play regardless of wind direction thanks to its open green front coupled with the firm and fast playing conditions through the green. Helping to insure that the course plays just right, the club has formed a long standing relationship with the firm of Coore & Crenshaw. In fact, even before there was a Coore & Crenshaw, Bill Coore did work here in 1984. Thus, for nearly twenty-five years, he has helped oversee that the mowing lines, bunkers, green contours and green sizes remain faithful to the Maxwells’ shared vision.
Second hole, 160 yards, Willow,(Perry Maxwell); The twelfth green at Augusta National is famous for its diagonal angle that makes the player first determine his line and then select his club. Perry was performing consulting work at Augusta National the same year that the first nine holes opened at Prairie Dunes and it seems likely to the author that the strategic merit of the twelfth was fresh in his mind as he built the second here (albeit with the second running from front right to back left). Deep bunker guards the front and yet to go over the green is worse. Unlike the twelfth at Augusta National, the putting surface is full of character and undulations. When the 2002 U.S. Women’s Open and the 2004 U.S. Senior Open were held here, the contestants wisely treated it with the same respect/fearas the twelfth at Augusta.
Thirdhole, 355 yards, Wild Plum,(Press Maxwell); Thanks to the long time former Green Keeper Doug Petersan, the back markers were relocated in the 1970s to the highest spot on the course atop the sand dune that dominates the front nine. As such, the golfer is exposed to the full effects of the prairie winds, which can change the hole from a three wood/flip wedge in the morning to a driver/punch five iron in the afternoon. Importantly, Petersan created a strategically appealing diagonal carry over the plum thicket when he moved the back markers up and to the left from the original Press Maxwell teeing area.
Fourth hole, 170 yards, Hill Top(Press Maxwell); As at the second hole, the green is superbly situated on a shelf with menacing bunkers cut out from the dune. While the second green provides the opportunity for more four (!) putts, the fourth hole lays longer as the green is well above the golfer on the tee. As such, the ball is in the air longer, creating more time for drama to unfold as the wind grabs it and does mean things. If anything, the back bunker just left of the putting surface that was added by Coore & Crenshaw in 2006 is a mercy one as it helps a pull or a draw stay out of the gunch.
Fifth hole, 440 yards, Quail Ridge,(Press Maxwell); The golfer needs to play this hole as it is laid before him, which is to say straightaway. Any approach angle becomes progressively worse other than from the right center of the fairway. Generally, this hole plays into the wind and as such requires a controlled long iron approach held underneath the wind. And yet, downwind the hole may even be harder as the golfer must use the bank in front of the green to brake his approach shot.
Sixth hole, 390 yards, Cedar, (Perry); When Perry Maxwell’s nine holes opened for play in 1937, golfers headed to this tee from the second green and played this as their third hole. Great use of natural landforms abound and the accomplished golfer likes to hit a draw down the right of this fairway to a) get a sling forward off its high right side and b) to open up a view of the putting surface that is otherwise obscured from the left by a large bunker short of the green. Many a golfer upon approaching the green complex is disappointed/perplexed to find his ball in the swale between the short front bunker and the green. The resulting recovery shot can be played with a three wood to a flop wedge to a putter.
Seventh hole, 510 yards, South Wind, (Perry); When the hole lives up to its name South Wind, a good drive can ride the wind and catch the down slope in the fairway, leaving the golfer with a mid-iron into this par five. However, the target is a tight one as the green is sandwiched between two hummocks with sand and tall grass all around. Conversely, when a front is moving through, and the opposite wind is blowing, this can be one of the most demanding holes on the course.
Eighthhole, 430 yards, Dunes, (Perry); The fact that this famous hole needs no fairway bunkers speaks as to its wildly rolling topography. Indeed, when Coore first walked the property in 1984 with then Green Keeper Doug Petersan, he remarked that he had never seen land better suited for golf. Petersan, ironically as it turns out, replied that he knew where there was land of comparable quality and that was in the sand hills of Nebraska. Of course, over a decade later, Coore would be found working there but he is the first to point out that Prairie Dunes set the stage for all future prairie courses. Not content with just the difficult tee to green aspect of the eighth, Perry Maxwell built what is possibly the course’s most severe green with four feet (!) of elevation change from back to front and a ridge through its back middle. Having only taken the game up at the late age of thirty-five, Perry became famous for working on some of finest greens in the country including those at National Golf Links of America and Pine Valley. Of all his work, no single green is any more impressive than the one here.
Ninth hole, 450 yards, Meadow Lark (Perry); The fairway contours at Prairie Dunes are the near equal to the ‘Maxwell rolls’, a term famously associated with Perry Maxwell’s green contours. And nowhere are these contours better highlighted than in the ninth fairway. According to the yardage book, Maxwell used a team of mules pulling fresno scrapers to move the earth. Though a slow and laborious process, the end result can be seen with this rippling fairway. The invariably uneven stance contributes much to the hole’s natural defenses.
Tenth hole, 185 yards, Yucca, (Perry); Is there any course whose first three one shotters are as good as the ones at Prairie Dunes? Perhaps Pine Valley given its diversity of length but no other course readily springs to mind unless one was to cheat and pick the Composite course at Royal Melbourne. This is an important fact because if one is coming this far to play one golf course,the golfer needs to be treated to holes of great exception – and Prairie Dunes possesses them like few other courses. When the Mid-Amateur was contested here in 1988, five players teed off on the tenth in a play-off for the last two spots of match play. Two players made double bogey – and they advanced to match play!
Eleventh hole, 450 yards, Honey Locust, (Press); This hole ends one of the toughest four hole stretches in the game and for some, it is their favorite Press hole. In fact, the next six holes are all Press holes and they lead the golfer into a part of the property that has a slightly different look and feel to the front nine with cottonwood trees being more prevalent. The knob in front of the eleventh green is a stroke of design genius and deflects the weakly hit ball to the left or right.
Twelfth hole, 390 yards, Briar Patch, (Press); Similar to the third hole, Doug Petersan relocated the back (and middle) markers to the highest ground on the back nine. The hole is all the better for it with the golfer once again feeling the full brunt of the wind. Two cottonwood trees seventy-five yards forward of the green narrow the approach. Given Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore’s deep admiration of Prairie Dunes, perhaps they had this hole in mind when they used trees to shape the strategy at such holes as the seventh and twelfth at Cuscowilla. Also, one of the course’s subtler features was recently highlighted here. A player pushed his tee ball to the right and hit a knockdown to stay beneath the branches of the right cottonwood. The ball was well struck but carried too deep into the green and bounded into a back bunker. So what, you may say?Well that bunker is fifteen (!) paces behind the green and was placed there for that very scenario. This is a perfect example of a Green Keeper understanding the design intent of the architect and providing the optimal conditions for the design to shine. Without firm conditions, the back bunker would be just window dressing and Prairie Dunes would be half as much fun to play.
Thirteenth hole, 445 yards, Sumac, (Press); The nasty inside bunker on this dogleg left is both deep and (seemingly) filled with yucca plants. Though not a heavily bunkered course ala an Oakmont, the ones at Prairie Dunes nonetheless fill the tenet of being hazardous with the player needing to avoid them. Once around the bend, the golfer sees another well placed green benched into the hillside. Coore calls the putting surface here ‘absolutely fabulous.’
Fourteenth hole, 370 yards, Cotton Wood, (Press); A first rate misdirection play with the sight of the flag pulling the golfer ever more to the left, which is where a series of bunkers await. In addition, the green and its slopes best receive a shot from the right center of the fairway. Unlike many modern architects, Press didn’t believe that the golfer had to have perfect visuals of where he was going. In this case, a large hump 130 yards from the green obscures the ideal landing area off the tee.
Fifteenth hole, 200 yards, The Chute,(Press); Press’s own comments make it clear that he thought that the cottonwoods added character and thus he was keen to see them incorporated into the design where possible, namely at the twelfth, fourteenth and here. From in a chute of (now) very tall cottonwoods, the golfer is protected from knowing what the wind will do with his tee ball. Coupled with its length, the green is one of the most frequently missed ones and an up and down is anything but ordinary thanks to the green’s high point being near the front center before it falls away toward a lower back right section. At 4,900 square feet, the golfer may consider this green a relatively small target but indeed it is the largest green at Prairie Dunes, where the average green size is under 4,300 square feet. This is another excellent putting surface and Coore marvels at how well Press’s greens tie in with those of his father’s which are considered among the best in the game.
Sixteenth hole, 415 yards, Blue Stem, (Press); An underrated hole of great merit, the outside of this dogleg is bunkered and guards the ideal line into the green,which angles from front left to back right. Down wind, the golfer may find himself incapable of stopping even a pitching wedge on the putting surface, again highlighting Stan George’s excellent work. Press deserves great credit for getting the ground contours just right at the sixteenth green complex as a low running shot can take the left bank and chase toward the back right hole locations.
Seventeenth hole, 520 yards, Pheasant Hollow, (Perry); Though this par five is bunkerless save for the one by the green, the location of its green atop a knoll combined with wicked interior green contours is all the defense that this modest length three shooter requires. In fact, P.J. Boatwright told the author in 1985 that this was his favorite green in golf. Rather than slap a second shot somewhere near the green as visitors are prone to do, many members elect to lay back and leave themselves their favorite wedge distance to the green. The two smallest green at Prairie Dunes are at the second hole and here, with each measuring approximately 3,400 square feet. Perry Maxwell stands alone among the other grand master golf architects in his ability to create small targets with severe interior contours that still function well for golf.
Eighteenth hole, 390 yards (Perry); The golfer finds himself one last time high on a dune with a rumpled fairway below. The more level lies and the better angle into the green are down the right but that requires the longest and toughest carry from the tee as plum thicket hugs that entire side of the hole. Symbolic of the entire course which measures just over 6,700 yards from the back markers, the eighteenth hole highlights that length isn’t required to make a hole full of challenge and interest.
Thus ends the round at Prairie Dunes. While a view of the North Sea never materializes, for many, as at Sand Hills, there is no better course as it possesses the five classic elements required for an ideal course: wind, sand based property with rolling topography, well conceived holes of strategic interest, a predominately treeless environment and uniformly firm playing conditions. Importantly too, it accurately reflects its natural environment and is true to its name: it is a prairie first and foremost thanks in large part to Stan George’s on-going controlled burn policy which allow the prairie grasses to thrive.With 75% of Prairie Dunes’ acreage maintained in its native state, maintenance costs remain reasonable as well, which is another example of Prairie Dunes being true to its Midwest sensibilities.
As one can see, the Maxwells never did anything forced or contrived in building their holes as Prairie Dunes lies peacefully upon the ground. Yet, there is a tremendous amount of architectural integrity found within each hole and it is this combination that makes it the height of great architecture. All in all, it is the ideal course to study to gain a true appreciation for the perfect meld that can occur between nature and the light hand of man.