A few weeks ago, just days removed from my two-day visit to the Pete Dye Golf Club in West Virginia, I got a message from a new friend I'd connected with on social media in recent months. He had room to add me to his foursome for 36 holes at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kansas, if I could be there on the 16th of the month.
For those who aren't aware, Prairie Dunes is a private club with a course ranked No. 25 on Golf Digest's current Top 100 list and No. 18 on Golf Magazine's Top 100. It has hosted both the U.S. Wome's Open and U.S. Senior Open as well as multiple U.S. Women's Amateur championships. It's a course I've long hoped to play, and here was my opportunity.
"Let me get this straight," my wife said when I told her about the invitation. "You're going to go all the way to the middle of Kansas to play a round of golf?"
"No, no, no," I told her. "You don't understand. I'm going to go all the way to the middle of Kansas to play TWO rounds of golf!"
Thank God she takes the "til death do us part" and "for richer or poorer" parts of our wedding vows seriously.
So, with her support ... or, at least, with her reluctant resignation to the fact that I'm on this crazy quest ... I began hastily planning my travel.
I'd never been to Kansas before, but getting to Prairie Dunes from Pittsburgh would be no problem. I'd just need to take a flight to Chicago and another to Kansas City, Missouri. From there, I'd need to rent a car and drive three hours west across the plains until I found myself in Hutchinson. And then I'd need to do the whole thing in reverse to get myself back home.
OK ... I recognize the insanity of this. Still, I purchased my tickets, booked my hotel (got one night free -- thanks, Hilton Honors points!), scheduled my rental car and pulled my travel bag out of storage to make sure my clubs would survive the trip.
I won't bore you with the travel details. I made it there safely; I made it home. Yes, Southwest did misplace the pilots for the second leg of my return trip. No, I'm not making that up. But that's a story for another blog. So let's get to the golf.
Prairie Dunes is a really cool place. It's not at all what you might expect as you drive across Kansas and look out across the flat, open countryside. Prairie Dunes is a links-style course that's only missing an ocean.
The design, by famed golf course architect Perry Maxwell and his son, Press Maxwell, is aptly described by the club as "A Little Bit of Scotland in the Land of Oz." Its combination of sand dunes and natural prairie grasses define the shapes of 18 holes among which there is no weakness. The Fried Egg, a media site dedicated to golf news and course architecture, put together a terrific video about the design of the course, which you can find here:
The course is as challenging to play as it is stunning to look at. Its tees stretch to more than 7,000 yards, and from the tips the course plays as a par-72 with a rating and slope of 75.5/148.
My host for the day was preparing for the upcoming Member/Member tournament and was practicing the course from its white/member tees that day, which measure just over 6,100 yards and play as a par-70 ... and I was happy to tackle the course at that distance. (Note: Unless specified otherwise, all yardages mentioned from this point on will be from the white tees.)
Given the state of my game of late, I also was happy to hear that I'd come to the course on the absolute calmest day possible from a weather perspective.
Often, I'm told, the wind can wreak havoc on shots at Prairie Dunes ... that it blows almost constantly and can carry ball struck well at the left side of a hole all the way across the fairway and into the high prairie grasses on the far right. Yet the day I was there, the air was nearly still in the morning, and we experienced just a light breeze in the afternoon that made for a very pleasant playing experience despite the 90-degree heat.
Upon arriving at the club, I was greeted at the bag drop by a delightful young woman who took my bag to a cart and offered me directions to parking, the locker room and the driving range, where my host was already warming up.
One of the things you immediately appreciate at Prairie Dunes is the Midwestern warmth of its staff, all of whom seem genuinely happy that you've come to visit. That Kansas kindness almost makes up for all the ways the course is going to try to beat you up for the next four hours.
Hole No. 1 -- Carey Lane
The opening hole at Prairie Dunes is a 401-yard par-4 that gently bends around to the left. The tee shot looks forgiving, and there is room to bail out right, but doing so will leave you with a long shot into the green. The more daring player can bite off a bit of the prairie grass on the left side to set up a short-iron second shot, but a hook into the high grass -- the "gunch" as the members call it -- is going to result in either a lost ball or at least a difficult shot that is going to test your wrist and forearm strength. It's not an intimidating tee shot, but do whatever it takes to keep the ball in the short stuff if you want to get off to a good start on this difficult course.
The approach shot on No. 1 offers options to fly the ball into the green or run it up with a green that opens up the deeper you get. But pay attention to the pin position as a ball on the wrong level of any of the greens at Prairie Dunes can easily lead to a three putt (or worse).
Hole No. 2 -- Willow
Challenge the pin on the second hole at your own peril. During my first round of the day, I successfully landed a nice little 8-iron in the center of the green that settled about 15 feet below the hole. Easy par. During my second round, I pulled the shot just a little bit left and found a nasty lie in the third greenside bunker on the left. I was lucky to escape with a triple bogey. The smart play is center green or just right of center. If the hole is on that side, all the better. If it's on the left side of the green, play it safe, and be happy to walk away with a three. Those bunkers left of the greeen are deeper than they appear from the tee ... and less-forgiving.
Hole No. 3 -- Wild Plum
There aren't any bad holes at Prairie Dunes, but No. 3 is one of the holes I really like. From the white tees, a 175-yard shot is really enough to put you in position off the tee. A 3-iron or hybrid can help you cut off a bit more of the corner as the hole wraps around the gunch to the left. But at just 308 yards, there's no need to try to be heroic off the tee. As with most holes at Prairie Dunes, if you can keep your ball out of the gunch, you're going to have an opportunity to shoot a good score.
It's worth noting, too, that the rough at Priarie Dunes -- at least on the day I played the course -- was not particularly penal. I'm sure they can grow it up in a heartbeat, and this course can go from hard to heinous. But the day I played, the rough was manageable. Fairway was still better, obviously. But a ball in the rough wasn't automatically a lost stroke; the course always gave me a chance to recover so long as I avoided the high natural prairie grasses.
Hole No. 4 -- Hill Top
The par-3 fourth hole is the second of four par-3s at Prairie Dunes that all play to an elevated green. It's about 150 yards from the white tees, and I hit basically the exact same shot both rounds -- a drawing 7-iron that began at the flag, landed on the back left of the green and bounced through just into the rough. This is a quick green that runs from back to front, though, making up and down from behind the green especially difficult. The four bunkers -- two front-right and two back-left -- make for a solid defense for this short hole.
Hole No. 5 -- Quail Ridge
The fifth hole plays as a short par-5 from the back tees but as a 402-yard par-4 from the whites. From the tee, it appears that all of the trouble on this hole is left. But playing right comes with its own challenges. Aim a little too far to the right in an effort to avoid the bunkers down the left side, and it's easy to find oneself in the gunch. But even a ball that finds the right side of the fairway will leave you with a longer, more uphill shot into the green than a drive hit the same distance down the left side of the fairway.
An approach shot left short of the green is likely to either find one of the deep greenside bunkers or to funnel back down into the fairway, either of which can make for a tough up-and-down if the flag is on the front of the putting surface. From the right side of the fairway, take at least one extra club to ensure you reach the green and preserve your shot at a par.
Hole No. 6 -- Cedar
The sixth hole is another hole where the object off the tee is simply to get the ball in play. At only 360 yards a 3-wood, hybrid or even a long-iron offers an opportunity to find the fairway and leave yourself with a short- or mid-iron into the green. As wide-open as this faiway appears, the high prairie grass at Prairie Dunes has an almost sirensong-like ability to call wayward tee shots to their doom.
Though the trees on the course and surrounding Prairie Dunes only come into play on a few holes, I do love the way they help to provide visual definition as you make your way around the course. For as open as the course is, there are some very cool, very old trees on the property. And it's not unusual for the cottonwoods to shed their fluffy white cotton when the wind blows. During our second round, the cotton flew like snow as we played our approach shots and putted out on the sixth green.
Hole No. 7 -- South Wind
The seventh hole presents what may be the best scoring opportunity on the front nine. A short par-5 at just 487 yards, its wide fairway offers big hitters an opportunity to reach the green in two. And even offline tee shots have a lot of room to go left or right before they reach real trouble.
For those who go at the green, the putting surface is well-protected with bunkers front-right and front-left, but they are among the shallowest and easiest to play from greenside bunkers on the course. A sand save for birdie isn't at all out of the question for a player with an even marginal short game. There's nothing wrong with a par on this hole, but anything worse than a bogey is a real wasted opportunity.
Hole No. 8 -- Dunes
Prairie Dunes' signature hole is a 417-yard beast of a par-4 that plays longer than its yardage due to the uphill fairway that doesn't allow for much roll, followed by a long approach shot to an elevated green. Almost every lie on this hole is uphill, which means golfers playing their second shots need to adjust and play one or even two extra clubs in order to account for the higher launch of their approach shots and the elevation change from the fairway to the green. Players who miscalculate risk winding up in one of the shortside bunkers below the green from which a par save will be nearly impossible.
Or, if they miscalculate enough -- like I did -- they may even find themselves short of the bunkers, looking at a pitch shot that would make Phil Mickelson shudder. This hole is not only the most famous hole at Prairie Dunes; it's considered by many to be one of the best and most difficult holes in the country. I made a terrific up-and-down from this lie to save par, and it honestly felt like a birdie when I rolled in the putt.
Hole No. 9 -- Meadow Lark
After the eight hole, with the clubhouse shimmering in the distance, No. 9 feels like it's going to be an easy hole. Just 400 yards, and then the promise of cool drinks and maybe a bite to eat await. But don't be fooled. Like a mirage in the desert, the appearance of ease is only an illusion as this hole serves up a deathtrap of a fairway bunker on the left and hungry gunch on the right, just daring you to lose concentration for even a moment as you step up to the tee.
Players who do find the fairway on No. 9 will be rewarded with a relatively open shot into the slightly elevated green. A running, British Open-style bump-and-run is the perfect shot into this green for the player who can execute it, taking bunkers right, left and long mostly out of play.
Hole No. 10 -- Yucca
The 10th hole is one of the coolest little par-3s you're ever going to play. Bunkers short and right look huge, and theres another greenside bunker short-left that is hidden by the dunes. From the tee, the green appears much smaller than it actually is. On the card, the yardage reads 160, but the smart play is to take an extra club and play to the heart of the putting surface. It's a deep green, so long won't kill you. But take it from me ... a ball left short (I did it both rounds) makes for a very difficult par. On the other hand, a short tee shot makes for a very easy double bogey!
Hole No. 11 -- Honey Locust
The 11th hole features the only water hazard on the course. This is the second hole on the course that plays as a par-5 from the back tees and as a long par-4 from the whites. At 426 yards, it demands all you've got off the tee. Players who attempt to cut the corner over the fairway bunker on the left may be rewarded if they can really bomb it off the tee ... or they may be surprised to discover just how big of a poke that really is. There's no shame in playing out to the right and accepting that this is going to be a really tough 4. I opted to play it with the mindset that it was a par-5, which took the pressure off me to try to do something heroic. Truly, though, a good drive to the right of the fairway bunker may still leave you with a 200-yard-or-so shot into the green, but it keeps par in play.
Hole No. 12 -- Briar Patch
The 12th hole is arguably the coolest hole on the course. At 371 yards, a number of clubs are viable off the tee. The bunker on the left is reachable with a driver, but a tee shot just right of it will set up a short wedge into a green that can give up birdies. The gunch pinches in tighter on this hole than many others, however, making driver a dicey choice. The smarter play may be to lay back with a club you know you can put in the fairway, opting for a longer shot into the green.
Be careful, though. The tee shot still needs to be hit straight or you can easily box yourself out of a shot through the alley between the tall trees that guard both sides of the fairway on the approach.
Looking back at No. 12 from the green, you get a better sense of how tight the hole really is ... and a greater appreciation for the way the dunes and prairie grass shape the hole, particularly off the tee.
Hole No. 13 -- Sumac
No. 13 is one of my favorite holes on the course. A 357-yard dogleg left, I found that a high draw over the right side of the fairway bunker on the left side of the hole and a high cut over the left side of that bunker work equally well to set up a short wedge into the green on this par-4.
Too far left and you flirt with prairie grass that can quickly blow up your score, but find the fairway off the tee on this hole and the large, relatively flat putting surface with your approach, and there is no reason not to walk away with a par on this hole.
Hole No. 14 -- Cotton Wood
The 14th hole is another very cool risk reward hole. It's almost hard to recognize as you stand on the tee that the safe shot is a drive way out to the right. The hole sets up such that it almost demands that you aim at the bunkers on the left, short of the green, and just pray. At just 357 yards, it's certainly possible to hit a drive out over the prairie grass and drop a ball between the bunkers in the fairway with barely a sandwedge or even a lob wedge into the green. But there is a lot of danger in that play. If you don't absolutely need to press for a birdie on this hole, there is a lot more room for error to the right, and you still leave yourself a short- to mid-iron into the green on this inviting hole.
I played left one round and found myself in the gunch. And I played right one round, leaving myself this shot from about 130 yards. You can guess which drive yielded the better score. Though this green is well protected by bunkers, it will hold a lofted short-iron shot just as well as a wedge shot. As usual, playing from the fairway makes for easier pars and fewer double bogies (or worse).
Hole No. 15 -- The Chute
The fourth and final par-3 at Prairie Dunes is deceptively difficult. From the back tees, the cottonwood trees on either side of the tee create a canopy that makes the hole appear more narrow than it really is. From the white tee -- at 169 yards -- the hole looks like it ought to be relatively easy. The bunkers right and long leave plent of room to go right at this green. But a ball left short will roll back down the steep hill in front of the green. At the same time, taking extra club to ensure you reach the green can make it hard to hold thi sputting surface. The ideal shot is long enough to reach center green but also high enough to land softly. Anything less will make par a difficult score on this hole.
Hole No. 16 -- Blue Stem
I love the hole signs at Prairie Dunes. They add to the aesthetic and also offer an opportunity to subtly advertise local businesses -- something that feels delightfully smalltown, especially at a top-25 country club.
And then on No. 16, I noticed this. I love that the club has a sense of humor about itself. That was true of the sign on 16, and it was absolutely true of the two members I had the pleasure of playing with this particular day.
Just shy of 400 yards, the 16th hole plays long and uphill. The goal off the tee is simple ... keep the ball out of the gunch. There is a lot of room on this hole to tee it high and let it fly. Find the fairway -- or even the rough -- and take an extra club to be sure you reach the center of the green with your approach or risk finding one of the bunkers short-left or short-right.
Hole No. 17 -- Pheasant Hollow
Prairie Dunes has a really terrific collection of finishing holes that put the challenge right in front of you. After the long par-4 16th, No. 17 is a short par-5 that offers players the option to go for the green in two in pursuit of one last, great scoring opportunity. But beware -- wide open off the tee, this hole narrows significantly the closer you get to the hole, with the gunch pinching in from both sides; a long, deep bunker on the left; and a steep hill to the right that makes for a difficult up-and-down on this narrow green. Length off the tee and then accuracy with the approach are the keys to taking away a birdie or possibly even an eagle heading into the home hole.
Hole No. 18 -- Evening Shadow
I absolutely love the par-4 18th hole at Prairie Dunes ... and not just because I parred it both rounds. The hole calls for a fade to a fairway that angles from left to right away from the tee. There is room left of the fairway but the dunes on that side of the hole can make for a blind shot into the green. Anything right is in the gunch and makes for a near-impossible par save.
A well-struck tee shot to the left side of the fairway creates an ideal angle of attack to an elevated green with a shor-iron. Playing just a 3-wood off the tee on this 372-yard hole, I left myself a 140-yard approach that made for a smooth 8-iron uphill and into a slight breeze, resulting in an easy two-putt. Big hitters can bite off as much of the gunch as they dare off the tee in order to leave themselves with just a short wedge into the green.
My enjoyment of the course over two rounds was in no way reflected in my scores. But I had an absolute blast playing alongside two wonderful members I'm happy now to call friends and another guest who was a terrific playing companion for the day.
My host, on the other hand, had a terrific scoring day, posting an 80 during our first round and two-putting the 18th for 79 in the afternoon -- his first-ever sub-80 round at the club. Neither the company nor the course could have been more enjoyable, and I couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity to spend the day with these guys.
Prairie Dunes is a remarkable place to visit. Its members and staff were extraordinarily welcoming and a joy to be around. And I can't say enough positive things about my host, who graciously invited a near-stranger he knew only through Facebook to spend the day with him at this incredible club.
I've written before about the fact that the relationships -- the friendships -- I'm developing as I pursue my goal to play the greats are likely to be even more meaningful than the experience of playing the fantastic courses on my list. And once again, it's proven true.
Also, it's worth noting the generosity and graciousness of golfers. As it turns out, the other member we played with at Prairie Dunes is also a member of another club on my list. After we played, he took a look here at the website, saw that course on my list, and immediately reached out to invite me to join him there at some point in the not-too-distant future. And the truth is -- as much as I appreciate that invitation (and will happily take him up on it), I'd gladly tee it up with any of these guys again, any time and anywhere the opportunity presents itself.
Like all good things, my time at Prairie Dunes came to an end. But not until I'd played 36 holes and spent about 10 hours with three terrific guys on the links. A couple of things worth mentioning for those who may some day have an opportunity to visit:
First, the showers are fantastic. Don't go back and clean up at your hotel; avail yourself of the locker room facilities. (I don't know what shampoo they stock in the showers, but it smells amazing!)
Second, if you have a chance to enjoy lunch in the grill room, try the bruschetta chicken sandwich; it was terrific. I'm also told that a drink called a "gunch punch" is amazing, but as a non-drinker I'm afraid I didn't try it for myself.
Lastly, be sure to treat the staff as well as they treat you; they really are wonderful and make you feel as if you're visiting your home club. I've rarely felt so welcome anywhere.
It was great trip. I'd call it a whirlwind, but we're talking about the land of Oz, so I guess I should say that the travel there, golf and travel back again were more like a tornado!
And I felt more than a little bit sad when I picked my clubs up from the baggage claim back at Pittsburgh International Airport, pulled them close and said to them, "I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."