Prairie Dunes offers transcendent golf experience

For years, I had looked at maps and wondered when I’d finally get to Prairie Dunes. The middle of Kansas is not exactly well-traveled, even among those searching for fine course architecture. Since seeing enchanting photographs of its par-4 eighth hole in Dan Jenkins’ “The Best 18 Holes in America,” I knew I had to make the journey. And now, having spent two days at Prairie Dunes, I can honestly say playing golf there is a transcendent experience.

Here is a layout that became a legend while still a nine-hole course. Perry Maxwell designed the original layout that opened in 1936. His son, Press Maxwell, added nine holes in 1955. Since then, the course has hosted three U.S. Women’s Amateurs, a Curtis Cup, the men’s Mid-Amateur and a USGA Senior Amateur. Its stunning beauty will soon be on display for a national television audience during the U.S. Women’s Open. If the winds blow 15-25 mph, as they are wont to do across this open grassland, scores will skyrocket.

Pure sandy links conditions prevail here in the middle of the American heartland. The fairways sit gently in the troughs of crumpled, washboard land that looks like coastal dunes. The holes unfold easily, and the whole course is walkable. But for all the beauty and naturalness of the landforms, the holes can play brutally tough. Credit for that goes to greens that were considered heavily undulating long before Stimpmeter speeds of nine were commonplace. Maxwell’s Rolls, as they are called, live up to their reputation as maddening. At an average size of only 4,500 square feet, the greens are not easy to hit and even harder to hold.

The par-70 course plays to 6,598 yards, with a 74.0 rating and 139 slope. For the Women’s Open, it will play 6,267 yards. The playing areas appear generous but quickly take on a ferocious character, all the more with wind. Fairway bunkers are all positioned diagonally, leaving one side open and the other side implicated in a heightened risk/reward scenario. Bold shots are rewarded with better angles of approach – or punished with cruelty and the certain loss of a stroke.

Veteran superintendent P. Stan George keeps the place lean and mean. The ryegrass fairways offer lots of kick and roll. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, shadows cast an eerie charm across the contours of this unique course and make the little hollows and swales seem as if they are rippling before your eyes.

The powerful presence of the land also is evident in the many wildflowers and native grasses that comprise the wicked roughs. Wayward shots, even those that appear to land in the first cut of rough, have a strange way of bounding two or three more times into oblivion amid knee-high thickets of Big bluestem, Little bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass and Sand lovegrass.

Perry Maxwell’s handiwork is on wondrous display here. The holes that remain of his original work – Nos. 1-2, 6-10 and 17-18 of the present routing – offer beautiful angles of approach, shotmaking options and greens that are perfectly integrated into their surroundings. Some of the newer holes are equally compelling, but there’s also a stiffness and forced quality to a few that undercuts the overall effect.

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