Hole by hole: Prairie Dunes, NCAA men's final
The country’s leading college male golfers are in for quite a challenge at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan., during the NCAA Division I Golf Championship on May 23-28. Kids who have honed their games on practice ranges and tree-lined, parkland courses stand to get their brains beaten out of them by a links-style course that usually plays in a steady wind, if not a howling gale, out of the south. Fifteen mph is standard. All sorts of wild and unpredictable things can happen to the ball here – in the air and when it touches down and starts rolling. Pace of play likely will be glacial. Scores will also be on the high side.
Prairie Dunes is that kind of course. The private-club layout, in the middle of Kansas and thus in the middle of the American heartland, dates to a 1937 design by the most underappreciated of the Golden Age designers, Perry Maxwell. The native Oklahoman was famous for his inventive greens contours – “Maxwell’s rolls,” they called them – and for shaping crumpled land into fascinating ground that had to be interpreted and negotiated. Prairie Dunes, 55 miles northwest of Wichita and in a small town with a very modest membership, was only a nine-hole course; its routing was expanded by Press’ son, J. Press Maxwell, in 1957.
Close observers of architecture can make a good case that the original nine holes – 1-2, 6-10, 17-18 – have more character than the subsequent nine. Whatever the case, the holes are daunting, not only for their contours but also for the punitive nature of the wildflower and wild-grass roughs – called “gunch” – which is usually impenetrably deep. The collegians might get something of a break this year, thanks to a cold winter and cool, delayed spring that has reduced some of the growth along the fairways.
No matter. The par-70, 6,941-yard course, ranked No. 13 on the Golfweek’s Best Classic List, presents a challenge even when played down the middle, especially when (as usual) the wind kicks up and howls across the open prairie. It’ll all make for good theater and dramatic competition.
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No. 1: 452 yards, par 4
This steady dogleg left plays into the prevailing wind, which makes it hard to hit and hold the fairway without going through. The ideal line is down the right side, but that brings a three-bunker complex into play at 310 yards out. The green here is maddeningly tough to hold. It will take some considerable imagination and a commitment to proper flight path. We'll find out early whether these college kids are able to work the ball from side to side.
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No. 2: 165 yards, par 3
Uphill and into a headwind, the approach is to a lovely little putting surface protected by five bunkers. The green is sectioned into quarters, with pronounced roll between them and lots of devilish fall-off in front. The right side of the green, only 20 yards deep, offers one of the most cunning hole locations on the golf course. It’s the kind of shot where long leaves you an impossible downhill recovery (perhaps from sand) and short, even if off the green front, is much better. It’ll be amazing how many players come up short on this hole.
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No. 3: 355 yards, par 4
An odd little hole, which is the first of the non-Perry Maxwell designs. A necklace of three bunkers 20 yards short of the green renders this hole an unlikely candidate for driving off the tee, this despite the helping wind. The fairway is set 30 degrees offset from the line of play and doesn’t even start until 200 yards out, with the forced carry over the club’s famously unplayable “gunch.” All of this makes selecting a centerline rather awkward. In any case, the standard play here will be a long iron or rescue club followed by short-iron/wedge to what seems like a disappearing green that falls off every which way, even (especially) behind and to the sides.
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No. 4: 171 yards, par 3
Tough little uphill shot, the steepest on the course, plays through a crosswind from the left to a shallow, angled green that is very well protected. It’s set diagonally, much like the 12th at Augusta National, so that a shot played the correct distance to the center of the green will end up long left if tugged or short right if pushed a tad and played as cut that rides the wind.
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No. 5: 477 yards, par 4
This stout straightaway par 4 sits along a ridgeline on the west side of the property and occupies ground that is isolated from the rest of the course. Tee shots tend to run right here, leaving more of an awkward, uphill approach over yawning front bunkers to a green best attacked from the left side. There’s no chance of ground-game entry into this elevated putting surface, especially into the prevailing wind from the south. At least the back of the green is swept up somewhat enough to hold a shot.
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No. 6: 387 yards, par 4
As you come off the back of the hill from the fifth green and stand on the elevated-tee sixth, you’re struck by a wide panorama that must be among the most appealing in all of prairie golf. The hole tumbles off the slope and unfolds elegantly as a dogleg left. The bunkering here is intriguing – all of the hazards are not in normal “gotcha” landing areas. Instead, they are staggered, offset and positioned to make one wonder why they are where they are. Probably to confuse rather than to catch a shot that hasn’t flown far enough – and to heighten concern about the rollout of the golf ball. It’s an ingenious piece of classic-era, links-inspired course design.
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No. 7: 512 yards, par 5
This plays as the easiest hole on the course, especially as it runs downwind and affords lots of roll off the tee. Two newly added bunkers placed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, at 310 yards out (left) and 340 yards (right), are relevant, given the rollout here. The second shot has to traverse a narrow, necked-down approach zone.
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No. 8: 468 yards, par 4
Prairie Dunes’ most famous hole was selected among the best 18 in the country by Dan Jenkins, one of only three writers in the World Golf Hall of Fame, in 1966 for Sports Illustrated. The tee shot is very demanding: a cut shot on the back of a reverse-camber fairway that seems to steer the ball every which way that’s wrong. The fairway tops out at 310 yards, then falls off sharply left, leaving players with a long approach shot into a table-top green that’s densely bunkered front right. It will be fascinating to watch the golfers here judging their approach shots precisely – ideally landing short or front left and letting the ball feed in from there. Anyone who loses his tee shot right will have a hard time getting to this green from that side.
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No. 9: 452 yards, par 4
Straightaway, the wind coming off the right side, the landing area is a crumply, corduroy fairway that doesn’t know about flat spots. Here’s proof that while you can’t beat strong players with distance, you can throw them off with uneven stances and lies.
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No. 10: 185 yards, par 3
Here’s an amazing little hole tucked low into the dunes right of the clubhouse patio. The green is nestled into rolling land filled with yucca plants and plum thickets, leaving a barely discernible target at which to shoot. The mid-iron plays downwind to a green that sits behind a pair of raised front bunkers. It makes for a very hard shot to keep on the putting surface.
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No. 11: 535 yards, par 4
Another reverse-camber hole, this one a double dogleg that breaks hard left off the tee behind a mound, then cuts back the other way to a green perched into a perfectly natural little rise. It’s the kind of hole that’s a shotmaker's delight but tough on young college kids who might be able to work the ball only one way. That’s especially the case when they are hitting from a new “way-back” tee that, even downwind, will leave them short and right of a big corner bunker and having to come into this green from well beyond 200 yards.
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No. 12: 390 yards, par 4
Forget the driver here. This is an anomalous hole, lined by towering cottonwoods in the landing area off the tee and thus extremely narrow – shockingly so, given how open the rest of the course feels. It’s the kind of hole that takes driver out of the hands of most strong players, because hitting the fairway is far more important than an extra 20-30 yards off the tee. The raised green is well protected in front by sand and requires a controlled approach to reach and hold, with no possibility of run-up.
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No. 13: 445 yards, par 3
This snappy dogleg left sits at the far northern end of the property and requires a carefully placed tee shot into a landing area protected by five bunkers. It's one of the toughest tee shots in terms of angle, since the ideal line (left) requires a bold line on an uphill drive, with little orientation against the treeless skyline. Big hitters who can carry the bunkers left have a tremendous advantage into a vaulted green, pitched back to front and opening up from the left.
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No. 14: 405 yards, par 4
This hole is like a version of the previous one, but amped up in terms of temptation, angles and contours. The ideal drive on this dogleg left is an act of blind faith. Those who make the 290-yard uphill carry over the long sandy scrape left have to be careful of not finding more sand on the far right side, where a double hazard – overhanging cottonwoods that block access to the green – awaits. A steep hump in the middle divides the green into distinct tiers, making it difficult to get close to the hole.
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No. 15: 203 yards, par 3
This hole is known as “the chute” for good reason. Overarching cottonwood canopies at the tee actually touch, making the shot from the platform tee feel narrow. From there, the hole opens – a classic example of "compression and release” in landscape design – to en elusive uphill green protected by nothing more up front than a steep slope. It’s a hard green to hold, given the low trajectory of the tee shot and the pitch of the relatively shallow green.
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No. 16: 426 yards, par 4
By now, it’s clear how much of a toll driving the ball at Prairie Dunes takes on a player. The goal here is simply to keep the ball in play while avoiding a pair of flanking bunkers 280-300 yards out – and more importantly, keeping the ball out of the "gunch” while driving into a headwind. This hole feels like J. Press Maxwell’s version of his father’s famous eighth hole.
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No. 17: 523 yards, par 5
Not quite straightaway – a slight turn to the left, but more importantly, a steady uphill climb of 35 feet and played into the prevailing wind. As easy as the par-5 seventh hole was (in the other direction), this one will prove confounding beyond all immediate impression of looking easy. The green here feels like it’s perched up in the sky and seems to deflect any marginal shot way left or way right. Here’s more evidence that the way to make great players sweat is through ground contour, not distance.
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No. 18: 390 yards, par 4
Back to the clubhouse, with the ideal aiming point a cutoff that starts at the swimming pool. With the wind coming from the left, it’s easy to overcook the angle – or to hit it through the fairway into the rough. Here’s that perfect ending to a steadily challenging golf course, one that looks simple and inviting but that demands incredibly steady driving to score well.