6,563 yards, 144 slope from the Blues
Course: Just north of Wichita, Kansas in Hutchinson is Prairie Dunes Country Club, a Perry Maxwell and J. Press Maxwell course designed in 1937. Perry Maxwell did a lot of greens work for Alistair MacKenzie, including at Augusta National, and his greens are some of the most splendid in history. The list of courses he was involved in designing are remarkable, including Southern Hills and Colonial, while his work can be found at Augusta National and Pine Valley. In short, his work is distinguished, and for very good reason. He believed in using the natural existing terrain, flowing undulating greens and large swelling fairways. At Prairie Dunes, Perry routed eighteen holes but the club only initially opened as nine holes. His son, Press, finished the course, yet the holes maintain a consistent theme and are seamless throughout the round.
Prairie Dunes is a model for minimalist design, as Perry was one of the best at taking the natural landscape and turning it into spectacular golf. It is revered. Jack Nicklaus called it the “Pine Valley” of the West; Ben Crenshaw has called it “golf of the first order.” It has been in the top 100 golf courses in the world for decades, currently sitting at 30 on Golf Magazine’s list. I have never heard one bad thing about the course. For me personally, PD stoked my interest in golf course architecture. In avidly following John Sabino in his quest to play the top 100 golf courses in the world, I read every single one of his reviews. It was then that I realized the personalities courses can have and just how deep it goes in forming your experience during the round. One of the reviews that I couldn’t get out of head was of Prairie Dunes. The photos of the large rolling swales, rich greens that fell off on the sides and the absence of trees, allowing for the wind to alter play and strategy, mesmerized me. The fact that the course was in the middle of Kansas, when it could very well exist on the shores of Scotland, was fascinating. I didn’t know how or when, especially since I know exactly zero Kansasians, but I made a silent vow to get to Hutchinson and be the one playing in the photos. Years went by and I learned more and played more courses until finally, what seemed far fetched at one point was actually happening; I’d get to spend a few days playing Prairie Dunes.
In fact, playing the course is not as far fetched as I’d originally anticipated, as PD follows the British model of allowing non-members to play the course with a proper letter of introduction from their club. There are other clubs of such stature in the U.S. that follow the same model and it’s quite the generous spirit that I found permeating throughout the membership and staff at Prairie Dunes during my stay.
Even though work and family commitments were keeping me very occupied, I took advantage of the fortunate opportunity to play here and made arrangements. Flying to Wichita from Philadelphia meant connecting and sure enough, my connecting flight ended up getting cancelled the day before, so I was re-routed and ended up arriving a little under two hours after I was supposed to. That was still enough for me to miss the morning tee time, but when the staff noticed how feverish I was to get out there, I was allowed to play the front nine to meet up with my host and other guests for lunch. Playing the holes by myself, not really knowing where to hit on some of the shots, was a lot of fun. In fact, I think I used up a lot of my good shots that day on those first holes. At any rate, I was having a blast and getting to know the course. After lunch, I went out with our group and in all, ended up playing a total of 79 holes during my stay.
During those few days and 79 holes, I learned a lot by playing the course and I appreciated it even more after each play. At first, I appreciated the beauty of it but was worried it may play too difficult. I then started realizing the design had a bit of forgiveness, but knowing where misses were accepted was part of the inherent challenge. This was particularly true around the greens. The final round was the best of all, as the weather was pristine, the surroundings were calm and peaceful and the golden rays of sunshine lighting the course as it slowly set gave me several of those tranquil moments that puts the soul at ease. In fact, when the airline called to tell me my flight home was cancelled and couldn’t fly out until the following day, I shrugged, put the phone away, and went about my round as if nothing happened, simply happy I was able to spend more time out there.
The course itself is set on rolling terrain with very few trees, a moderate amount of bunkers and….the gunch. The gunch is this twisted, gnarly, growth that is off the fairway on most of the holes. On most of the holes, if you’re not in the fairway, you’re either in heavy rough, a bunker, or the gunch. The gunch is so deep and as its hard twisted roots and leaves all intertwine with each other, it is near impossible to either find your ball, or if found, actually hit it out of wherever it ended up. In short, the gunch makes it mandatory that you stay in the fairway up to the green if you’d like to score well. The green complexes are some of the very best I’ve seen, with many set on natural hillsides or plateaus and tiering and undulating significantly. The collection areas around the green also slope and are on contours, which adds to the challenge. Hillsides are used to angle tee shots and approach shots, creating blind and semi blind shots, fairways swale, roll and turn, and bunkering is supremely effective in both punishing bad shots and impacting shot decisions. The collection of par 3’s are probably some of the best at any course as well.
I was initially surprised at how difficult Prairie Dunes is. And although the first full round was tough, I saw my score improve after each round, as I started realizing how to play the course. That is the mark of a good design in my opinion, rewarding repeat play and being both subtle and complex enough that the course must be learned to play effective. At the end of the trip, however, I felt like a more enlightened, and fulfilled, golfer.
The First is a 435 yard par 4 (from the Blues). The fairway is set at an angle from the tee, running diagonal from right to left, something we end up seeing often throughout the round, which increases the challenge and strategy off the tee; it becomes more difficult to get your ball on the fairway, shaping your tee shot is a big advantage and some may consider carrying the left side gunch for a closer approach shot. The fairway runs up to the green, which is set on a small hillside and runs from back to front, in tiers and a bowl on the rear back side. Collection areas run off the left and right sides as well.
|Approach shot territory|
|The right side|
|A look at the green, from the left side|
The Second is a 164 yard par 3. The green is set on a terrace on a hillside, with deep bunkers guarding the front left side and right. Anything above the hole on the right or long is extremely tough to get close on the next shot. In fact, aside from sticking my tee shot to 5 feet the first time I played it, I made par when ending up short below the bunkers and getting up and down from there. The green moves from right to left and back to front, with some putts even catching the front left slope and moving off the green. With the variety of the hole and pin positions, this is a tremendous par 3.
The Third is a 315 yard par 4. The fairway is partially in view from the tee and runs diagonal. Options abound as you decide whether to the challenge the left hillside or play it safe with a shorter tee shot. The tee shot is critical but if in the fairway, you have a fairly short into the green protected by bunkers in the front. The green is large and there is a generous short grass area on the far and right sides. The wind, however, can increase the difficulty of this shot exponentially.
|From the tips|
|Approach shot territory|
|The green, from the right side|
|Approach from the right side|
The Fourth is a 168 yard par 3. Similar to the Second, the green is situated on a hillside, a very natural site for a wide yet shallow green that runs very heavily from back to front and right to left. Like most of the holes, wind is a very healthy factor here and while the gunch doesn’t come into play unless you blast it over the green (like me), the carved bunkers and even lone tree on the right can make those recovery shots daunting. Staying below the hole, even short of the hole, would be my play every time.
|Walking down from the tees|
|Approach shot territory|
|A closer look|
The Sixth is a 370 yard par 4. Another elevated tee shot to a fairway that banks to the left. A ridge on the right side of the fairway likewise banks left and is a tempting landing spot off the tee to get a good amount of roll towards the green. The right side also provides a better angle and look at the green, while the left side gets interference by a bunker. The green has a lot of complexity, with rumples and slopes, more severe towards the edges, and some challenging short grass collection areas. Another all world hole, the excitement of which never wavered any of the times I played it.
|Approach shot territory|
|A look at the gunch, unleashed, looking at the Sixth green from the Seventh tee|
|Moving down the fairway|
|A little further back|
|Approach from the left|
|And then a look at the green|
The Eighth is a 440 yard par 4. Alas, the promised land. I’ve always approached courses like most things in life; I like what I like, know what I like and to hell with the rest of it. Even before knowing anything about Prairie Dunes or all that much about course architecture (as opposed to the tine fraction I now know), the rolling large swales of this fairway instantly captured me for two main reasons. I had never seen anything like it and more importantly, the land seemed like it was custom made for thrilling golf. Finally getting here and seeing it for myself, both of those hold true and this fairway is one of my favorite, as it climbs and swales uphill, blocking the view of the green. Once you get to the other side of the ridge, the fairway turns right and climbs uphill to the green, which moves severely from back to right. So so many options here and one of the most difficult approach shots/greens on the course.
|The large swaling fairway. The photo of this fairway with these swales is what first entranced me to this place, right then and there making it a personal crusade to walk this fairway myself|
|Approach shot territory|
|What you see from short right and to get a sense of the steepness|
|Backing up and moving down the fairway from the tee|
|More of the ripples and swales of the fairway|
The Ninth is a 426 yard par 4. The tee shot is elevated as you can see the clubhouse in the background, and more of those swales and ripples (albeit not as large as what we see on the Eighth). I found the tee shot deceptive because while it looks generous and inviting, you really can’t hit it too far to either side without ending up in big trouble. The approach is to a green that slopes from right to left, healthily, with a collection area on the left side. A subtly challenging hole that ends the front nine on a balanced note.
|Approach shot territory from the right rough|
|A look at the green from the left side|
The front nine is sublime. The par 3’s and 4’s are excellent, unique and simply the gold standard as far as I’m concerned. Such ideal terrain for golf and used masterfully. Ranking them for me would go 8, 6, 3, 9, 4, 2, 1, 5, 7.
The back nine starts with the 185 yard par 3 Tenth. The raised green is partially hidden amongst the gunch. There are bunkers on the front right and left sides while the green is wide, with a collection area long left, where you end up walking of the green if you’re walking the course. Your shot is generally blind but the green reveals itself just enough to give you an idea of what you should do.
The Eleventh is a 453 yard par 4. A slightly elevated tee to the fairway that dog legs left, with a prevalent bunker on the left dominating the tee landscape. This hole starts a series of holes designed by Press yet flows seamlessly with the rest of the course, even as the course starts to wander into Cottonwood tree territory. As for this hole, the approach shot will likely be on the longer side and the green is subtle, with bunkers resting on either side. A challenging hole.
|Moving down the fairway|
|Approach shot territory|
|A look at the green from the right side|
The Twelfth is a 395 yard par 4. An elevated tee to a fairway that runs straight to the green with a couple bunkers on each side, then Cottonwood trees closer to the green. There’s also a cut through in the gunch on the right side, connecting the Twelfth and Thirteenth, which became my lifesaver in that numerous tee shots ended up there instead of the gunch. It was uncanny. That was followed by a long approach where I had to carry the trees to the green, which I some how pulled off every time. The green was one of my favorite on the the course, as its potato chip shape twists and tilts from the front, off the sides and to the back. A spectacular par 4.
|Approach shot territory|
The Thirteenth is a 395 yard par 4. I don’t think I’ve ever come across consecutive holes playing identical distances, but the holes play much differently regardless. This dog leg left has bunkers on both sides of the turn, all of which come into play off the tee. The fairway cants from left to right and banks up on the right side as well, while the green is elevated with bunkers on both sides. The green slopes from left to right as well and is another fabulous complex, with pin positions on the left side being especially harrowing.
|Approach shot territory|
|Some of the movement of the fairway and bunkers|
The Fourteenth is a 377 yard par 4. Like the Third, the tee shot is a blind shot, with a dune blocking the view of the fairway sweeping from the right and dog legging to the left, downhill to the green. The green can be seen from the tee and the temptation and deception is there to get your tee shot to the fairway you can see near the green, but many of these tee shots will end up in the bunkers to the left. A smarter play is to hit the tee shot over the dune, hit the downhill, at which point your ball will get a nice roll and a short wedge into the green. The green enters a flock of Cottonwood trees as bunkers line both sides of the fairway leading up to it. The green itself is shaved on the sides and has short grass collection areas on the far and right sides. So many routes to the green and the green itself receives various shots into it, all while the Cottonwoods gently rustle around you. One of my favorite holes.
|Approach shot territory|
|The green, from the right side|
|A look at the fairway from the green|
The Fifteenth is a 200 yard par 3. The tee shot sets narrow as there are Cottonwoods on both sides
tighten the corridor to the green, which is elevated with bunkers on the far and right low side. There is room to miss off to the left of the green, but the chip shot will be running away from you since the green moves from left to right. A longer par 3 where the tee shot is exacting and the difficulty of the recovery shots are likely commensurate with how bad the miss off the tee is, the last par 3 rounds out an all world collection that is in the pantheon with Pine Valley and National.
|A photo of the hole framed in the clubhouse|
The Sixteenth is a 408 yard par 4. The slight dogleg right starts with a bit of a raised tee shot to a wider fairway, which is all about setting up your ideal angle into the green, which ramps from the fairway and has a bunker on either side. Perhaps it’s the clearer views of the horizon from this part of the course, maybe it’s due to coming out of the Cottonwoods, maybe it’s the round starting to get into its finish, but the majesty and tranquility of the landscape really asserts itself here for me. The soul of golf bares itself in places like this and I for one will never tire of the journey to reach them.
|Apparently the original tee shot the hole is off to the right, on a mound in the midst of the gunch|
|Moving down the fairway|
|Approach shot territory, on the right side|
|A little closer and more from center fairway|
|The gunch in its glory|
The Seventeenth is a 500 yard par 5. The tee is set at a bit of an angle from the fairway, but the fairway runs straight to the well pitched green. The gunch on the right seems to come into play a lot more often than it should, especially since there’s plenty of room to miss left. The green is brilliantly challenging, as its smaller size and its run offs on the front and right sides, as well as how fast it moves from back to front and left to right, demands that the prior shots set up the best shot into it. Indeed, I learned after a couple times playing it that it was best to lay off my second shot so that I had a longer shot into the green, which I felt more comfortable holding the green, as opposed to a wedge shot that is higher and if it missed, would more likely be a tougher recovery shot. The green makes it a challenging hole and adds a universe of strategy to it.
|Moving up the fairway|
|Approach shot territory|
|A little further back|
The Eighteenth is a 390 yard par 4. A raised tee shot to the rumpled fairway below that is set a little to the right of the tee area, I found hitting this fairway was more critical than on many other holes. Conversely, hitting the fairway proved more difficult than first impression, as trying to stay safe and left would put the gunch in play on that side, mainly because the fairway moves from right to left. Trying to go up the right side starts flirting with the gunch on that side and I sure found a ton of balls as I trekked through that area looking for my tee shot. The fairway ripples up to the front of the green, which pitches above and is surrounded by bunkers. The green moves from back to front and has a ridge running through the middle, so ending up on the right tier become fairly important as well.
As I putted out on my final hole on the Eighteenth, with the sun setting and calmness of the surroundings in full bloom, I felt like a more enlightened golfer in more ways than one. Prairie Dunes is a special place, laid out by the remarkable craft of father and son, timeless in its brilliance, challenge and charm.
|A great sunset as we teed off on the first day|
|A look at the left side from the tee|
|From afar the gunch is visually appealing, as it is here between the Seventeenth and Eighteenth|
|Approach shot territory|
|Try not to pay attention to those on the patio watching you finish up|
|The rolls of the fairway as they lap up to the green above|
The back nine seems to feature a little more geographical diversity, mainly due to the Cottonwoods, with yet another set of holes that are all different and magnificent. In ranking them, I would go 14, 12, 18, 17, 16, 11, 10, 13, 15.
Generally, Prairie Dunes was a self-fulfilled prophesy and instantly became one of my favorite courses played. The evolution of finding it difficult with trepidation to learning to navigate the difficulty with confidence was worth it alone, but every hole simply fit my overall philosophy of how a course should play, if that makes any sense. While I have deep appreciation for many revered courses, even here, the list is shorter of courses I am truly fond of, meaning courses I would play if I could only play one for the rest of my life. Prairie Dunes is definitely in that category, for how damn diverse, flexible and challenging it is, and how well it plays in the wind. Beyond that, the terrain, bunkers, even the Cottonwoods, are used as effectively as possible, in both play and aesthetics.
Yet another state is played in and for 2017, it was the only new one. It couldn’t have been better.
|A nice look at the Windy City, en route to home|
Gripes: Getting here from Philly proved to be a chore. There are no non-stop flights and on both flights, I had a connecting flight outright cancel. It didn’t cause too much of a hassle and the pains of the journey are well worth it, but next time I will look at nonstop flights from another city.
Bar/Grill: The men’s grill has all the tv’s you need and the food is great. The patio overlooking the Eighteenth with the fire pit is also very nice.
Clubhouse/Pro Shop: The pro shop is large and very well stocked, with lots of deals. I know since we had a rain delay and I spent an hour or so looking around.
Practice area: Natural grass range, short game area and putting green. Spend some time at that putting green!
|Even the gunch taunts you at the driving range|
Getting there: Fly into Wichita and drive an hour north to Hutchinson.
UPDATE – AUGUST 2019
A couple years after playing here for the first time, I returned to enjoy one of my favorites courses. I was able to photograph areas I didn’t fully capture last time yet more importantly, learned more about the course. With more time spent here, and likely with my experience, knowledge and likes/dislikes evolving, my thoughts on the course have changed in a few ways. I still find it to be in the echelon of courses that I feel strongly is one of the better in the world. My initial review says it well.
I was able to spend a few days here and stayed on site. A few holes on the day we arrived, 36 the next day, 36 the day after that and then 9 on the day we left. It was hot and unfortunately, the heat got to me on the second day more than I would have liked. A pall of discomfort grabbed hold of me the next day because of it for a number of reasons. I started finding the course way too penal and unforgiving, even some well hit shots weren’t helping. It throws you off kilter. Mind you, my swing was great but misfortune seemed to strike at all the wrong times. Some holes were in my head. Some always seemed to like me. Aside from the first round, it was a survival test.
The final day, I ended up playing the back nine by myself. It was early morning and aside from a twosome in front of me, had the course to myself. Perhaps it was the solace of the morning, or it was being alone and able to focus, or it was simply the last chance to figure out where I stood here. The fairways showed themselves, an array of shots were used and the ball rolled in the hole. I played the course like I hoped I would, like I had thought of for years. Beyond that, however, the course appeared in a different light to me. Some things you can’t articulate . . . or just shouldn’t. The one word I’d use to describe the course now is, personal.
And with that, the dog days of summer turned. Far off in the distance, I could tell. Fall was coming.
Having now played Prairie Dunes a number of times, it’s certainly a great course to belong to and get into its layers of complexity. It certainly has the capacity to draw the broad spectrum of challenge, tumult and splendor of the game. It’s a driving course, meaning a lot of the challenge comes off the tee. It’s a strategic course, meaning there’s lots of options in how to attack each hole. It is very much a penal course as well, meaning if you stray from the fairway, most of the time you’re dropping or have very little chance at recovery. It’s a very distinct feature to a such a legendary classic, where most courses of that time leaned more towards redemption than purgatory. Yet it is part of its character and more resolve here is necessary than others. As you play it, you begin to understand there are ways to circumvent the calamity of the gunch. Other times, even when you know there is a safe path, you don’t care. You want the strife. Just be prepared for where that road may lead.
While there’s a hole by hole review above like I always do, the following are my quick thoughts on the course by memory as I sit here, without looking at what I wrote above and without having read it for a while. I’ll leave it as I write it, then go back and see what’s the same or different.
The First is a nice opening test in terms of the tee shot. Set at an angle to the fairway, there’s a lot of safety right in front of you, but the more adventerous will take on the gunch on the left for a blind shot. Pulling it off means a nice short approach into the green but there’s a lot more gunch than you can see from the tee. Others will hit it straight and through the fairway while others slicing it or going too far right will have a very long approach in. A right to left tee shot fits in very well, revealing the green and allowing flexibility in how to advance. The green is a masterpiece, rippling and rolling, its run off areas hitting all the right notes with it.
The Second, again, makes you think at the tee. A par 3, it’s easy enough to aim for the center of the green, but that’s not right since its movement will push the shot left, maybe even off the green itself. No, you have to aim more right, to the blind side of the green and bring in the native area, and bunkers on that side into play. While right is the best line, left is a much better place to miss, leaving you below the green and the hole. The green is in as natural place as you could ever hope for and shows how sublime minimalism can be when done right.
The Third, yet again, is all about the tee shot. You’re now higher than the fairway in line with a hillside of gunch, the fairway running right to left. A shorter, safer tee shot is to the visible part of the the fairway, leaving a longer yet still manageable approach. The green is reacheable from the tee, so long as you know where to hit it since the green is blind at that point. Splitting the difference between these two, taking something less than driver yet hitting to the blind area of the fairway, leaves you with a shorter approach. My advice, aim more right than you think you need to. That gunch hillside is yet another marvel of minimalism, giving this hole all the complexity it needs. While shorter, the approach is a tricky one. Most will opt to go aerial over the bunkers but using the ground and the smaller entry point is smart.
The Fourth is the second par 3, this time the green above you. Another natural site for a green in the crook of a hillside and a menacing lone tree on the right, the movement of the green is the star here. Where the ball lands is insignificant, it’s where it will end up. The Fourth is my friend. While the prior holes have been good and bad to me, the Fourth is always there to set me right.
The Fifth is the first hole that is right in front of you, a nice wide and juice fairway to hit from the elevated tee. Except for the cant of the fairway, which has you aiming to the left side, where the bunkers lurk. Hitting it straight means your ball will end up in the rough on the right, leaving a tough and long approach. You must wager with the bunkers. The approach will be long regardless and club up. There’s a lot more wind up near the green and the hill upon which it rests is higher than it looks.
The Sixth is a much more elevated tee shot than the Fifth and while it seems generous, it’s surprising how many tee shots end up off to the right. I’m not sure what laying up off the tee gets you since I’m doing this off memory, but I want to say there is gunch before the fairway and a hill that makes that option fairly off putting. It’s a great green as well, moving back to front and makes approaches in very challening.
The Seventh hates me. One of the toughest tee shots on the course, you have to hit it far and you have to hit the fairway for any chance. This is one hole that could do well with more manageable off fairway ares but I’m not sure it’s possible. Off fairway right is much better than off fairway left. The second shot is all you can handle, again needing to stay on the fairway or else. The green is in a cool amphitheater spot, surrounded by bunkers. There’s some bail out area right. Three near perfect shots are necessary just for a shot at par. I don’t think I’ve ever played it well.
The Eighth has these amazing large ripples that actually helped ignite my interest in course architecture. So well used, the fairway climbs and ripples, then turns right and up to the green. The tee shot is yet another very tough one. And no, laying short and safe is not an option, the second shot would be blind and way too long. The fairway tilts to the right, so you need to aim to the left. You can find your ball if you miss it in general. Yet it’s the second shot that’s really difficult. Likely blind and long, it takes knowing the line to the green. And your lie will be an adjustment. It’s one of my favorite holes on the course and usually beats me up, regardless of how well or poorly I hit my shots.
The Ninth, yet again, is an elevated tee shot to a wide open fairway but you need to aim left to accomodate the fairway movement. More fantastic rippling of the fairways leading to the green. The Ninth is also my friend, the approach is one I typically nail. I don’t know why but as the saying goes, it fits my eye.
Th front nine essentially uses two ridges; one that has the First green at its bottom, the entire Second, the Third tee, the Fifth green and the Sixth tee, while the other has the Fourth green, Fifth tee, wraps around to the Eighth green and Ninth tee. Masterful routing.
Now back at the clubhouse, the Tenth tees off on its backside, near the Eighteenth green, and pool. Time to venture back out and the tee shot is partially blind. I always go middle of the green here and either rattle the pin or end up having to drop. It’s all carry and blind for the most part. I like to favor a miss to the right.
The Eleventh is a maddening tee shot. No where to hide and all about angles. I just started aiming for the bunker on the left and hoped my ball leaked off to the right to get in the fairway. Center or right center is the best spot to land yet it’s easy to end up too far right. Pro tip, there’s a trail on that side so while it may look like you ended up in gunch land from the tee, keep an eye on your ball and look for it. It will likely be on that trail with a nice lie to boot. The second shot is a long one and the green extraordinary. There’s also some room around the green that gives one comfort.
The Twelfth is another one of my good friends. Now this is the nine that Press built and his introduction of trees is one of the ways the back nine is different than the front. Here, the trees narrow the corridor of the approach and confounds off the tee; to lay up so you’re far enough away to carry them or get close or past them to take them out of play? The green is yet another brilliant one, a potato chip shape that runs off the back side, a different shot altogether depending on what side of it you’re on.
The Thirteenth is a tough tee shot even though it doesn’t look like it. Getting it out to the right helps with the next shot to the green and if well executed, the approach should be easy enough to another brilliant green. But hitting that right line off the tee is quite the challenge.
The Fourteenth incorporates more of what we see off the tee on the front nine. Half the battle of deciding where to hit your tee shot means knowing the right lines of where to go since most of the fairway is blind. The part that you can see is near impossible to reach even though it doesn’t look that way. But going more to the right and hitting the downhill fairway means you should have a nice short approach into the green, which sits below those whispering Cottonwoods that add an entirely different dimension to the course. This corner, as well as the corner of the Twelfth green/Thirteenth tee, give the course distinction. We have the hills that provide variety yet the trees, and their different types, appear throughout the course of the round and add a different type of variety. Whether it’s the lone tree at the Fourth, those that shade you at the Seventh tee, those behind the Eleventh green and these corners, they provide variety, inflection in strategy and even at times an oasis from the sweltering or windswept prairie depending on the weather. The trees are most distinct here at the Fourteenth green and Fifteenth tee, imposing but not insistent. The Fourteenth is an intricate hole and like the Third, the hillside and tee placement is pure brilliance.
The Fifteenth starts the march home. The longest par 3 on the course and uphill, my tendency here is to hit it past the green which is the worst possible spot. I started to underclub significantly even happy if I ended up short of the green because at least then I have a manageable wedge in. The hole treated me well during my first visit but on my second, it gave me fits. Left of the green leaves you with a tough chip, so does the rear of the green if you can even find your ball. Short and right is a better miss but the green is large enough that it should be an easy enough hole before you face the beefy closing trio.
Moving from the Fifteenth green to the Sixteenth tee gets you over what I call the Cottonwood corner of the property and to me, represents a transition in the landscape and style of the course. Now wide open, the course invites you to belt away, which is actually necessary with how long these holes are. The caveat is don’t go off the fairway. It’s wide enough but the gunch is lurking on the right and treeline is to the left.
On that final day out there by myself, my tee shot in the fairway, I hit my approach within a few feet. I looked around and for some reason, realized I was the only one on the course, or at least the back nine. I mention this in my year review but from this fairway, you can see a lot of the course out to the right and with the sun out and not a cloud in sight, dew still on the grass and the naturescape in its morning routine, it was one of those moments that stay with you. Whether it’s the universe opening itself briefly or something else, it was vivid and profound. Taking that in and coming to a kind of peace out there, I did what any golfer would do. Appeciate it and move on to the next shot. Always the next shot. One more shot of more experience, one more shot of enjoyment, of travail, of comedy. One more shot closer to that next moment of zen.
The Seventeenth is similar to the Sixteenth in that the fairway is wide and hitting it is critical but since it’s a par 5, you can lay up in name of hitting it straight and still have another shot to get into manageable approach shot territory. The grace of the Sixteenth and Seveteenth ends to the thrilling finish of the Seventeenth approach and Eighteenth. The Seventeenth green is the toughest approach on the course. The green, rising above the fairway, falls off into oblivion on the front right and really the right side entirely. Bunkers are on the left. It’s not all that large. And once you’re on it, putting is a delicate matter. It’s spectacular in its challenge.
Then there’s the Eighteenth. The tee shot has my number. My host loves telling the story of my first trip out, I hit a tee shot in the gunch out to the right. I couldn’t find the ball. The next day, I hit my tee shot in the same area. I ended up finding that ball, which was 6 inches away from my ball from the day prior. If anything, I’m consistent with my misses. The tee shot is lined up with that gunch on the right, so you need to aim out to the left but of course too far left and you’re blocked out and even worse, might need to take a drop. At some point I resorted to a 3 wood off the tee and faded it, leaving me with a longer approach but that was better than the gunch. I’m convinced a fade is the only answer even though a draw over the gunch hitting the right side of the fairway and rolling towards center seems ideal. The approach is similarly confounding, the elevated green well shaped and moving quickly to the left. The clubhouse, patios and sitting areas are all out to the left and many will sit and watch the groups close out their round.
A realistic reflection of Prairie Dunes is that it is a magnificent course. Its design history between father and son, its sophistication and interaction with the terrain upon which it sits, the game it invokes throughout the round and even where it’s located in the Midwest all make for a rich and distinct golf experience from any where else in the world. With that said, it’s fairly easy to miss all that if you’re lost in the gunch all day. The penal element here is significant. While the right thing to do is look past what’s on the score card and enjoy what you can, the course certainly has the potential to erode even the most effusive personas. Such is life and such is golf. My advice is to keep grinding no matter what. The road to glory can get treacherous and even those times of strife in the gunch that may seem to last forever will pass, salvation waiting.