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Courses We Love: Prairie Dunes

Prairie Dunes

Driving through the dead flat southern Kansas countryside towards Hutchinson leaves you wondering how a top 20 golf course could ever be built in this part of the country, but once you get a few miles from the club, you can’t but wonder why there aren’t a dozen courses here.  The sand dunes just appear out of nowhere and they are beautiful, rolling dunes covered in scrub and cottonwood trees.  You know you are in for a special day playing Prairie Dunes, but when you pull off 30th Ave and on to Prairie Dunes Rd, the giant dune that dominates the front nine is a bit overwhelming in its scale.  It’s huge!  And the contrast between the green grass and the browning ‘gunch’ as they call the native prairie grasses is just a beautiful site to behold.  You have arrived at Perry Maxwell’s masterpiece and you are in for a treat.

From the course website:

Emerson Carey, founder of Carey Salt Company, was an avid golfer and had traveled the world with his family, playing top ranked courses in the early 1900s including Scotland in the 1920s. Carey and his four sons became a staple in the Hutchinson golf community, contributing to the development of several courses in the area. In 1935 the Carey family commissioned architectural genius Perry Maxwell (Southern Hills, Colonial Country Club, redesign of Pine Valley and Augusta National) to design a masterpiece. Thus, the idea of Prairie Dunes was born.

Maxwell’s response to the 480 acre canvas for his masterpiece, “There are 118 holes here, and all I have to do is eliminate 100”.

Thus, construction began on Prairie Dunes. The course was molded from the Kansas land using 18 horses and mules, Fresno scrapers and wheelbarrows. The only mechanized equipment used were Model T and Model A Fords used to bring the workers to the site. Greens and fairways came to life by teams dragging plows and scoops, while roots of native grass and weeds were removed by hand-one wheelbarrowful at a time. In true Kansas fashion, a tornado swept across the site, forcing men into a bunker for protection. Despite the elements, Prairie Dunes opened the first 9 holes on September 13, 1937. Twenty years later in 1957, The Dunes opened the second 9 holes, designed by Perry Maxwell’s son, Press.

The original Perry nine holes include the 1st, 2nd, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 17th and 18th, while it is alleged that Press used Perry’s plans to complete the remaining 9 holes, there is a bit of a distinction in the two nines.  Perry Maxwell, famous for his Perry rolls, in our opinion, created a more interesting set of greens, while Press’s greens are bit more subdued.  However, we are really splitting hairs here in comparing 9 of the best greens in golf to 9 other world class greens.

Some of the standout holes:

Photo Credit: The Fried Egg

#1 - 452 yard par 4

Photo Credit: The Fried Egg

The opening hole swings to the left with a big dune blocking your view of the green from the tee.  Almost always playing into the wind, you’re asked on the first tee how much you want to cut off the dogleg to shorten your approach?  The bunker in the distance is out of reach for almost all golfers, but provides a good aiming point for your tee shot.  The mowing lines at Prairie Dunes are a bit of a controversial topic as there is a lot of rough on the left side of the fairway that at one time was fairway before the club narrowed the fairway for tournament golf.  The 1st hole is also your first look at Perry’s famous rolls.  Instead of ledges, Perry creates a ton of interest with small mounds in the greens that can propel your ball towards or away from a hole location, depending on your line.  The first green is an awesome representation of Perry’s greatness.

Photo Credit: The Fried Egg

#2 - 164 yard par 3

The first of a great set of par 3s at Prairie Dunes is the second.  The green is set at a diagonal and usually plays with a hard left-to-right wind, which is contrary to the angle of the green.  The green itself is set into the side of a massive dune and slopes hard from back-to-front.  There are two deep bunkers set in the front of the green that you want no part of, and we can tell you that from experience!  Par is a good score here.

#5 - 438 yard par 4

After a short par 4 and another par 3, you climb up to the top of a huge dune on the 5th for one of the toughest holes on the front nine.  A beautiful elevated tee shot dead into the prevailing wind greets you here.  Finding the fairway is a must as you’ll be facing a ~200 yard approach uphill to an elevated green with a deep nasty bunker on the right and left and more gunch on the dune to the left.  The green slopes hard back to front and par here is a great score.

#6 - 387 yard par 4

The 6th along with the 8th were definitely our favorite holes on the front nine.  After playing the 5th, you continue up the hill a bit and are greeted with the view above and a receptive fairway for the 6th.  Avoiding the bunker on the left is a must as a drive down the right side leaves the golfer with a better angle and view of the green.  The bunker in front of the green is a bit of an illusion as it site some 15 yards short of the green.

#8 - 468 yard par 4

The 8th is one of the most unique holes we have ever played…and toughest par 4s.  There is a huge dune ridge at about 300 yards from the Blue tees that separates this hole.  Beyond the ridge, the fairway drops and then rises back up to the right to the green set into the large dune that dominates much of the front nine.  Most players will hit there tee shot on the ridge and have an award uphill side hill lie to the green.  Hitting this green in two is incredibly difficult…we didn’t.  Of course once you get on the green, two putts is not as easy on one of the most severe greens on the course with nearly 4 feet of elevation change!

#12 - 390 yard par 4

The 10th and 11th holes bring you into a different section of the property northeast of the clubhouse where cottonwood trees are a bit more prevalent.  The 12th is one of Press’ standout holes.  Hiking up a dune about 70 feet tall gives the golfer excellent views of the entire back nine.  Playing dead down wind with two stands of large trees on either side of the fairway, a straight accurate long iron or fairway wood will leave most golfers a wedge into this green, which challenges the player to control the spin on their ball in order not to roll through the back due to the wind.

#14 - 370 yard par 4

The 14th is a bit of misdirection on this dogleg left par 4.  The green and bunkers short of the green are the only thing visible on the tee shot with the correct line of play being a blind shot over the dunes to the fairway.  Our host told us at the Big 12 championships that they moved the tee up and players were hitting irons to the green, but still making doubles!

#17 - 519 yard par 5

Playing only 519 yards, you’d think this would be a gettable par 5, but with one of the smallest most severe greens on the course at 3,400 sqft and always dead into the prevailing wind makes this hole is no push over.  There are no bunkers on this hole save for the one by the green, but the green is set into a hillside with a steep drop off to the right.  Miss your approach right and you’ve got an incredibly tough up and down as the green is incredibly narrow and drops off sharply on the right and front of the green.

We have to say all 18 holes are standouts at Prairie Dunes and it was such an incredible treat for us to be able to play there.  It is such an imminently walkable course and only the 2nd round we got out with the Walker Trolley prototype for testing.  Comment below if you’ve played Prairie Dunes.  Which hole was your favorite?

 

3 comments

  • If I could be a member of any club in America, this would be the one. One of my favorite golf courses in America!!!

    Jerry
  • Hey Tim, great round! Wish we could say the same! Was the first round we took out the Walker Trolley and except for the stairs on 5, it was a great course for a push cart. Was blowing 30+ and the gaunch was just unforgiving!

    Walker Trolleys
  • Played PD yesterday, 29Aug and felt the same awe as you describe driving in the entrance. The way the holes run within the dunes and tees / greens are generally perched into and on rises makes good tee shots look majestic and gives every approach shot the plus pucker factor. You just have to commit and execute. The design forces you to make a shot decision; then trust it.

    Can’t think of another world class course that is a relatively small-town county club with all the included club amenities. Could be, just can’t think of one.

    A bucket list course for sure. Our threesome walked and carried our clubs on the 90degree day. Being 66yrs young, once I got through the 4th hole, the bag felt lighter. 12 pars, 5 bogeys, eagle on #7.

    Tim Pope

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