Rising Above the Plain

Prairie Dunes recently hosted the Broken Tee Society and cemented its stellar reputation
Prairie Dunes

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The golf world is smaller than we think. I’ve been lucky to play some incredible courses, and over the years I’ve learned that the person next to you on a plane or at the doctor’s office could very well be holding a gilded invitation to the next bucket list spot. In my experience, “Where are you from?” is the best place to start. If they say Los Angeles, you reply with “Oh, have you ever played Riviera or LACC?” Make enough friendly introductions, and you’re bound for a good bounce. 

If you’re chasing the elite, then you’re hoping for someone to say Boston, Chicago or—fingers and toes crossed—Long Island. But allow me to add another spot to that list: Hutchinson, Kansas.

The Broken Tee Society recently went to “Hutch”—located in Reno County, Kansas, 51 miles northwest of Wichita’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Airport—to find out why. I’m fortunate enough to be a member at Prairie Dunes Country Club, and, as I’ve seen so many times before, it exceeded expectations.

Prairie Dunes is a well-established top-30 (or higher) course in all of golf’s various ranking systems, and that was the plan from the start. It began as a dream of Emerson Carey. According to the club’s website, “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.” 

The Careys had acquired a parcel where they wanted the course, but when Maxwell arrived, he told them to buy a nearby property instead. The Careys listened, and that’s where the rumpled, linksy fairways of Prairie Dunes sit today. “There are 118 holes here,” Maxwell once said of the 480-acre canvas, “and all I have to do is eliminate 100.” Decades later, the great design team of Coore & Crenshaw said something similar about the land in Mullen, Nebraska, where they crafted Sand Hills.

Hutchinson is a town of around 40,000 people that supports the agri-businesses in the region. Approaching city limits, you can’t miss the stories-high grain elevator complexes dotting the skyline—they’re the tallest structures for miles. The silos were there when I made my first trip to Hutchinson about 15 years ago, and I fell in love with Prairie Dunes on the first hole: I made eagle-2, jarring a 5-iron from 185 yards. After I bounced my tee ball off the flagstick on the second and made the 8-inch putt for a second consecutive 2, I asked where the membership office was.

A few years after I joined, I began bringing guests each May for an early-season golf orgy. We’d play eight to 10 rounds over four or five days on the recently thawed Kansas plains, sometimes in wind gusts approaching 50 miles per hour. I’ve witnessed several guys getting a bit crusty after making a few unexpected big numbers. On one trip following a post-round lunch, the sky turned nasty shades of black and gray. Now what? My guests decided a long nap would be ideal and headed back to the hotel. My son, Cameron, and I decided to find out what Hutch had to offer outside the PD gates.

Driving into town, we noticed a sign for something called Strataca. We’d never heard of it, but were pleasantly surprised to discover one of the largest underground salt mines in the United States, stretching more than 150 miles, open for public exploration. We sloshed our way inside the building from the rain and signed up for the two-hour tour, which took us 650 feet below ground in an original six-ton mining hoist. The 30 people in our group queued up in front of the black iron doors and ambled inside. Our guide welcomed us, closed the accordion-style door, and then turned out all of the lights. 

Pitch black doesn’t describe the color. It was darker than that. I’m brave, but I’m also crazy claustrophobic. My skin crawled and I broke out into a freaked-out sweat for the 90 seconds we descended. What the hell was I doing? This wasn’t disclosed on the brochure! But the trip to what felt like the center of the earth was worth it. 

Why is there a salt mine in Kansas, you ask? About 85 million years ago, Kansas was covered by a shallow body of water called the Western Interior Sea, which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean and from the Rockies to the Appalachians. Kansas was underwater for about 70 million years, thus the massive salt deposit under Hutchinson. Today, Hutch is known as “The Salt City.” That sea, along with the subsequent geological shifts over the resulting years, led to the ground that makes Prairie Dunes such a special place. 

It can truly be felt on PD’s greens. Assuming par is 72, a “perfect” round of par golf, of course, is 72 shots. That implies that you will take 36 shots from the teeing ground or fairway and 36 putts on the 18 greens. So, if you are playing a modern, cookie-cutter course, half of your day will be spent on putts that break no more than 2 inches right or left—putts you barely bend over to read. I find that unacceptable. Greens are the heart and soul of a golf course and, if you follow my theory, Prairie Dunes has one of the biggest hearts in the game. I’ve made it a life goal to play at some of the world’s best courses, and I believe the 18 greens at Prairie rival any course in the world. Yes, my friends at Oakmont have a legitimate argument, but there is a tiny fraternity of courses which could join them. 

Prairie Dunes’ upside-down Lay’s potato chip green complexes are epic. Hitting one in regulation doesn’t come close to guaranteeing a par; it doesn’t even guarantee you’ll still be on the green after the first putt. The best part is that the PD agronomy team doesn’t run them at mind-numbing Stimpmeter speeds. They don’t have to. If I was a golf course architect, I’d sneak onto Prairie Dunes, laser all of the green complexes, and rebuild them on my next design. Why try to improve upon perfection?

Though I have a feeling that the front pin on No. 17 left more than a couple BTS Members scarred for life, they generally agreed with me. I’ve never been at an event where the entire field was grinning from ear to ear like our group of 100 did that day. Even those who got a bit beat up on this glorious track were ready to jump out for another crack. PD’s a club where the oft-mentioned but rarely played Emergency 9 is standard protocol. I think if the sun could hover over Hutchinson, guests and members alike would never come in for dinner.

We eventually did return to the clubhouse, and I asked the group one of my favorite post-round questions: What’s the worst hole at Prairie Dunes? After a lengthy silence, a few brave souls offered up their thoughts. Nobody had the same answer, and no one sounded confident in their choice. Which made me more sure than ever that Prairie Dunes belongs in any bucket-list conversation.