Trial by Fire

Brough Creek National isn’t some handmade one-off. It’s Ben Hotaling’s model for the future
Brough Creek National, Mark Robinson

In a town famous for its low-and-slow barbecue, the lingering scent of hardwood smoke seemed ever present. Open-burn season was just two weeks away, but the Missouri River was over its banks and the most recent snowmelt was mere days ago. The ground was soft—saturated, in fact. And there was more rain in the forecast. The odds of setting Wyandotte County, Kansas, on fire in the month of March were quite long. Or so I was told.

“You ever seen a flamethrower in person? Check out this shit!”

Ben Hotaling cranked on the propane tank’s rusty valve with abandon, using the full torque of his wrist and elbow. But when he shifted his focus to the thumbscrew on the wand, his precision became surgical. 

Hotaling and Zach Brough (pronounced “Bruff”), along with close friends Evan Bissell, Mark Robinson and Jeff Dunn, compose the upstart design-build firm known as Some Guy’s Backyard. What started as a message-board thread—on which Hotaling wondered aloud about what it would take to hand-build a rudimentary chipping range in a Kansas field adjacent to Brough’s family homestead—has spawned a legitimate business enterprise, a merchandise craze in the golf Twittersphere and, if things go as planned, a small-ball design-build revolution.

The five friends are drawn together not necessarily by their passion for golf-course architecture, or even by the game itself. Brough, for example, will readily tell you that he has three full rounds of golf to his name. So why let his post-college roommate build a seven-hole course on his property? What’s more, why invest hundreds of hours of his own time and thousands of dollars of his own money into feeding Hotaling’s preternatural golf obsession?

“We were bored,” Brough shrugged. “I always wanted to clear out some of the trees and open up the creek to some sunlight for my panels”—Brough is a solar engineer by day—“but when Ben sold me on golf-course frontage…” His words trailed off and a wry smile appeared in the corner of his mouth. Brough’s back porch now overlooks all seven holes of an increasingly popular golf course.

As Hotaling made infinitesimal adjustments to the propane flow on his flamethrower, the hissing sound was subject to disproportionate tonal shifts. To Hotaling’s trained ear, the instrument was almost in tune. This ritual captivated the gathering Jayhawk crowd. When it struck just the right pitch, he abruptly snapped a lighter and—POOF! A yellow flame exploded into the hazy dusk.

Hotaling then carefully sauntered over to light Black Betty’s funeral pyre. She’d been dead for days. No one had mourned her.

Ben Hotaling leads the BCN crew, which includes Mark Robinson, Evan Bissell, Hotaling and Zach Brough
Ben Hotaling leads the BCN crew, which includes Mark Robinson, Evan Bissell, Hotaling and Zach Brough.

Flamethrowers of all types are second nature to Hotaling. When it comes to golf opinions, he’s practically an arsonist.

“Are we really in the ‘second golden age’ of golf architecture?” Hotaling posited, unprompted and using air quotes for emphasis, as he chauffeured me from the airport to downtown Kansas City, Kansas, for my first taste of the local delicacy. We’d known each other for five minutes, but this was clearly his version of small talk. 

“I mean, I’d argue that GCA is fucked! Totally wrong direction. The only new courses being built are on perfect land at destination sites by architects everyone already knows. And they do most of the restorations, too.”

I was inclined to point out the universal acclaim so many of these recent courses have enjoyed, but he was on a roll. 

“Why does every site need to be sandy? Why do I have to go to Oregon or Wisconsin or Scotland or New Zealand to see the places where the ‘purest form of the game’ is played? 

No. We need to see more construction on shitty sites. We need to start pushing the envelope in places no one expects it.”

These opinions are, frankly, arrogant for a 26-year-old aspiring golf architect with approximately 60% of a completed seven-hole golf course making up his entire design portfolio. Yet I felt like I was riding shotgun with a more brazen form of Tom Doak from the early 1990s. I found myself eager to bottle up the spicy takes and drizzle them on my upcoming meal.

Hotaling was so fired up that he missed our turn and was forced to round the block before we arrived at Joe’s Famous Kansas City BBQ. According to Hotaling—and many others—the best barbecue in the Midwest is found at a gas station. The line out the door at 1:30 p.m. on a Thursday indicated we were in the right place.

He may be an amateur architect, but Hotaling is a pro at ordering brisket. Not only did he make the perfect introductory selection—the Z-Man Sandwich topped with two fried onion rings, provolone and pickles—but he was wise enough to call it in ahead of time. 

We skipped right to the counter past a few side-eye glances and grabbed our order. “This is where the magic happens,” he said as he pointed to the homemade-sauce dispenser. I maneuvered around the folks crowding the counter and made a beeline for the spiciest sauce; one pump and the pungent aroma of ghost peppers stung the back of my throat.

In between bites of overflowing sandwich, he explained the origins of this project—Brough Creek National Golf Club, a joke bestowed upon the property by Hotaling and Brough that stuck—and his vision for the Some Guy’s Backyard golf construction company that now occupies the front of his mind during every waking hour. Hotaling’s passion is not fleeting or forced; he’s got a plan to turn this into a full-time career.

Hotaling launched this old-school project in the most modern way: He created a thread on the message board of No Laying Up’s website, asking for ideas on how to build a shaggy green and a few tee boxes in the parts of Brough’s property already cleared of trees. The reaction was instant and overwhelmingly positive. Users flooded the thread, most of them longing for the land, time, resources and motivation to build their own personal golfing playground. The encouragement motivated Hotaling to take this project even more seriously.

The thread raced up to a few hundred posts. When it turned to users suggesting they would want to become members of “The National,” Hotaling and the boys set about creating a logo, got it on stickers and ball markers and personally mailed membership acceptance letters to anyone who applied and could muster the lifetime initiation cost of zero dollars. 

Engagement increased exponentially as Hotaling’s constant, in-depth updates on social media provided color and candor to the highs and lows of building a golf course from scratch with no prior experience. His willingness to answer questions in detail and respond to so many interested followers gave users an unprecedented level of access to an architect in the muddy trenches of a build; the trial-and-error approach added to the overall intrigue.

Soon, the membership expressed an interest in merchandise, which led to hats, headcovers, shirts and more, all bearing the Brough Creek National imprint. More than 3,000 posts later, the thread now serves as a virtual town hall for BCN’s 900-plus members around the world—many of whom have traveled hundreds of miles to see the property, lend some sweat equity into the build and, lately, play the routing in its roughed-in form.

In August 2018, Hotaling’s horizons broadened further after visits to the Sandbox at the Sand Valley Golf Resort and the Horse Course at the Prairie Club. Seeing the success of these short courses, combined with the enthusiasm for the one he was building, made him realize this was no backyard one-off. Short courses could be created anywhere; he was proving it every day. 

Today, Hotaling sees Brough Creek National as his proof of concept, home office and testing ground. His goal is to build dozens of short courses in Brough Creek National’s image—spirited and lively public golf parks with community-centric ownership in parts of the country often deprived of publicly accessible and architecturally impressive courses.

The recipe for each bespoke course would take the shape of the land given, combining the principles of golden-age architecture with virtuous minimalism. The formula Hotaling envisions is the vibe of Goat Hill Park, the architectural interest of the Winter Park 9, the shared community maintenance of Canal Shores and the indifference to par of Ohoopee Match Club. Marinate, brûlée with a flamethrower and let it slow cook down to a pitch-and-putt scale. 

“We’re minimalist by necessity,” Hotaling said. “We’ve been given a remarkable gift in this piece of land, but the maintenance has to be sustainable in the long haul.” It’s a concept that he fervently believes is translatable to the projects he hopes to win in the future. Message boards and members have expressed a broader appetite for more communally owned and maintained small-ball masterpieces like BCN: elegant in their simplicity, pliable for setup variations and maintainable on a shoestring budget.

He sees the biggest hurdle as finding able-bodied disciples—volunteers, in all likelihood—to take his directives as he oversees the construction of the new courses. Convincing a few of his college buddies to give their spare time was an easy sell. But what about when the next course is some other guy’s backyard in West Virginia? Or Indiana? While Hotaling doesn’t have those details completely hammered out, he assures me he’s working on a plan. I believe him.

As their concept continues to attract attention, the boys behind BCN no longer see it as a one-and-done proposal. If all goes according to plan, the template they create will serve as a blueprint for anybody’s field of dreams.
As their concept continues to attract attention, the boys behind BCN no longer see it as a one-and-done proposal. If all goes according to plan, the template they create will serve as a blueprint for anybody’s field of dreams.

It may have been late-onset barbecue lethargy, but the drive from downtown to Brough Creek National was quieter than the rapid-fire ride from the airport. This time, it was the terrain that caught me off guard: Kansas City is not nearly as flat as one might imagine. As we got closer to the course, the rolling land and a healthy mix of evergreens and deciduous trees basking in spring-afternoon sun gave the place plenty of character.

The club’s namesake creek is laser straight for at least a half-mile as it moves parallel down Northwest 79th Street, slowly dribbling toward the Missouri River only a few hundred yards away. But, in a remarkable gift from the golf gods, when it reaches the land owned by Brough, the creek twists into four 90-degree corners that carve out brilliant natural green sites and leave exposed limestone bluffs gently adorned with spongy moss and softly dripping with geologic history.

In our first lap around the course, the most striking realization is how much work, nearly all of it by hand, has gone into merely clearing enough brush off the ground from a heavily wooded area in which to play an aerial game. Acres of brambles, vines, kudzu and gravel had to be cut and removed, often one armful at a time. Each back-breaking bushel made its way to one of two large burn piles: one high upon the bluff where the fourth tee would eventually be located and one in the lower third of the property, near the second green.

Rakes, gloves, boots, brute strength and cold beer were the main ingredients that made this recipe work. Usually the boys would take turns operating the chainsaw, slicing the vines and brambles into workable pieces that the others could then rip from the ground. Once enough space was cleared around a tree that needed to be cut, the same process would repeat itself until the logs became kindling for the burn piles. The fact that Hotaling’s team has made this much progress is truly a testament to their commitment to the project, spurred by the unforeseen interest so many others have taken in its success. 

At the time of my visit, the ground had been cleared enough for some dirt golf. We grabbed a few old Ping Eye wedges and a paint bucket full of scuffed balls. The sheer joy on Hotaling and Brough’s faces when I asked if we could play the course was worth the trip.

The first hole of BCN is a scale model of the 15th at Banff Springs Golf Club (which architect Stanley Thompson intended to be the first hole at his Canadian classic, starting adjacent to the patio of the grand hotel with rushing water below). Having played Banff six months previous, it was not lost on me how dramatic Thompson’s original vision must have been—standing at elevation and blasting the opening shot off the edge of the Earth. The same feeling stirred immediately upon pegging one high atop the bluff next to Brough’s house with the creek’s water gurgling below. A mere 60 yards, playing much shorter adjusted for the decline in elevation, “Brough Start,” as the hole has been lovingly christened, is the perfect opener for this par-3 paradise.

The hole that most astutely showcases the growing array of Hotaling’s design-build skills is the fourth, a downhill 120-yard shot into a green that features a Biarritz-style swale in the front third, a flat middle third and a punchbowl on the back third, neatly tucked into the graded corner where Brough’s driveway meets 79th Street. The fun of this hole is a shot to the back portion of the green that will gather and funnel back toward the middle; a pin in the center of the bowl is sure to render some aces.

The fourth green fits perfectly in the natural saddle where it sits, but to render the landforms took substantial work and dump-truck loads of loamy, sandy top dressing. Hotaling, Brough and their crew utilized crowdfunded resources (a January-to-May 2019 fundraising blitz on GoFundMe netted $15,000 from online followers) to purchase dirt, zoysia seed, sod and the machinery needed to finish shaping and construction in time for a spring and summer grow-in.

The most dramatic elevation change is found on the uphill sixth hole. A natural high-right kicker feeds balls to a lower-middle portion and a lower-still left-hand side of the green. The surface is blind from the tee, some 70 yards away, but the top of the flagstick remains a visible guidepost no matter its location on an oblong green that is wider than it is deep. 

The striking feature of this hole is the twofold visual deception. First, it is hard to come to grips with the abrupt and prominent ridge encapsulating the green. Second, due to the invisible green surface and the large wall of trees that seem to be directly behind the flag, many players will have an internal dialogue standing on the tee about the true size of the landing zone. 

Of course, there is substantial depth to the green—more than enough to provide a margin of error. In truth, the only miss is long, as a ball that fails to crest the summit will roll all the way back down to the creek, rendering any recovery almost impossible. A high-trajectory moon ball is the most prudent play.

The sixth hole was found, not built, at least regarding the terrain itself. But the plateau was ardently shrouded in the sprawling offshoots of the most defiant obstacle of all: Black Betty. 

Brough Creek National, Ben Hotaling
Armed with a flamethrower and an internal fire, Ben Hotaling leads the BCN crew, which includes Mark Robinson, Evan Bissell, Hotaling and Zach Brough.

In her prime, Betty was a knockout of a black walnut tree: tall, but not too slender; leggy, with bodacious curves. But time takes its toll on all living things. More than just interfering with any viable route from tee to green, she had succumbed to old age, and her rotting limbs hung precariously over the zigzagging playing surface below, becoming a safety issue as much as a golf annoyance.

“We can’t build the course if we’re dead!” The sarcastic drip of Hotaling’s comment hung in the air, and as the pyre began to crackle in the intense heat of the fire, it was clear his pride was a bit diminished. Black Betty was beyond their scope; they had to call the professionals to have her removed. Brough and Hotaling have grown to love cutting down trees, and certainly would have preferred to handle the honor. With so much of the work done themselves, bringing in hired help felt almost like cheating.

But in addition to learning how to run a business, Hotaling has become adept at making more-responsible decisions in the field, not unlike some of the star architects he follows. His focus remains making Brough Creek National the best possible version of itself, one small step at a time. Hotaling admits to feeling some external pressure to deliver on the concept after so many people—including donors, but, equally as important, his close friends and work crew—have bought into his vision. He perseveres by never losing sight of the ultimate goal and the original purpose for his club: to build a shrine to the most enjoyable aspects of accessible, worthwhile golf. And use it as the model for courses to come. 

Standing with the crew, cold beer in hand, watching the bonfire glow brighter as Brough supercharged the flames with a leaf blower, Hotaling’s regret notably eased. This project was complete. Tomorrow, he’d turn his attention to what’s next.