On a beautiful Kansas morning, I was once again reminded of why I enjoy the game of golf so much. The day before, I had made the nine hour drive from Houston, through North Texas, through Oklahoma, and into Kansas. Along the way, I watched a beautiful sunset paint the sky with majestic colors to punctuate the end of what had been, for me, a hurried day.
I had come to Kansas to play golf at Flint Hills and Prairie Dunes. On this cool and sunny morning, I was introduced to the experience of the Flint Hills National Golf Club, the third course in my quest to play the Top 100 Golf Courses in the US as ranked on the Golf Digest 2017-2018 list. It was the first without a locked gate separating it from the outside world. Now there was a gate, but it was open and the world behind it accessible.
As I parked my rental car, still covered with the dust of the 600 mile drive from Houston on the day before, I was greeted by an attendant in a golf cart who offered to drive me and my golf clubs to the clubhouse. A fine structure crafted from logs. It fit perfectly into the wooded setting of the Flint Hills National Golf Club.
I felt at ease and comfortable in my surroundings. It reminded me of my childhood days of running barefooted in coveralls through the open fields framed by trees, in the piney woods of East Texas. This is what reminded me of why I enjoy golf so much. It's played outdoors in fields among the trees; a place that takes me back to the simpler and peaceful days of my boyhood.
The attendant directed me to Andy, the Assistant Head Golf Pro. Andy gave me the lay of the land. I had an 8:00 tee time, with Ken my caddie. Andy directed me to the practice range where I could warmup and await Ken’s arrive.
There was not another soul in sight on the range. It was divided into two sections; one with the typical array of flags at varying distances and one with a fairway complete with bunkers. What was not typical is that the flags were arranged on actual greens; greens that turned out to be very receptive to my practice shots. I would later learn that the greens on the course were a lot more firm.
Ken, a retired educator, arrived near the end of my warm up. I asked him where he was from. He said, “Nebraska by birth, Kansas by heart.” He told me that he was tied to Kansas by family and profession. He is a father of a blended family of four, a grandfather to 14 and a great grandfather to four more. Ken welcomed me to the course and provided me with some of the history of the club. He told me that it was started in 1997 by Tom Devlin, who had made his fortune as the founder of Rent-A-Center. He said he hired Tom Fazio to design a championship course. The course is currently ranked as the 97th greates course in America.
Ken mentioned that the rough was thick and deep in preparation for hosting the US Jr. Amateur Championship. He suggested I drop a few balls into the rough off the teesing area for the practice range to test what it would be like to hit out of it. He said the best clubs for hitting out of the thick Kentucy bluegrass was either a seven or eight iron.
Armed with this knowledge and my new Callaway Epic driver, Ken and I headed to the first tee. I had purchased my new driver at the urging of Martin Tilson, following a recent round together at my club in Atlanta. I'm not usually one who chases new equipment to improve my golf game. I subscribe to the theory that a couple of hours of practice does a lot more for both my golf game and my bank account. But Martin assured me that this new "jailbreak" technology would add 20 yards to my drive. I bit, and was off to Edwin Watts for a fitting.
Not only did it add 20 yards to my distance, it reduced the spin by 40%. I purchased one and immediately headed to the course to play nine holes. My drives flew straighter and my scores got lower. I was so impressed by the results that I purchased a second Epic driver for the set of clubs that I keep in Houston. Unfortunately the Houston store didn’t have the same shaft in stock, but Landon, the store manager, assured me that he would order the proper shaft and swap it out for me once I was back in Houston. This is the driver I had in hand as I addressed the ball on the first tee at the Flint Hills Golf Club.
I chose to play the National tees which measured 6428 yards. The first hole at Flint Hills is a 526 yard par 5, with a slight dogleg to the right. Ken advised me to hit my ball down the left side of the fairway. I did as Ken advised, my ball didn't. It started left but faded, landed on the right side of the fairway, then kicked to the right edge of the fairway. This left me with a blind second shot uphill over a bunker.
Ken said “hit your second shot 200 yards along the tree line on the right.” He was very clear that if I went left my ball would end up it the water off the left side of the fairway. I ask for my three hybrid. I got the club through the rough and made solid contact with the ball. It drew slightly.What had Ken said? Don't go left! Once I got to the crest of the hill, it was obvious that a ball hit 200 yards from my position, with the slightest of left turns, has but one place to go - into the H2O.
I took my obligatory drop, 90 yards from the flag. The deep rough just devoured the ball. My sand wedge shot fell about 5 yards short of the green. A chip and two putts later, I walked off the first green at Flint Hills National Golf Club with a double bogey. This was not the start that I had envisioned. I had expected more of an "epic" first hole.
Hole number two is a 400 yard par 4 with a slight dogleg left and bunkers down the left and right side of the fairway. I hit my ball to the right side of the fairway and it trickled into the rough. Yes that thick, ball grabbing deep rough. There is no first cut at Flint Hills. The fairway turns immediately into the deep rough. Ken said, “you’re 170 yards out.” Perfect distance for my five iron. I hit the ball to twelve feet right of the pin. My birdie putt stopped dead, two feet from the cup. The second putt dropped in for my first par at Flint Hills.
The short third hole measures just 350 yards. A high sailing drive down the middle of the fairway left me with 95 yards to the pin. My approach landed short of the green. I chipped on and two-putted for a disappointing bogey.
As I approached the tee box on the fourth hole, it occurred to me that every hole so far at Flint Hills was shielded from every other hole by a wall of trees. The course appeared to have been carved through the trees leaving as much of the wilderness as untouched as possible. It felt like Ken and I were on our own private course. The twosome that teed off ahead of us we now where in sight. Ken had mentioned on the practice range that they were top college golfers, one from LSU and one from Wichita State.
The par there fourth hole plays 185 yards over water and a front left bunker. There is also a bunker on the right side of the green. Mr. Fazio apparently didn't want me to just bail out to the right to avoid the water carry. I hit a five hybrid to twenty feet right left of the pin. My putt slid just below the hole. I tapped in for my second par.
I followed with a one putt par on the straight forward par 5 fifth hole. The hole plays 514 yards. My drive had found the fairway, but my second shot found the right side fairway bunker that was about 120 yards out. I caught too much sand on my bunker shot and landed short of the green. I guess the only time I can consistently hit 120 yard sand shot is when I'm in a greenside bunker. I chipped on to about two feet, made the putt and headed to the sixth hole feeling pretty good about my start.
That pretty good feeling didn't last very long. Over the course of the final four holes on the front nine, I recorded one triple and two double bogeys. Ouch! The only saving grace was a par on the 170 yard par 3 8th hole. With a green framed by trees and guarded only by a greenside bunker on the left. My five iron shot landed on the green and I two putted for par. On the 6th hole, a short par 4, I landed in the middle of the fairway. I over shot the green, chipped back on and there putted for a double bogey.
The 7th hole lived up to its rating as the toughest hole on the course. The hole started well enough with a drive to the fairway. A miss hit on my second shot resulted in a lost ball. I dropped a ball at the same spot and hit my fourth shot into the greenside bunker. I landed my sand shot onto the green and then two putted for my only triple bogey of the round.
The 9th hole is probably the second hardest hole on the course, but since it's on the front 9, it's rated as the third hardest hole. The hole plays 415 yards, has a heavily wooded area lining the fairway on the right and water on the left side of the fairway that comes into play on your second shot. I missed the fairway to the right, put my approach shot into the water, landed my pitch short of the green, chipped up and made a one putt for bogey and a front nine score of 46. What an awful finish to the front nine.
As Ken and I walked to the 10th hole, we discovered that our paths may have crossed earlier in our lives. I mentioned to him that I grew up in Hitchcock, Texas. Turns out that Ken once coached in Lake Jackson, Texas around the same time that I was in high school. I played football and ran track in high school. We were pretty certain that we had been at some of the same track meets. We were both able to name some of the superstars of the era.
The 10th hole is the signature hole at Flint Hills National Golf Club. It’s a 150 yard Par 3 that was playing 140 yards on this day with a center pin about 10 paces from the middle of the green. I told Ken that it felt like a 9 iron hole to me. I asked him if there was a backstop that would send the ball back toward the flag if I flew the ball past the flag. His response was a simple "not much."
I knew it was a good shot the moment my club struck the ball. The ball landed near the pin and rolled 18 feet past the hole. Where were those receptive greens that I had experienced on the practice range? The putt was a downhill putt with a slight break to the left, right at the hole. It looked good all the way, until it stopped, needing just one or two more revolutions to drop into the cup.
The hole itself is a beautiful hole that looks natural in this setting. The tee box is cut into the trees in a horseshoe shape which lines both sides of a pond that must be carried to reach the green. The green is also framed by trees with one of the member cabins on the right side of the green partially hidden by a cluster of trees. This scene alone was worth the guest fee I paid to play the course. I was told by Ken that the original cabin on the area where the green had been constructed was made of material from a World War 2 vintage plane. He said that the cabin had been disassembled and then reassembled in the Ford Museum. I'll have to fact check that when I play the courses in Michigan.
The 11th hole is a 520 yard par 5 with water all the way down the left side of the fairway and trees on the right. I hit my drive to the left side of the fairway. Ken gave me a line to the right side of the fairway for my second shot that would give me a good angle for my approach shot to the green. I used my 3 hybrid for a 200 yard shot, which landed in the fairway, but the ball jumped into the rough. This left me with a good angle and a 100 yard shot to the flag. I caught a flier out of the rough and the ball flew the green. The thick rough surrounding the green, stopped the ball as effectively as those receptive greens on the practice range. I pitched onto the green and two putted for bogey, missing an opportunity to start the back nine with consecutive pars.
Additional lost opportunities arose on holes 12 and 13. 12 is a long par 4 of 430 yards. My drive landed in the fairway, but my six iron approach shot flew the green. I chipped back toward the green and two putted for a bogey. On the short par 4 13th, my tee shot landed in the bunker on the right. I managed to hit my sand shot onto the green, but three putted for a bogey.
As I approached the 180 yard par three 14th hole, it occurred to me that I had hit the green with my tee shot on each of the first three par 3's. My tee shot on 14 was even better than my tee shot on the 10th hole. Unfortunately, the result was not. I hit my 5 iron 200 yards into the back left bunker behind the green. After I hit the shot, I told Ken that I thought my shot hand landed in the back bunker. He assured me that the ball had to have stopped short of the bunker, after all the bunker was 20 yards past the flag. As we approached the green, it was clear that my ball was also 20 yards past the flag. I hit my bunker shot to about 10 feet, but missed the par putt.
The 15th hole is a beautiful 440 yard par 4 with one of the narrowest fairways on the course. I pushed my tee shot into the trees that lined the left side of the hole. We found my ball and I pitched out of the trees, but I hit behind the ball and it didn't make it to the fairway. I was still 210 yards out and, in the rough with trees about 70 yards out between me and the green. I hit a beautiful 5 wood over the trees that faded onto the green. You would think that if I could make that shot, I could two putt and save bogey. I could not. I three putted and walked off the green with a double bogey.
On the 16th hole, I hit my first tee shot into the trees on the right and out of play. My second tee shot landed in the left hand rough. A 7 iron shot that was intended to clear the trees and land short of the green, actually made the green. A nice one putt and I managed to save bogey on a lost ball.
The back nine at Flint Hills has a third par 3; it's the 17th hole on the course. The hole has water guarding the left side of the green and a bunker guarding the front center of the green. The hole was playing 145 yards. I decided to hit an 8 iron to the right of the bunker and had hoped to draw it toward the flag. The ball flight was just as I imagined. The ball landed 4 feet short of and left of the pin. Unfortunately, I missed the birdie putt and settled for par.
The finishing hole at Flint Hills is a 490 yard par 5 with trees right of the fairway and water along the left side of the fairway. The green is across the water that runs on the left side of the fairway and blocked by trees until about 115 yards out. This makes this short par 5 a definite three shot hole for all but the most skillful of golfers. I found the fairway with my drive. I hit my second shot past the trees, which gave me an opening for my third shot to the green. I pulled my pitching wedge and missed the green to the left, but was able to pitch to within 3 feet and one putt for a par to close out my round with a back nine 42 and an 88 total.
My shots were not as good as I'd expected, but for me the experience at Flint Hills was well worth the trip. Every golfer who loves nature would enjoy this "beautiful walk spoiled" at Flint Hills National Golf Club.
Following my round I was treated to lunch by Jeff Johnson, the club president. We were also joined by several other members including Tom Dower, the first president of the club who had worked with Tom Devlin to develop Flint Hills, and Rick Hatfield, the Head Pro for the club. After lunch I asked Rick if he had time to give me a lesson. He worked with me on my swing path and introduced me to a couple of drills that worked very well during my lesson with him. He also told me about an App he developed that when loaded with your distance for one club and your handicap, can tell you where your shot would land, hit from any place on any golf course. I've downloaded the app, but haven't completely figured it out yet. I will let you know in a future blog, what I think of it.
I’d like to thank John Hall, an assistant golf pro at Cherokee Town and Country club for arranging for me to play at Flint Hills.