I got an early start on Thursday morning and made the one hour long drive from Wichita to Hutch. I discovered that none of the locals call it Hutchinson. It’s simply “Hutch.” For the first time on my tour, I actually got lost while looking for the course. My GPS directed me down a dirt road which could have used some dust suppressant. I'm also sure the road didn't do much for my rental car’s suspension system.
As I emerged from a dust cloud, back onto a paved surface, the soft calm voice of my GPS announced that I had reached my destination. With no signs of a golf club in sight, I turned right on the main road, then took an immediate left onto Prairie Dunes Drive. I thought it would lead to the golf course. I was wrong. Fortunately there was a local out for a morning stroll who told me that I had gone left when I should have gone right. That sounded like a description of my second shot two days before on the first hole of the Flint Hills golf course. Fortunately for me, this time I did not end up in the water. Also this time I took a mulligan and got back on the main road. This led me to the unassuming entry to the Prairie Dunes Country Club.
The Prairie Dunes Country Club has been around for 80 years. There is nothing fancy about it, but it is the home to a very tough golf course. There was no grand entrance, no valet parking, and no extravagant club house. There were, however, plenty of friendly young Kansans there to greet me.
I went into the pro shop and informed them that I was a guest of Dave Curtis. Dave and I had been introduced to each other by Bill Allen, aka, Billy from Philly. Bill and I are members of the Black Jacket Golf Group. This is a group of approximately 32 guys that gather each November on Kiawah Island in South Carolina to compete for the prestigious Black Jacket and avoid the dubious pink pumps. There will be more on the Black Jacket group and tournament in future blogs. For now, I will just say that the gathering is more about fellowship with a group of successful African American role models than it is about golf. I will also say that there is more focus on avoiding the pink pumps, than there is on winning the Black Jacket. The person who comes in last in the tournament is awarded a pair of pink pumps that must be prominently displayed in their homes for one year. For those of you who don't know what pink pumps are, just ask a woman in your life!
In the Pro Shop I asked if I could get a caddie and then I headed to the practice range. Unlike the practice range at Flint Hills, there were several golfers warming up. While hitting balls, I struck up a conversation with the golfer next to me. His name was Kurt. He lives in Austin, Texas. I told him that I had just retired from ExxonMobil and that my office had been in Houston. Turns out that he was the nephew of a former ExxonMobil colleague that I had worked with when our offices were in Fairfax, Virginia.
Kurt introduced me to the other three golfers in his group, Mike, Chad, and Kent. Kent was the Prairie Dunes member and host of the group. We chatted a little more about my quest and the courses on the top 100 list that they had played. By now, my caddie had arrived and my tee time was approaching. The guys I'd just met seemed like a nice group of guys. I figured I would catch them at the end of our round and talk more.
My caddie was a 21 year old who had grown up in Kansas and was an excellent golfer. He had a USGA index of +0.5. He went by the name of Mac. After a couple of putts on the putting green, Mac and I headed to the first tee so that we could get ahead of the foursome that I had just been talking to.
I chose to play from the blue tees which measured 6560 yards with a 144 slope and a 74.1 rating. The course has a par of 70. This was the second highest slope that I had encountered on a golf course. The highest was 147 on a course in a rain forest in Oahu. That course had several forced carries of over 200 yards for some of the tee shots and some of the approach shots. I'd only been playing golf for a year when I faced that course. That day if I had measured my score by the number of lost balls rather than the number of strokes , I still probably would have shot over a 100! Ok, that's an exaggeration, but I did lose a lot of balls that day and I stopped keeping score on about the sixth hole!
As I stood on the first tee at Prairie Dunes, I thought about the fact that this was a course on which scratch golfers would average four strokes over par. I by no means am any where close to being a scratch golfer. My current index is around 11 and that is only because the USGA requires that you disregard your highest scores while taking only 95 percent of the average of your lowest scores.
So why was I standing at the blue tees rather than the while tees. I did it for the challenge. I figured this course was going to be hard regardless, so I might as well swing for the fences. As it turned out, the length of the course was the least of my problems. The “gunch”, the wind, and the bunkers on the back of several greens, were a much bigger challenge.
So, "what is this gunch?", you ask. It is what they call the high thick weeds that punish you severely if you hit any where other than the fairways, first cut of rough, the bunkers, or the greens. There is no water that comes into play on the Prairie Dunes Golf Course. There are also very few trees that come into play. But the gunch is ever present. It, the wind, and the back bunkers were a constant thought.
The first hole is a par 4 that plays 435 yards. It has a dogleg left fairway. From the blue tees, the ball must be hit over the gunch and the rough toward a bunker on the right side of the fairway to have a reasonable distance for the approach shot to the green. That is the line that Mac advised me to take. That is the line I actually took. It was an epic drive; 265 yards, over the gunch, over the rough, and into the fairway, 170 yards from a front center pin on the green.
On my approach shot I hit my 5 iron a little fat and my ball fell short of the green. I pitch on and two putted for an opening hole bogey.
The second hole is an uphill 165 yard par 3. The green is guarded by five bunkers, two in the front, two along the left side and a long one along the right side. My tee shot landed on the green, 20 feet to the left of a back right pin. As I walked to the green with my putter in hand, I envisioned a possible birdie or an easy two putt par. I left my first putt 4 feet short and my second putt rimmed out, leaving me with a tap in bogey.
The third hole is a short 315 yard par 4, that appeared to be cut out of the gunch. There was gunch between the tee box and the fairway. The gunch also lined the fairways adjacent to a few feet of first cut rough on both sides. I hit my 3 wood, but missed the fairway and landed in the right rough, 100 yards from a center pin, but into the face of a 15 mph wind. My gap wedge landed short of the green, I again chipped on and two putted for my third bogey in a row.
The fourth hole was the second elevated par 3 on the front nine. I hit my tee shot right over the flag and over the green into the back bunker. I short sided myself, so I tried and failed to pop my sand shot out and get it to stop near the flag. I hit my second sand shot 15 feet past the flag and two putted for a double bogey.
On the fifth hole, I got gunched. The hole is a 430 yard par 4, made even longer by a 15 mph head wind. I hit my drive to the left of the bunker just off the left side of the fairway. I mentioned that bunker because it served as a marker that helped Mac find my ball in the gunch. He was so confident that he could find the ball that I didn't hit a provisional. And yes we found it.
I should have counted my blessing and just pitched out to the fairway. Instead, I hit an ill fated shot landed in the gunch parallel to the green. This time we were not able to find the ball. The good news is that I finally made a putt after eventually got on the green. The bad news is that it was for a seven.
I recovered on the 370 yard par 4 sixth hole. I hit a 250 yard drive down the middle of the fairway. I then followed with a pitching wedge approach shot that landed on the green, just left of the flag. The ball rolled just off the green. I putted onto the green and tapped in for my first par.
The seventh hole is the only par 5 on the front nine. I hit a 250 yard drive to the right side of the fairway. I hit my three wood very fat on my second shot. My third shot landed short of the green. I pitched on, but was fifty feet short of a back center pin. I then two putted for a bogey.
The eight hole at Prairie Dunes is by far the most difficult hole I've ever played. It's long and the layout is very challenging. To make this hole a true playable par 4, requires a 300 yard drive. The only time I can hit a 300 yard drive is if a squirrel carried my ball the final 30 to 40 yards. The hole doglegs almost 90 degrees to the right, but doesn't do so until about 300 yards from the tee box. A drive short of 300 yards, requires either a lay up or taking a risk of a long carry over the gunch to get to the green. My drive carried 230 yard and landed in the right rough. I had a good lie, but was 220 yards out. I decided to go for the green by hitting my 3 wood. The shot required a 190 yard carry. I carried about 180 yards and was unable to find my ball in the gunch. I played a more conservative fourth shot but still made a triple bogey on the hole.
I bogeyed the par 4, 426 yard ninth hole, after I missed the fairway with my drive. This resulted in a front nine score of 48.
The back nine at Prairie Dunes opens with an uphill 180 yard Par 3. The pin was up front, so the hole was only playing 170 yards. My five iron missed short and to the right. It kicked farther right as it landed just short of the front right bunker. The ball rolled across the cart path and just into the gunch. Utilizing the rules of golf to my full advantage, I was able to take a drop because of the cart path. I found an area where the gunch was light and dropped my ball. I then hit my 60 degree wedge to 8 feet from the hole. Unfortunately, I missed the putt, but was happy to walk off with a bogey after my errant tee shot.
The 11th hole is a long 450 yard Par 4 with a slight dogleg left. Fortunately, it was playing downwind. I hit my drive 260 yards into the right rough. On my approach shot, I hit a wind aided five hybrid over the green. It took awhile but Mac finally found my ball, in the rough, 10 yards past the back of the green. I used my 60 degree wedge to pitch on the green within four feet of the pin. I made the short right to left breaking putt for my par on the second hardest hole on this very difficult course.
I hit good drives on 12 and 13, but ended up bogeying both holes. Remember earlier I mentioned that there are very few trees that come into play at Prairie Dunes? Well, on the twelfth hole, I hit a long drive that faded into the right rough . This left me 140 out , but with a cluster of trees directly between me and the green. I hit my 8 iron over the front set of trees, but my ball caught the back set of trees when it was descending and kicked right, all the way to the tee box for the 13th hole. My pitch landed short of the green and into the green side bunker. I was able to get up and down from the bunker for my bogey.
The 14th hole is a 380 yard Par 4 that has the tee boxes set to the left of a fairway that dog legs left. As I stood on the tee box surveying the hole, I was faced with a decision. Golfers with a reliable draw, can probably minimize the amount of gunch that has to be carried by hitting the ball toward the right side of the fairway and letting it draw back to the middle of the fairway. This will leave a reasonable long iron into the green. I don't have a reliable draw. I have a more reliable fade. So I thought!
With a reliable fade, I decided to attempt to carry about 230 yards of gunch. My ball carried over 230 yards, but it drew rather than fading. So much for that reliable fade. I had a good line on the ball, so Mac and I were able to find it in the gunch. The golf gods decided to get me back for attempt that tee shot. I hit out of the gunch into the green side bunker. I only needed another six inches to carry it. But I got revenge on the golf gods by hitting my bunker shot to within six feet of the hole and one putting for an improbable par.
The golf gods struck back on the 165 yard Par 3 fifteenth hole. My tee shot flew over the green and landed in the back bunker. My second shot remained in the bunker. My third shot rolled 20 feet past the pin. I then 2 putted for a double bogey. As always – the golf gods eventually win!
The 16th hole is long at 410 yards, but the fairway is generous and there is a reasonable amount of rough between the fairway and the gunch. But when you stripe your drive right down the middle, none of that actually matters. From the dead center of the fairway, at 190 yards out, I hit my 5 hybrid toward the left side of the green. The ball hit on the left side and then kicked into the left side bunker. I hit my sand shot onto the green and two putted for bogey. Just another hole where a bunker turned a seemingly well stroke ball into a bad shot. I think this is exactly what Mr. Maxwell intended when he put all those bunkers right where he knew my shots would land.
I bogeyed the Par 5, 17th, which is a straightforward 500 yard hole with a fairway and rough that are as generous as they were on the 16th hole. But on the 17th hole, I needed more even generosity from the fairway and rough, to avoid the gunch. My ball was just on the edge of the gunch, but I couldn't get a club on it and had to take a drop. I hit my third shot to the rough on the other side of the fairway. My fourth shot went over the back of the green. I chipped on and then putted for a bogey.
The closing hole on the golf course at the Prairie Dunes Country Club is a 390 yard par 4. I hit my drive into the rough left of the fairway. My drive left me with 125 yards uphill. Playing downwind, I hit my pitching wedge onto the back right side of the green. The ball bounced and then rolled into the back right green side bunker. The flag was positioned on the back left part of the green with a fairly steep slope to the left of the flag. I was concerned that my sand shot could go past the flag and roll off the left side of the green and down the hill. This would bring a double bogey into play.
My ball was just a foot inside the bunker. The bunker had a low lip. I decided that I'd have better control if I just putted out of the bunker rather than hit a sand shot with a wedge. I did so and avoided going down the slope by putting left of the flag. This left an 8 foot putt for par. I left my first putt short, but was able to make my second putt for a bogey.
My bogey on 18 gave me a respectable 43 on the back nine, but with a 48 on the front nine, I ended up with a 91. I felt that I played much better than my score indicated. I drove the well. While I only hit six of fourteen fairways, I did avoid the gunch on all but about 3 or 4 of my drives. I had some good approach shots that ended up in some not so good places. So all in all, I loved the course, but was disappointed in my lost opportunities.
Following my round, I waited for and watched Kurt, Mike, Chad, and Kent finish their round. We had lunch together and Mike mentioned that he may be able to help me gain access to some of the other courses in the top 100. We exchanged contact information.
After lunch, they head back out onto the course for what they called their back 18 and I headed to the practice facilities. Tomorrow morning I go at it again with Dave and his work colleagues. I'd like to thank John Hall from Cherokee for his initial work to arrange for my play at Prairie Dunes. I'd also like to thank Bill Allen for introducing me to Dave Curtis, and Dave for hosting me.