Sunday, 26 December 2010

Prairie Dunes Golf Club

4th at Prairie (courtesy GCA)

There are few courses more surprising than Prairie Dunes. The hour long drive in from Wichita makes you wonder where you made the wrong turn. It’s only a quarter mile from the course where you see the first slight rise. There is not a single dune right up until you get to the golf course, and then there they are fifty feet high, a series of dunes reminiscent of the coastline in Scotland. It only makes sense once you realize that Kansas was once underwater and these are actually coastal dunes.

The next surprise is the landscape. Everything that is not golf course is either native prairie grass, perennial or thicket shrub. The club has long embraced the importance of this beautiful but disappearing landscape. They actively manage the native areas with controlled burns and other programs designed to help the native areas flourish in their natural state. They don’t fight nature instead they encourage it as a significant part of the course. The splashes of colour along with the beautiful golden grasses provide the club with a magnificent texture unique to only Prairie Dunes. When you combine that with the wonderful dunes and copses of ancient Cottonwood, you truly have something very special.

The course is a combination of Perry and Press Maxwell. The routing does a wonderful job of playing through, along, up on to and off the main dune lines of the property. The driving areas are beautifully defined by the dune lines and it’s probably one of the best driving courses I have had the pleasure of playing. The green sites are well mixed with just as many set down inside natural valleys between the dunes as there are set up on plateaus up in the dunes. The great tribute to both men is how each hole has a unique setting, its own particular challenge and that how each embraces the land.

14th at Prairie (courtesy GCA)

Perry Maxwell in my estimation was the greatest designer of greens the game has seen. His work at places like Pine Valley and Augusta (seven of the existing greens) has no peer. The greens at Prairie Dunes are impressive. The mixture of exceptional interior contouring, false fronts, side droops and internal ridges has developed a set of greens where certain pins require you to play from particular locations on the fairway. I was lucky enough to experience different pins and saw how placement dictated position back in the fairway.

The bunkers are the focal point for many. The integration of native grasses, the inclusion of yucca plants and the raw torn out appearance is very reminiscent of the pictures of the earliest bunkers from the book British Links. I found each bunker had character, each one blended into the surroundings perfectly and all of them did a wonderful job of adding some architectural and visual accents to the course. The wonderful part of the bunkering is that it reinforces the strategy created by the routing often by sitting to the sides and collecting the mistakes or aggressive play rather than imposing as the singular strategy of the hole. For this reason the course is eminently playable and fair, in fact a running shot often is a good solution, but because of the green sites and internal green contour the course remains tough as nails at the same time.

As we headed out of the parking lot I stole one last glance over my shoulder at that magnificent golf course and thought to myself I must return one day. We rolled a quarter mile down the road and the dunes were gone and the site opening up to the flattest land you can imagine. I would have had a long face, except I could see every hole and every bunker of that golf course as fresh as if I was standing on the fairways and tees again. Prairie Dunes had not only met some very high expectations, but had surprised me by being even more than I had hoped.

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