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Prairie Dunes Country Club

Long before Sand Hills captivated golf purists, this outpost was the paragon of the links game in America's heartland

By: Mal Elliott

Appeared in July/August 2006 LINKS

Prairie Dunes owes much to salt. Mining of the crystalline compound helped Emerson Carey and his family build an empire, the Carey Salt Company, in the remote central Kansas town of Hutchinson. The Careys used the funds to develop their dream course, and the very foundation of the layout is comprised of salt and sand deposits, which form the namesake dunes that distinguish this renowned “inland links.”

Prairie Dunes is a spiritual descendent of Scotland's great links courses. Carey and his son Emerson Jr., known as "June," journeyed to England in the 1920s to visit another son, William, a Rhodes Scholar. The three men made a golf pilgrimage to Scotland, where the terrain reminded them of the windswept landscape back home. When William returnedd to Hutchinson, the brothers set out to bring back a slice of Scotland, as well.

Around the same time, Perry Maxwell, a former Oklahoma banker, was beginning to garner atention (reginally at least) with his designs, including Oklahoma City's Twin Hills Country Club, site of the 1935 PGA Championship. That year, the Careys invited Maxwell to look at a prospective site north of Hutchinson.

The architect spent days exploring the area’s dunes—some of them as high as 60 feet—and concluded that the best site was one he had spotted on the train ride into town, several miles east of the Careys’ land. Asked if the site held 18 good holes, Maxwell replied, “There are 118 good holes there. I just have to eliminate 100 of them.”

Maxwell did design 18 holes but the Careys opted to play safe and build only nine initially. The par-35, 3,165-yard routing came to be known as the “best nine-hole course in the country,” according to Johnny Dawson, a prominent amateur and Walker Cupper who starred in an exhibition at the grand opening on September 13, 1937.

Rolling among those towering dunes and flanked by waist-high, golden prairie grasses, the original nine was virtually treeless and had the look of a links. But perhaps the most noteworthy feature was the severity of Maxwell’s greens, known as “Maxwell’s Rolls,” which largely endure to this day—only two have required rebuilding, a project handled by Maxwell aficionados Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in 1986 to address drainage problems.

The treacherously undulating surfaces are known as "Maxwell's Rolls," a play on the names of two popular luxury automobiles of the architect's day. Mowing equipment in the late '30s maintained greens speeds no more than 6 or 7 on the Stimpmeter, but that was considered difficult enough at Prairie Dunes. Maxwell's Rolls are even more challening with today's green speeds. Superintendent STand Geroge says the aerage golfer can't handle anything pas 9.5, and he anticipates speeds of 10 fo thie year's U.S. Senior Open in July.

Maxwell's design of Southern Hills, as well as revisions of Pine Valley, Augusta National, and Colonial, helped boost his reputation. But it was those nine holes at Prairie Dunes that came to be viewed as his masterpiece. Unfortunately, a hard freeze in 1940, followed by World War II, prevented immediate expansion of the course to 18 holes. Maxwell never saw it to completion, passing away in 1952 at age 73.

By then the members, who had bought the club from the Careys in 1950 for $95,000, were ready to finish the job. The logical choice was Maxwell’s son, Press, who had worked on the construction crew for the original nine before flying B-24 bombers in World War II.

The younger Maxwell, who designed 42 courses of his own, often pleaded that he didn’t possess his father’s genius, but he was clearly at his creative peak when he weaved nine holes (the present-day Nos. 3–5 and 11–16) into Prairie Dunes’ existing nine.

His challenge was to make the new holes, which opened in 1957, blend with the old. Although the land for the new nine had fewer dunes and less undulation, Maxwell succeeded with the help of technology—bulldozers, which weren’t available two decades before, allowed for easier shaping. Just as the original nine is considered his father’s best work, the additional holes are widely recognized as Press’ finest.

Boosted by exposure from the prestigious Trans-Mississippi Amateur in 1958 (won by 18-year-old Jack Nicklaus), Prairie Dunes became a treasure of American golf nearly overnight. The Senior Open will be the club's seventh USGA championship.

Despite measuring only 6,701 yards, Prairie Dunes is a worthy championship site, thanks to the exacting greens, narrow fairways that tilt and heave like waves on a storm-tossed sea, and ball-gobbling “gunsch,” as the rough—a mixture of native grasses, plum thickets, yucca plants, soap weeds and other flora—is known.

"Prairie Dunes is the kind of course we should study," says Crenshaw, who collaborated with Coore to build Sand Hills in Nebraska on a similar landscape. "With this new technolgoy, everybody hits the ball so far, but here you have to hit it remarkably well. The rough has always been a key part of Prairie Dunes."

Native cottonweoods have invaded in certain spots, notably at the 390-yard 12th, where two stand guard in the fairway 75 to 90 yards short of the green. Also, golfers tee off through a chute framed by the trees on the 200-yard 15th. Overall, however, Prairie Dunes has an open feel, with wind to match any seaside links—typical gusts are 25 to 30 miles per hour and often reach as high as 50.

The wind is a huge factor on holes like the 8th, which climbs 430 yards to an elevated green. Dan Jenkins called it the best 8th hole in America in a 1966 Sports Illustrated article. The 17th is a 510-yard par 5 that plays into the prevailing wind. A tight fairway runs through a valley between two long dunes, arriving at a hogback green with gunsch on the left and a steep dropoff to the right.

Of Press’ contributions, the 452-yard 11th is regarded as one of his finest. It swings left, with a horseshoe-shaped bunker guarding the dogleg. A large mound discourages run-up approach shots, and the green is the shallowest on the course.  

Since Juli Inkster won the 2002 U.S. Women's Open at Prairie Dunes, the club has added about 100 yards, with new back tees on Nos. 9, 13, and 17, and new fairway bunkering on holes 6, 7, 9, and 14. At the suggestion of Coore and Crenshaw, the club has opened up areas surrounding most of the greens, closely mowing the grass to allow for more ground-game options.

"Players in the Senior Open will have to use the contours to bounce the ball up," says John Lanham, the club's head professional. "It will take a lot of imagination."

In short, Prairie Dunes has a British Open-like feel, of which the Careys and Maxwell no doubt would approve.

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