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GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS – PRAIRIE DUNES

An in-depth look at the design synergies created by the work of Perry and Press Maxwell at Prairie Dunes Country Club

When the membership of Prairie Dunes Country Club decided, almost 20 years after the opening of what was described as the greatest nine hole golf course in America, to have Press Maxwell complete the course started by his father Perry, skepticism would have been forgivable. Family businesses that pass from founders to heirs frequently underperform. We need look no further than the Jones family to see that relationships between fathers and sons are often complicated in art and commerce. And rarely was a Golden Age course added to or altered decades later for the better. The deck was stacked against Press, but in the end he delivered on his father’s vision in his own way. Prairie Dunes is not just a great original nine with nine more. It is a unified and cohesive father and son golf adventure. It is the Maxwells’ masterpiece.

The Sum of the Parts

Take a trip to the same course with the same buddies four straight years and two things happen. First, after dozens of rounds—from all tees, at all times of day, in all weather—you get to know the course well. Second, if those buddies be geeks, every aspect of the course is discussed and debated. Prairie Dunes is one of those rare courses that, over numerous rounds, not only holds attention, but deepens it.

A question arose in our discussion this year, posed from different angles: Which nine do you prefer, Perry or Press? Front or Back? The chalk answer is Perry/Front, giving maximum love to those holes designed by Perry Maxwell. The respect is deserved as the old man knew what he was doing, and arguably used the best land for his nine. To date, nobody has responded Press/Back. Sorry, junior. But some, including myself, give the somewhat nonsensical response Perry/Back. How could one say that they prefer Perry’s work, but choose the nine that only has three of his holes? For me, the surface reason is that my least favorite hole is on the front, and the three Perry holes on the back are among my favorites of his nine. Deeper consideration of this seemingly discordant perspective reveals the source of Prairie Dunes’s interest and greatness. The combination of the work of father and son produced a richness and variety greater than either could have achieved alone.

Several factors aligned to set Press Maxwell up for success in completing his father’s course. While in school, Press would come home to work on the construction crew on Perry’s projects under the direction of his uncle, Dean Woods. He observed first-hand how Woods translated the elder Maxwell’s vision into features on the ground, including the greens. Press also absorbed his father’s design principles, most notably the aversion to machinery driven earth moving from tee to green. Perry preferred to highlight the land, rather than remake it. By the time he graduated from college and joined the family business, Press was well indoctrinated into the Maxwell method. And finally, in routing the full eighteen, Perry did not simply tack on nine more holes in a separate area. He added three holes on one side and six on another, thereby blending together the old with the new.

From this foundation, Press completed the course staying true to his Perry’s principles. In some instances, he seemed to consciously play off his father’s holes. The 4th plays similarly to the 2nd. The 5th runs uphill along a dune like the 17th. The 12th green shares characteristics with the 6th, but amped up. And the 14th is the inverse of the 8th from tee to green. As most sons would, however, he did stretch his wings by adding creative flourishes that are among the most memorable on the course: the tee shot down to the angled fairway on the 3rd; the green-front hump on the 11th; the trees guarding the approach to the 12th; the lower back tier on the 14th green; the flanking trees on the 15th tee. Each of the eighteen holes at Prairie Dunes fits the land beautifully, is strategically bunkered without being cluttered, and is punctuated by an all-world green. While retaining that Maxwell consistency, father and son expressed their own artistic perspectives, resulting in the course’s singular greatness.

Could It Have Been Even Better?

The most common knock against Prairie Dunes centers around the three-pars. As single holes, each one is terrific, but as a set (the argument goes) they lack variety. All four play uphill. The yardages are in a narrow band: 161, 168, 185, 200. Holes 2, 4 and 15 play in a similar direction, diminishing the variability provided by the wind. Those who withhold the word “perfect” when describing the course on this basis are not entirely without standing. Our group fixes the yardage issue with creative teeing. Playing the 2nd up (138 yards), the 4th back (171 yards), the 10th up (128 yards) and the 15th back (203 yards) provides all the variety a player could want. It turns out that Perry Maxwell had it in mind to avoid the compass direction and elevation change issues with his original routing of holes 3 through 5, but that stretch was not built according to his plan.

What happened in the handoff from father to son? Based on a scan of the fantastic timeline research done by Ed Oden on the Perry Maxwell Archive, we know that the work on the first nine concluded in September, 1937. At some point prior to his death in 1952, Perry Maxwell completed the plan for the full eighteen. When Press began discussing building the remaining holes with the club in 1954, he reportedly had the plans in hand. By June, 1955 a newspaper prints the routing below, indicating the course we play today.

From the Hutchinson Herald / Perry Maxwell Archive

Zooming in on the current par-4 3rd, par-3 4th and par-4 5th, we find them looping around a dune ridge, with the 3rd and 4th on one side, and the 5th on the other.

Club lore and historical sources suggest that Press ran into “drainage issues” while trying to build the longer par-5 5th from Perry’s plan. But conflicting accounts muddy the water. In The Midwest Associate, Maxwell historian Chris Clouser points out, “But in an interview with Ron Whitten, (Press) would later say that he could never find the original routing his father created.” Did the son rebelliously disregard his father’s wishes in order to do his own thing, or was he simply solving a problem in the field not foreseen at the time of the original design? We’ll never know for sure. We can, however, speculate as to how Perry might have built this stretch of holes to solve the issue of par-3 variety.

It is generally agreed that Perry’s 3rd hole would have played to the current 4th greensite, retaining the distinctive drive while adding drama to the approach. Walking off the back right of that green and along the dune ridge above the 8th, players would them take on a drop-shot par-3. In Clouser’s account, that hole would have played in a direction too similar to the 10th, so I have taken the speculative liberty of flipping it, using the existing fantastic 3rd green as a stand-in. A slightly farther walk to the tee yields a short, downhill par-3 facing a different direction on the compass. The 5th could have remained a par-4, been stretched to a par-5, or both.

Press made the decision to build these holes as he saw fit for reasons unknown. Would his father’s version have been even better? Opinions vary. The fact that variety among four great one-shotters is the only criticism speaks to how strong Prairie Dunes is, and only a fool would repaint a portion of the Mona Lisa because it might be possible to make it a little bit better. Walking the fairways with fellow geeks, however, such harmless conjecture and daydreaming does add to the fun.

The Course

Returning to the course today, players find two nines with complementary characters. The outward half is compact with internal loops, two of which return to the clubhouse. The inward takes more of a wander out to the far corner of the property, and then back again. And as a bonus, at the right time of the day, visitors can easily play the Perry nine (1-2, 6-10, 17-18).

Click on any gallery image to enlarge with captions

If the opening holes are any indication, Perry Maxwell was not a big fan of gentle handshakes. The 1st is a dogleg left par-4 with a wildly contoured green and surrounds. The 2nd is a short, uphill par-3 that is hard to hit, harder to hold, and harder still to putt. Getting out of the gate at level par is an accomplishment, especially when the wind is blowing.

Previous commentary notwithstanding, the first group of Press holes is terrific. The 3rd green is overlooked—it falls away on both sides and behind, and features brilliant, subtle internal contours. The 4th, with its shallow green above is quite demanding. Regular players are accustomed to the agony of watching approaches, and even putts, trickle down the false front. The 5th fits the land nicely, with a benched green that inspired Bill Coore’s work at Sand Hills.

Perry’s par-4 6th tumbles downhill from a dune-top tee. The green is deceptively fronted by a bunkered mound and has a glorious set of Maxwell rolls. The 7th is a sneaky good five-par that is reachable in two with the right wind and a confident drive over a rise in the fairway. Flanking bunkers guard a putting surface that pours out the back. Tricky recoveries abound for errant shots on the 7th.

The 8th is quite simply all-world. This par-4.5 plays up over a large hill to a green seemingly floating in air. Getting above the hole on the tiered putting surface is death. The 9th is an underrated straight-away four par with a rolling fairway and a table-top green that falls away on three sides. The one-shot 10th sits masterfully among the dunes, bringing to mind Maxwell’s work with Dr. Alister MacKenzie on the 14th at Crystal Downs.

Press next throws four straight four pars at players, each with its own distinct features. The dogleg left 11th is brawny, but its little green-front mound provides the biggest challenges. Sentinel cottonwoods guard the approach to the wild 12th green. A massive blowout tempts the bold on the inside of the bend on the 13th. The 14th swings downhill inviting players to have a go when the wind is right. Birdies are a possibility in this stretch, and so is a four hole ride on the bogey train.

From the back tee, the par-3 15th delivers one of the course’s most iconic looks. The tee ball must shoot the chute and then land softly on the elevated green. The 16th works uphill and right to a wonderfully angled green with a high left shoulder.

Prairie Dunes closes with two final Perry holes, each of which is magnificent. The uphill par-5 17th, with its tiny and tricky green, is a close relative to the 8th at Crystal Downs. Strategically brilliant, sometimes brutal. The home hole is a par-4 that calls for one more downhill, angled tee shot. Many a player has hopefully hoisted an approach only to helplessly watch it trickle off the left slope. Prairie Dunes ends as it began—making demands on the skills and patience of players.

Perry and Press, father and son, decades apart. With the complicated dynamics and gap in time, the creation equation at Prairie Dunes could very well have yielded mediocrity. Instead, the Maxwells’ course is exceptional in every sense of the word. The land, the vision and the execution add up to a whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

Copyright 2019 – Jason Way, GeekedOnGolf