Select college golfers are taking a final exam, and the course certainly isn’t easy.
The NCAA Division I men’s tournament is under way and continues through Wednesday at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.
“If the wind blows — or even if it doesn’t — it is a very good test,” Kansas City golf legend Tom Watson said.
Prairie Dunes ranks No. 25 on Golf Digest’s list of the best courses in the United States.
“It’s a wonderful golf course,” said Rusty Hilst, Prairie Dunes’ NCAA tournament chairman. “It’s always in great shape. There is no course quite like it.”
The course isn’t very long, playing this week at 6,950 yards and par 70, but the players will have a lot of things to worry about on its fairways and greens.
Perhaps the biggest problem is the tall grass players must contend with if their drives veer off-course.
“The penalty for not hitting it straight is pretty severe,” Hilst said. “If you hit it too far off line, you usually can’t find it. And if you find it, you usually can’t play it.”
Players also have to be sharp with their approach shots to greens, Watson said.
“The unique thing about Prairie Dunes is the small greens with a lot of contour,” Watson said. “It’s tough to get the ball on the right level. If you don’t do that, making par is not easy.”
Hutchinson may be the last place golfers would expect to find a links-style course — seaside venues such as St. Andrews are frequently used for the British Open. But that is what awaits at Prairie Dunes.
The idea for the course came from Emerson Carey and his four sons. Carey and his family played the top courses throughout the world in the early 1900s, including in Scotland, and the family commissioned noted architect Perry Maxwell to design a course in Hutchinson.
When Maxwell saw the 480 acres he had to work with, he said, “There are 118 holes here, and all I have to do is eliminate 100.”
Prairie Dunes opened its first nine holes on Sept. 13, 1937. Twenty years later, a second nine opened that was designed by Maxwell’s son, Press.
“Prairie Dunes reflects all that is Kansas: sand dunes, prairie grasses, yucca plants, cottonwoods and constant wind,” Golf Digest said in its rankings. “Plus it has a great set of Maxwell greens and a rare set of four sterling uphill par-3s.”
The course has played host to some important tournaments through the years, including the U.S. Women’s Open in 2002 and the U.S. Senior Open in 2006.
Hilst said no other big tournaments are planned at Prairie Dunes for several years. Even though club members are willing to share Prairie Dunes with others, Hilst said, the club tries to space out big events so that the members don’t lose their course too often.
“Our members have been very understanding,” he said, “and a majority have been very supportive of having events like the NCAA Tournament.”
NCAA Men’s Golf Championship
WHEN/WHERE: Started Friday; continues through Wednesday at Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kan.
SCHEDULE: Another round of competition at 7 a.m. today; individual championships 11 a.m. Monday; team match-play quarterfinals and semifinals 7 a.m. Tuesday; team championship 2 p.m. Wednesday
Notable events at Prairie Dunes
1958: Jack Nicklaus won the first of two straight Trans-Mississippi men’s amateur titles, beating Richie Norville.
2002: Juli Inkster shot 4-under-par 66 in the final round and won the U.S. Women’s Open. Her 4-under 276 total beat Annika Sorenstam by 2 strokes. The win comes 22 years after Inkster won the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Prairie Dunes.
2006: Allen Doyle shot a 68 in the final round and beat Tom Watson by 2 strokes for the U.S. Senior Open Championship.