KC man’s drive is bringing Mission Hills-style golf to his urban neighborhood

Kids growing up around 40th and Wayne may be accustomed to many sights — blight, abandoned houses, boarded-up windows — but high-quality putting greens are not among them.

One man hopes to change that.

Chris Harris is building a small golf course in the Ivanhoe neighborhood, which over the years has seen a lot more hard luck and trouble than it has manicured fairways and early tee times. If it works, Harris says, the nine-hole putting course could complement the park he built across the street as another bright spot in a part of town that needs it, giving local kids, most of them black, a chance to play a game that often seems part of a different America.

“The golf course is just a small piece. It’s sending a message,” Harris says on a warm October afternoon as he spreads 20 tons of sand on a vacant lot on Wayne Avenue. “Look at the PGA. Great game. And the reason there are not many minorities there is because they don’t have access.”

When Harris started, he didn’t know much about golf courses. To learn how they are built, he has spent the past three months working a part-time gig with the grounds crew at Mission Hills Golf Course, starting his weekend mornings there at 6 a.m.

When he’s done, Harris says, he wants his putting greens to look just like the ones at Mission Hills.

Creating an opportunity for young people to learn the game and have a little fun is part of a larger project of neighborhood beautification and improvement that Harris — otherwise employed as a housing specialist at Truman Medical Center — has made his life’s work. He started nearly 20 years ago by building Harris Park across the street.

Harris grew up in the house next door to the proposed golf course. He still lives there. The Harrises were the first black family to move into the block, and his father, a millwright, bought property up and down the avenue.

By the time Harris was grown, the neighborhood had fallen into decline. Across the street he saw abandoned houses and trash dumps, which he cleared out to build the park with a playground and basketball court. He rents the park out for events on weekends and notes with pride that not a single scrap of litter or graffiti may be found there.

“I think people respect what I’m trying to do,” Harris says. “People come here and they’re surprised. They say ‘Fortieth and Wayne?’ But they get there and they see something different.”

Bigger changes have also uplifted the neighborhood. Over the past 20 years, homebuilders have put up dozens of new houses in the surrounding blocks. Foremost among the builders is Ron Grover, who said anything Harris does to spruce up his section of Wayne Avenue is welcome.

“It can’t be any worse,” Grover says. “We still have a lot of blight down there.”

Harris knows creating a slice of country club golf course on his humble block won’t be easy — or cheap. He expects the project to cost at least $10,000 to start. For now, he is paying for it and doing the work almost entirely on his own. A local electrical supply company, KC Electric, donated some lighting equipment.

A project like this requires persistence and a willingness to get your hands dirty, and Harris appears to have both. He first arrived at Mission Hills Golf Course months ago to buy equipment but then hung around asking the groundskeeper questions.

And then he kept hanging around and asking more questions. And then some more. Eventually, the groundskeeper offered him a part-time job, and Harris took it, spending his weekend mornings cutting grass, whacking weeds and cleaning bunkers.

Until he did that, Harris says, he didn’t even know golf courses were built on sand.

Now, Harris has the sand and the knowledge. He’s treating the ground this winter and will plant it with bent grass and fescue, just like they do at Mission Hills.

When it’s done in the spring, Harris pictures youth of all ages coming to take basic golf lessons or play a round for fun. When the weather is right, lights above the course could allow for an evening game.

So far, the course has no name. Harris hopes to make a deal with a sponsor for the naming rights. And he is open to talking with anyone who could help him make the golf course a success.

For more information, Harris can be reached at 913-568-6317 or by email at harrisfoundation@gmail.com.

Ian Cummings: 816-234-4633, @Ian_Cummings