Despite serving as the birthplace of both Amelia Earhart and Dwight D. Eisenhower, very likely the person most associated with the state of Kansas is Dorothy Gale, of “Wizard of Oz” fame. (Let the record state that the bold aviator hails from Atchison, the former president from Abilene.)
Yes, the Sunflower State is to many the epitome of ‘flyover country.’ It’s known for great college basketball (‘Rock, Chalk Jayhawk’ being the operative phrase) flat topography (scientists once wasted taxpayer’s money by assiduously comparing the state’s terrain to a pancake from I-Hop.) And for its windswept plains. (Only one state has more than Kansas’ average of sixty tornadoes annually, and Dodge City is the nation’s windiest, averaging fourteen MPH.)
However there is some excellent, albeit little-known public golf to be found in Kansas. Not overly surprising, considering the great Tom Watson was born in Kansas City.
This discussion must begin with Colbert Hills in Manhattan, the home course of the Kansas State golf squad. Despite its status as the best public-access facility in the state, and the fact it is recognized as one of the nation’s finest collegiate golf courses, Colbert Hills is also a catalyst for growth, education and research, which makes it a more valuable commodity than just the eye-pleasing, rolling acreage of the course itself.
K-State offers a golf course management undergraduate degree program, with hundreds of graduates. The course serves as a home base for these students, and is also a living laboratory, with ongoing experimentation involving various types of turf grass, fungicide, soil agents, environmental research and pesticide use. It also serves as home of the First Tee of Manhattan, employs dozens of students, and has contributed millions to the local economy. Co-designed by former K-State football player-turned-golfer Jim Colbert, who won a handful of events on the PGA Tour, then found greater success on the Champions Tour, notching twenty wins with the over-fifty set. There are few trees, big views and lots of thoughtful bunkering on the (naturally) windswept layout, where few players will forget the trials and travails of the seventh hole. This 600-yard par 5 begins with a ninety foot drop from the tee to the fairway. The landing area is bracketed by a trio of bunkers, while the second shot must also negotiate a smattering of bunkers before players launch their third to a difficult green complex. It’s a memorable hole on one of the Midwest’s finest public facilities.
Firekeeper is the memorable name of a worthy course in the burgh of Mayetta, some fifteen miles north of Topeka. The brainchild of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, like most native-owned courses nationwide, this is a beautiful and pastoral journey through a natural landscape with little artifice. Designed by Native American and four-time PGA Tour winner Notah Begay, in conjunction with architect Jeffrey Brauer, the course has no housing element whatsoever. Firekeeper opens with seven holes in the prairie and finishes with eleven holes of natural Kansas creeks, rolling hills, and trees. Fairways are roomy, the driver will remain uncovered, and grateful players will swat away with impunity. The fourth hole is a 625 yard par-5 with a huge fairway bunker menacing the tee shot and a massive mounded green bordered by sand. The ninth bears a passing resemblance to the eighteenth at Augusta National, playing uphill into a prevailing breeze. The eighteenth boasts a double fairway and offers a shortcut for the big-hitting gambler on this staunch par four finisher. All in all, this is one of the most intriguing native-owned courses in the nation, and that is some heady company.
Finally, Sand Creek Station is a ‘must visit’ should a traveler find themselves in greater Wichita. While Wichita itself has a notable aviation history (currently or formerly the home of Cessna, Beachcraft, and Mooney aircraft, among others) up the road apiece in Newton, maybe 25 miles due north in a National Rental Car, there’s more of a railroad vibe.
Sand Creek Station plays off this history as a railway town (to this day passengers can still board trains bound for Chicago or Los Angeles.) Architect Jeffrey Brauer, a student of golf history, knows that some of Scotland’s iconic courses bordered railway stations. (Prestwick and Troon come immediately to mind.) To that end, some of the holes here pay homage to this railway sensibility, or as the Scots would say, ‘hard by the cinders.’
It’s not a replica course per se, but Sand Creek Station does pay intermittent homage to some of the finest courses both home and abroad. The 16th green is reminiscent of the putting surface at the Road Hole at St. Andrews Old Course. Another green is Redan style, mimicking the original Redan in North Berwick, Scotland. The twelfth hole reminds some players of the fourth at the National Golf Links of America, on eastern Long Island, which is one of America’s early classics. The ninth features a small platform green, again, typical of early American courses. Sand Creek Station strikes an enviable balance between modern agronomy, first-class service elements, juxtaposed with an on-course feeling of taking a step backwards in time.