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Prairie Dunes offers its own challenges for NCAA golfers

5/23/2014

By Kellis Robinett

By Kellis Robinett

McClatchy-Tribune

HUTCHINSON -- The college golfers descending on Prairie Dunes Country Club this week for the NCAA Men's Golf Championship are unlikely to be intimidated by what they see on the course's scorecard.

At 6,950 yards, it is sure to be one of the shortest layouts they will encounter at an event of this magnitude.

Still, they will be tested once they walk onto the course. Prairie Dunes NCAA chairman and longtime member Rusty Hilst is confident of that.

"Prairie Dunes tends to hold its own against all competition," Hilst said. "We are going to set it up to challenge the best college golfers around. Like any tournament, if the wind doesn't blow and the greens stay soft there will be real low scores. But if we have normal Kansas conditions, it will be a very tough test."

Hutchinson's premier golf course is no stranger to important tournaments. It was host to the Women's U.S. Open in 2002 and the Senior U.S. Open in 2006. It has frequently been the site of the Big 12 Tournament, as recently as last year.

But Prairie Dunes was setup differently for each event. The course was shortened to 6,600 for the senior tournament. Difficult pin placements were used for the women's tournament. And the tees were moved back for the long hitters in college. That is an essential move for any golf course that hosts long hitters, and the college ranks are filled with those.

The best college golfers can easily drive the ball 300 yards, leaving them wedges and short irons into most greens on shorter courses like Prairie Dunes. Birdie opportunities will be plentiful throughout the event, but only for accurate ball-strikers.

"If you hit it off line here, it is probably going to be a lost ball instead of a bogey," Hilst said. "The native rough is pretty tall. You aren't going to find it if you hit it out there. The greens are also undulating and quick. We have had a bunch of championships here over the years. The winning score is generally around par."

Juli Inkster shot 4 under par to win in 2002, while Allen Doyle shot 8 under to win in 2006. Brandon Stone of Texas shot even par to win the 2013 Big 12 Tournament by three strokes, while the Longhorns took home the team title at 19 over.

Hilst promises a similar setup to what Prairie Dunes traditionally uses for college tournaments. The only major change: An extra inch of rough around the fairway.

"We grew the short rough taller than we normally would," Hilst said. "We didn't do anything to the fairways or the greens. Other than the rough, it's the same golf course our membership plays every day from the championship tees."

Lanny Wadkins, a former professional golfer who will help cover the tournament for the Golf Channel, played in the 2006 US Senior Open. He thinks the possibility for low scores exists for top players at Prairie Dunes. But he envisions high scores, as well.

"I think it'll hold its own very well," Wadkins said. "The wind is going to be a big factor there. It's got sneaky length in certain places, several elevation changes. The greens are very demanding. They've got some long, wispy rough off the fairways.... I think Prairie Dunes will hold its own very well against these kids.

"They're going to have to think their way around there more than try and brutalize this golf course."

Players will see a wide array of pin placements. With competition stretching over six days, Hilst said every position will be used -- easy and difficult.

The hope is to provide difficult looks that will create a fun and challenging tournament.

"We are really excited to see how some of the best players in the country play this golf course," Hilst said. "In my opinion, this will be the most talented set of golfers to ever play here. The seniors were very good, but they are older. The ladies were good, but they weren't as strong as these kids. This will be the greatest group of physical golfers we have had."

Coaches will host clinic -- The Golf Coaches Association of America and the NCAA will hold a free youth clinic on Wednesday from 10:30 a.m. to noon at Prairie Dunes. Wichita State coach Grier Jones, Kansas coach Jamie Bermel, Kansas State coach Grant Robbins and former Kansas State coach Tim Norris will instruct children on all aspects of the game. The clinic is open to children 12 and under. Food will be provided.