Trees or no trees? Prairie Dunes 12th

Cut that tree down.

When it comes to golf courses, there isn’t a proclamation that is currently more en vogue. The overplantings and overgrowth of years past are thankfully being remedied by wiser tree management programs at courses across America, and that means removals. In 99% of cases, I agree with the decision to cut. After the initial shock wears off, the improvements in aesthetics and agronomy are evident to almost everyone. The are, however, exceptions to the rule.

Donald Ross famously (among golf nerds) wrote in his book Golf Has Never Failed Me, “As beautiful as trees are, and as fond as you and I are of them, we still must not lose sight of the fact that there is a limited place for them in golf. We must not allow our sentiments to crowd out the real intent of a golf course, that of providing fair playing conditions. If it in any way interferes with a properly played stroke, I think the tree is an unfair hazard and should not be allowed to stand.” Most who read this quote interpret it to mean that trees should be out of play on a golf course. Perhaps part of the scenery, but not on the stage.

That default interpretation keys in on the word “interferes” and paints Ross’s perspective in the most black and white terms. Another phrase in the same sentence hints at nuance - “properly played stroke”. Ross is certainly not saying that a player should be able to thoughtlessly spray the ball all over the course without experiencing tree-induced consequences. He is saying that properly played strokes should be free of tree trouble. In this context, “properly played” means well conceived and executed. Remember, although Donald Ross designed courses that were playable for all, he was also a good player who knew what a well thought out and played shot looked like. His courses are not comprised of cream puff holes that give players a participation trophy when they hit bad shots. The holes on his courses test all facets of a player’s game.

This misunderstanding led to a gloriously lively debate among my golf buddies on our annual trip to Prairie Dunes Country Club in Hutchinson, Kansas. This heartland masterpiece was built in two phases by the Maxwells. Perry Maxwell completed the first nine holes in 1937. His son Press added nine more holes in 1957. The fusion of the father’s and son’s work results in a course wherein the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. Prairie Dunes is all world, with a variety of challenges from tee to green and a set of putting surfaces that is in the conversation for the best ever shaped.

One of the Press Maxwell holes is the short par-4 12th, tipping out at 390 yards from a dramatically elevated tee. From that tee, the player is confronted with a choice. The landing area is open and wide at its nearest point, flanked by bunkers in its middle section, and pinched by large cottonwoods at its furthest point. It is possible for the longest hitters to drive the ball far enough to render the trees irrelevant. Mere mortals must contend with them. The green has bunkers front-left and right, but there is a generous opening and it is sloped to accept ground approaches. Approach angles do matter and a crafty player pays attention to the pin position to gain advantage.

It is this hole, and its cottonwoods, that caused our brewhaha. Some felt that the hole was narrow enough with gunch on both sides and doesn’t need the trees to be plenty difficult. The other camp, which includes me, thinks these particular trees present an interesting challenge, and make the hole distinctive. With the trees, the hole stands out. Without them, it is still a great hole, but something is lost.

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Break down the strategy, and there is nothing unfair about the cottonwoods by Donald Ross’s standards. A player who makes good choices based on their ability and then executes well will be rewarded. In other words, properly played strokes are treated fairly. From the tee, the options are as follows:

  1. Lay well back to the widest part of the hole. From this spot, the bunkers are taken out of play, and the player can go around or over the trees on their approach.

  2. Laying up slightly more aggressively brings the bunkers into play, and will make it more challenging to go over the trees for off-line drives. Difficult, but not impossible, and the low-running approach route is still available.

  3. Taking the trees on takes the left bunkers out of play, even with a slight miss, but those misses will require a low recovery on approach. Pull off the heroic drive and an open wedge into the green is the prize.

All three of these strategies work on the 12th, but players must first be honest with themselves about their ability off the tee and on approach. Complex dynamics to be sure, but exactly the kind of provocative architecture that makes the game interesting.

My cottonwood advocacy notwithstanding, allow me to extend several olive branches to my buddies and readers on the other side. First, I assume that based on the maturity of the trees that they were there when Press Maxwell built the hole, and he decided to incorporate them. I must admit that it would be a head-scratcher to me to plant those trees at the time of construction. Second, the position of the trees on the 12th necessitates active management, and there is limbing that needs to be done. Finally, having one hole on a course with trees like these cottonwoods at Prairie Dunes is quirky and fun. On multiple holes, it is obnoxious. Variety is the spice of life (and golf course architecture). I like a little flavor for my fare, but not a straight pepper diet.

The bottom line is this - we had a group of eight split down the middle on whether or not the trees should be cut, and we spent hours over three days having a fun, geeky debate about it. A detente was not reached, and probably never will be. What is certain though is that if the trees were gone, our debate goes with them, and our meal time banter would have been less lively. For now, the cottonwoods remain to test and torment players at Prairie Dunes. They are distinctive and they make the 12th hole, the course, and the conversation of those players lucky enough to visit the Maxwells’ masterwork much more interesting.