The first time I saw Prairie Dunes was during the final round of the 2002 U.S. Women’s Open. It was the biggest sporting event in Kansas in years, and my dad had gotten Sunday tickets. As a 16-year-old, though, the last thing I wanted to do was spend an entire day in the summer heat watching golf, even though I was on the high school golf team. I’m sure it took some convincing from my dad to get me in the car. Knowing now how legendary the final-round battle between Juli Inkster and Annika Sörenstam would turn out to be, I can’t believe I didn’t beg him to leave first thing in the morning. But teenagers are the most stubborn creatures on earth. Mules and toddlers have nothing on them.
It turned out that my friend was coming along with her dad, too, so at least I had some company. To this day, we laugh about how our dads dad harder than any other dads we know. (Yes, dad is both a noun and a verb.) Her dad still sends postcards with handwritten speech bubbles attached to the characters. My dad is the king of practical-dad texts: “Remember to detach your outside hoses… freeze warning tonight.” My friend and I wouldn’t have it any other way now, but at 16 we felt differently. That’s part of why we weren’t exactly looking forward to our day at Prairie Dunes.
For years and years, with only mild interest, I had listened to stories about the wind out there. Growing up in Wichita, one of the windiest cities in America, I thought I knew plenty about the subject. Yet friends of mine who had played Prairie Dunes, just 40 miles outside of Wichita, described the wind in Hutchinson with words like “whipping,” “punishing,” “exhausting,” and—above all—“constant.” The most common adjective: “constant.” The wind never relented, they said. It haunted you around the course.
These friends also had a lot to say about the landscape, that strange, ancient seabed in the middle of the Kansas prairie. The way they talked about it, Prairie Dunes might as well have been on a different planet.
I get it now. The dunes are truly shocking when you first lay eyes on them. They seem to come out of nowhere as you walk onto the course. And then there’s the gunch, the dense vegetation covering everything that’s not fairway, rough, green, or bunker. And then there are the greens. Crafted by Perry Maxwell and his son Press, they roll in every direction and present optical illusions harder to solve than any I Spy book. And then, finally, there’s the wind. The prevailing gusts out of the South regularly whip sand out of the bunkers, making them even tougher hazards.
On that Sunday in 2002, however, I didn’t expect much out of my Prairie Dunes experience. When we got there, the wind was actually fairly tame. It was present, of course—it always is—but it wasn’t a major factor.
Then I walked around the clubhouse and saw the par-3 10th for the first time. It was the most intimidating golf hole I’d ever seen, with bunkers short and gunch everywhere. I didn’t see how holding the elevated green was even possible. We waited there for the leaders to come through, and we watched Juli Inkster make par with ease. I had never seen professional golfers play in person. I was floored by their skill.
The 10th hole at Prairie Dunes. Photo credit: Andy Johnson
As we followed the players around the course that afternoon, I had the same feeling as I did on the 10th hole over and over again. Each hole presented a unique challenge, and big numbers always loomed as a possibility. Suddenly I understood why everyone who had played Prairie Dunes described it the way they did.
A massive crowd gathered around the clubhouse as the final group walked up the 18th fairway. Minutes later, we watched Inkster celebrate on the green, and her joy was electric. The course had kicked and bucked and given her everything it had, but she had punched right back.
My opinion of Prairie Dunes had changed forever. Indifference had become mania, and I knew I needed to experience the course myself one day. I didn’t care what I’d shoot. I didn’t care if I lost a dozen balls. I was certain that this was a course that could drive you nuts, but it could also bring satisfaction that I hadn’t known was possible in golf. It was a different form of the game I’d played my whole life.
And since I’m pretty sure I didn’t say it that day: thank you, Dad, for dragging me out there.
Teenagers are also fickle. The mania faded. By the end of high school, golf was a low priority for me. College was on the horizon.
I remained a merely casual golfer into my 20s, and then came marriage and kids. All of a sudden I became immensely grateful for every round I played. My early-morning or late-evening visits to the course were an escape from long days as a stay-at-home mom. These solo rounds in silence were my sanity, the most relaxing three hours of my week. You’ve probably heard about how your golf game disappears when kids come along. For me, it was the opposite.
And then came the invite. I had reconnected with some friends from high school, and one of their brothers was a member at Prairie Dunes. They were going in a couple of weeks, and my husband and I could join if we were free. I don’t need to tell you how quickly I called my parents to schedule the babysitting.
It was a Saturday. Early in the morning, we drove from Kansas City to Wichita to drop off the kids. Then it was on to Hutchinson.
We ate lunch in the clubhouse next to the 10th hole, and the memories came flooding back right away. It looked just as intimidating as it did in 2002. I couldn’t have been more excited. The only problem was that the forecast of mid-50s and sunny was not panning out. It stayed cloudy and barely got above 40, so on top of the dunes, the gunch, the Maxwell rolls, and of course the wind, I was about to play this round without much feeling in my hands. (At least I had remembered to detach the hoses before we hit the road. Thanks again, Dad.)
Yet you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as we made our way to the 1st tee. A fortunate bounce on my approach led to a tap-in birdie, and I must have looked like The Joker as we walked to the 2nd tee… but I won’t give you the dreaded shot-by-shot recap. Let’s just say my game collapsed like a shivering house of cards.
As we raced to finish before darkness, the gunch, which had been up to my head earlier in the day, turned bright orange. The sun had dipped low beneath the clouds. The wind died down as we retraced Inkster’s steps up 18. I got up and down from a green-side bunker by finally rolling in a putt over Maxwell’s contours. I didn’t feel the cold. The course had kicked and bucked and given me everything it had, and my smile walking back up to the clubhouse was just as big as it had been hours earlier. It may have had fewer teeth, admittedly.
Behind the 18th green at Prairie Dunes. Photo credit: Andy Johnson
What had looked like a torture chamber to 16-year-old me was actually the most enjoyable course I had ever played. All those quiet rounds by myself had helped me see golf as not just a battle but a pleasure. I embraced what Prairie Dunes threw at me because I knew the challenge was part of the point, part of the joy. I was happy that it had taken me so many years to return.
As a mom, I always think about my young kids when I have a memorable experience. I want to bottle up whatever the feeling is so that I can share it with them someday. On the drive home from Hutchinson, I thought back to that distant Sunday. I remembered that Inkster was a mother herself when she won.
At the time, I had no way to understand how wonderful that must have been for her. But my dad did, and I’m so happy that he got to experience that moment with his daughter. Maybe someday, just like he did, I’ll drag one of my kids to an event they can’t yet fully appreciate. And I’ll calmly handle the complaining and the over-the-top sighing because I’ll know it’s worth it. Just like he did.
Meg Adkins lives in Prairie Village, Kansas, and is The Fried Egg’s newest team member. Follow her on Twitter.