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When I was a kid, I grew up spending summers in Sicily. My mom was raised there, my grandparents still live there, and it just happened to be where we went on vacation. As a military kid, it wasn’t anything out of the normal and at times it felt like home. In certain conversations, I’ve even called it that.
Most people hear the word Sicily and instantly think of the mafia. Not me. I think of old men puffing morning cigarettes outside the coffee shops. I think of the annoying sound of Vespas switching gears as the sun rises over the ridge. I dream of the fresh aroma of Sicilian coffee and a warm Brioche as my grandmother yaps in a tone that sounds much more like an argument than an order. I think of simpler times. I think of my friends Giambattista and Salvatrice.
You see, Sicily as a whole is not a spectacular country. In fact, it’s pretty rugged. It’s brown and burnt and for the most part, poor. The kind of country that one might say deserves the mafia stigma. Maybe earned it. But Sicily does have beautiful places. It has rolling hills, and vineyards, and steep mountains that act as curtains to the beautiful blue waters of the Mediterranean. On most days, Sicily is bright and sunny, but if you close your eyes for a second and envision a cloudy day, that kind of British Open day where the fog and clouds and sky all seem to blend into one, you could almost say Sicily, or at least parts of it, would look somewhat like Scotland. For me, that’s where my mind goes.
Prairie Dunes isn’t exactly located in the Oasis you might expect. It’s in Hutchinson, Kansas, 60 miles from the largest city in the state, Wichita. Hutchinson, a town of 40,000 people, is home to the Kansas State Fair, the Kansas Cosmosphere, and the Kansas 6A State Football Champs. That’s about it. It’s not Pinehurst or Medinah or Sawgrass.
Like most things in Kansas though, we prefer that approach. Underrated. Blue Collar. Chip on the shoulder. We’ll let you have the name and recognition at 30th, 48th, and 51st on the Top 100 list, we’ll just sneak in a little bit better at 29th in the process. It’s how we do things. Show me, don’t tell me. Prairie Dunes is every bit of that.
Built in 1937, Prairie Dunes is a self-dubbed, American Original, designed by one of the All-Time Greats, Perry Maxwell and his son, Press. Tom Watson once said about the course, “It’s a little bit of Scotland in the Land of Oz. Sunflowers instead of heather. Oceans of grain instead of sea. But like Scotland, be prepared, the wind always blows”.
Maybe that quote is why my mind went where it did. To those simpler times on a small island halfway across the world. I’m not sure, but whatever it was, Mr. Watson was spot on. Prairie Dunes is a gem in a place you might least expect it.
I took off work the morning of July 27th to head towards Prairie Dunes with a good buddy of mine, Max Lazzo. We were going to meet a mutual friend who set the whole thing up, Ben Lippold. Ben went to the same high school as Max and I and is the Junior Professional at the club.
It seems funny to say at 26, but Max and I have been playing golf together for a long time. We bought Ping G2 irons at the same time. We played the “White Tees” at Braeburn Golf Course for the first time together. If it wasn’t football season, our buddy Brison Schulte would join. Our moms used to drop us off at the course and wait around until someone called to pick us up. It was golf in its purest form. Young guys figuring out the nuances of the game until long after the sun had set. In retrospect, I think it’s in those rounds that my love for the game and the camaraderie it provides was established.
Ben is an old friend from a different background. Golf has kept us connected when it may have been the least expected avenue to do so. Ben and I played baseball together and probably both thought it was the sport that would carry us forward. When I was a senior in high school he was a freshman. There were murmurs, or at least murmurs I had heard, that there was a freshman who had a chance at playing varsity. That freshman was Ben. Problem was, I played shortstop and so did he. As it turns out, Ben needed a few years to develop. During that year, we spent a lot of time together in the middle of the infield at practice. We interacted about as much as you’d expect a freshman and a senior to interact, but always kept in touch. When I started Lowside and he started at Prairie Dunes, it made sense to pick up right where we left off.
Arriving at Prairie Dunes reminded me exactly of those memories I had as a kid in Sicily. I’m from Kansas. I’m used to the monotonous flat landscape our state provides, but somehow as we approached Prairie Dunes, the hills got deeper, the grass grew longer, and each sand dune crest looked like it would break way to that same Mediterranean sea that was forged in my memory. I’d heard a lot about Prairie Dunes growing up. In fact, I’d lived near it as it hosted the 2002 US Women’s Open and 2006 US Senior Open, but I never expected to play it. It just seemed like one of those places that was so untouchable. So close but so far away. It’s funny what time does.
One of the cool things I have heard about Augusta National is that it treats every guest like it’s a member. If you play there once or play there a hundred times, it doesn’t matter, you’re treated the same. The only reason I bring that up is it’s exactly how Ben made us feel when we pulled into Prairie Dunes. We were late, fittingly, but still had a few minutes to get some range balls in. In the interim, Ben asked what we wanted to drink. By the time we arrived on the first tee, our requests were cold as ice. I’m not sure if that’s the norm or part of that whole “who you know” thing, but it felt special either way. We struck our tee shots, decided against breakfast balls, and just like that we were off.
I could go into a lot of detail about the round, but I know none of that really matters. As a group (we played with a fourth that Ben introduced us to), we hit some good shots and we hit some bad shots. More of the former than the later. Regardless, we complemented and criticized them both. Most importantly, we caught up with each other. We drank, we laughed, and we spent 4 hours in a place located in the middle of nowhere that is more special than I could have ever imagined. Those things cut a lot deeper than score.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to appreciate the course, the experience, and the participants of the round a lot more than the end result. A lot of times, I think we identify ourselves as golfers during the course of a round and fail to recognize that we are actually experiencers. Which is sad, because 4 hours anywhere is much more of an experience than it ever is an identity, and the experience that is Prairie Dunes is one I certainly won’t forget. Kind of like those Sicilian summers as a young kid a long time ago.