To discover what golf courses were like over a century ago, tee it up at Tomahawk Hills Golf Club in Shawnee.
Tomahawk, the oldest golf course in Kansas City, was carved through the woods, over streams and into hillsides without today’s modern equipment and sophisticated design methods. The course was first established in 1910 as Elm Ridge Golf & Country Club.
Tomahawk is a course that has to be played on its own terms. Fairways are sometimes flat, sometimes tilted. Greens tend to be small, turtle-backed, and unforgiving. The course puts a premium on landing in the right spot or risking a bounce into the woods.
But there are many rewards to playing the grand-daddy of Kansas City golf courses.
For one thing, few courses inside the metro area can match Tomahawk’s back-to-nature feel. There is not a single house on the golf course.
“You are going to see a lot of wildlife out here, including deer and turkeys,” said Jay Lispi, head professional at Tomahawk. “It’s a pretty course and most holes are kind of individual – only a couple of them border each other.”
Fall is an especially picturesque time to play Tomahawk. The highest point, up on the 7th tee, offers sweeping views not only of the course but the surrounding area.
Tomahawk is one of the few regulation courses anywhere to have par 3s on both the 9th and 18th holes. Both can be considered signature holes because the tees sit high above the greens, giving tee shots a lot of hang time and a distance difficult to gauge for newcomers. Anybody who has played Tomahawk even once will probably remember the course for the dramatic 9th and 18th holes.
Holes 1, 2, 3, 10 and 11 at Tomahawk are played throughout the lower area of the landscape that the course occupies, while all the other tees are in the high country.
The course is short at 6,000 yards, but demands careful layups.
“This is totally different than any other course in Kansas City,” Lispi said. “It’s hard. There are a lot of trees and you have to hit it straight. On most of the greens, the best place to miss it is short.”
The course opens with a par 5, straight and flat, but with a creek running down the entire right side. It is the longest hole on the course at 540 yards from the white tee. A par there is a great start for most players.
Tomahawk has another par 5 on the front and then, unusually, back-to-back par 5s on the back that are each over 530 yards from the white tees. Local knowledge plays a big part on where to aim the ball on sometimes blind shots on both holes.
The best birdie opportunities may come on three par 4s that range from 265 to 310 yards. The 17th is a memorable, sharp dogleg right. A long and well-placed tee shot right over the trees can leave the ball just a short pitch to the green, even though the hole plays 400 yards.
There are six par 3s on the course that account for the par 70 layout.
While not easy, Tomahawk can be walked, thanks in part to marshals who provide rides up to the 4th and 12th tees from the flat ground below. People who have played the course for a long time will remember rickety steel trams that would transport players up to the two tees.
Tomahawk is owned by Johnson County Department of Parks and Recreation, which also owns Heritage Park Golf Course in Olathe. Heritage opened in 1990.
A few years ago, the county replaced Tomahawk’s aging, leaky old clubhouse with a modern facility that has a banquet room, lounge, dining area and large wrap-around front porch that overlooks the 9th and 18th greens and practice area.
More recently, the course moved the old practice area from near the first hole to near the tenth hole. The new range has zoysia grass tees and modern mats for winter and wet conditions. There is an 8,000-square-foot putting green. Lispi, who became the pro at Tomahawk 25 years ago, offers lessons by appointment on all aspects of the game.
Tomahawk has some of the most reasonable green fees in town, with discounts for seniors and juniors. Information on rates, league play, lessons and the course itself are available on the club’s website, tomahawkhillsgc.com, or by calling 913-631-8000. Patron cards are good for both Tomahawk and Heritage Park.
Tomahawk had about 21,000 rounds of golf last year. Play has been in decline partly due to competition from other nearby courses, Lispi said. Golf in general has suffered from other types of entertainment and sports competing for people’s time, he said.
Tomahawk draws people of all ages, with weekdays popular for seniors and weekends for players of all ages, Lispi said. On the bright side for the future of local golf, Tomahawk drew more players than ever last year for its junior golf program, Lispi said.
“That’s the main thing – getting the kids out here to play.”