Sunflower Hills benefits from location and unique design
By David Smale
They are common terms around golf courses. But “traffic” and “up and down” have different meanings at Sunflower Hills Golf Course in Kansas City, Kan.
Traffic, in this case, has nothing to do with how many people walk through the doors with the intention of playing golf. Located at the intersection of Interstate 70 and Highway 7, 40,000 to 50,000 cars pass by the road that leads directly to the course. That puts Sunflower Hills in the path of plenty of traffic.
There is another type of traffic that is very evident from the course, and we’re not talking about the holes on the course that border I-70 close enough that a very errant tee shot could end up on the interstate.
Kansas Speedway and its millions of dollars in tourism continue to benefit the course and the surrounding area, the constant hum of 40-plus 850-horsepower engines less than a mile away on race weekends notwithstanding.
“The Speedway development was very beneficial for us,” said Jeff Johnson, the course professional at Sunflower Hills who has been there for 38 of the course’s 42 years of existence.
“The people who helped build the speedway, Turner Construction, built our six-hole junior course, which is in the park adjacent to the course. They did it at no cost to us. They were very benevolent. That’s a good feature for us to help kids learn how to play.
“The Legends development has been good for us as well, because they put in at least six new hotels. We get a lot of people who come to our course when they come to town.”
The Speedway opening initially hurt Sunflower Hills on race weekends. Johnson said that people were fearful of the traffic surrounding the race. “Once people learned how to manipulate around the time and traffic pattern,” he said, “that’s no longer the case.
“We do see quite a few fans who come over and play, either the Thursday or Friday before or the day after the races. We don’t get the NASCAR drivers as much as we get a lot of the support people to come over and play. We do see a lot of the same faces a couple of times every year.”
The stability at Sunflower Hills goes beyond Johnson and his clubhouse manager, Chuck Ettinger, who has been there since the course opened. It traces back to the Unified Government of Wyandotte County. Johnson said that the Unified Government has been on the course’s side from the beginning.
“We have a commitment from the Unified Government to have a very nice product for the public,” Johnson said. “It’s not a typical municipal golf course in the respect that we really pay attention to the condition of the course. We try to keep the greens in the best condition possible. The same with the fairways. They’ve always had that commitment, and they’ve done a good job of supporting us. We have the same budget problems that everybody else does, but we’ve been able to have a good reputation of having a well-maintained course.”
It’s also a course that takes “up and down” down a different path.
“The challenge is that you never experience a level lie,” Johnson said. “There’s always some sort of pitch to your lie, which makes it tricky. When the course was built, they just took the terrain they had. The only dirt they moved was to level out the greens and the tee boxes. They didn’t do a whole lot of shaping of the fairways.
”Up-and-down can be used to describe your day on the course. It’s a good walk. We do have some people who walk the course, but most use carts.”
Designed by famed golf course architect Roger Packard, the course uses some of Packard’s more successful designs. Packard and his father designed a well-known course in Tampa called Innisbrook Golf Resort. Johnson, who has played Innisbrook, sees plenty of similarities.
“The terrain is the hilliest in Florida, though there aren’t a lot of hills in Florida,” Johnson said. “There are four or five holes that have a big similarity to holes on their course. There’s a par-5 that looks just like our hole No. 1. They have a par-4 that looks just like our hole No. 7.”
One of those Packard designs that’s evident at Sunflower Hills is in the form of large greens. That’s good and bad for golfers.
“The greens are big, so you have to be good at putting,” Johnson said. “Big greens are good, because it’s easier to hit them. But if you’re on the green, you might leave yourself some really long putts.
“Also, the way the course sits, most of the holes are cross-wind. The prevailing winds come out of the south or the north, and all but four holes lay out primarily east to west or west to east. That makes shots a lot more difficult.”
Though not patterned after Augusta National, Sunflower Hills has its own “Amen Corner” that challenges golfers through a difficult stretch of holes. It starts on hole 13 and runs through 17.
Hole 14 is Johnson’s favorite. “It doglegs to the right and has a couple of ponds on it,” he said. “It’s a longer hole, but it’s not so long that you can’t reach it in regulation. No. 15 is our most difficult hole.
“If you can get through that stretch without too many bogeys and double-bogeys, you’re doing pretty good. That’s where the challenge is.”
Wrapping up the round is hole 18, with its forced carry over the water. “From the red tees, it’s a pretty good poke to get it over the water,” Johnson said. “Some golfers will lay up, but some try to beat the challenge.
“If people are looking for a good test of golf, regardless of their level, this is it. The beginner, all the way up to the very good golfer, will get a challenge. By shortening up the course, we’ve made it so that the beginners can have a good time. The hills and the cross winds make it a challenge for the best golfers.”
A challenge for the best golfers on a municipal course. There’s another new definition that applies at Sunflower Hills.