HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Mike McGraw strode purposefully down the 12th fairway at Prairie Dunes, his yardage book stuffed in his back-right pocket, reading glasses hooked around his belt loop, four practice putting disks clipped to his side.
“This is my favorite course I’ve ever been on,” he said Thursday, surveying this Perry Maxwell gem. “It’s unlike anything you’ll see.”
Few, if any, coaches in this week’s NCAA Championship have spent more time at this links-style course than McGraw, the former Oklahoma State head coach and current Alabama assistant. He figured this was his 60th round here, after spending a dozen years coaching the Cowboys at the Big 12 Championship.
Naturally, his yardage book is chock-full of hard-earned knowledge:
Hole 10, a 185-yard par 3: “Hit to same spot on all 3 holes locations: Middle.”
Hole 11, a 535-yard par 4: “Hit ball at tree,” with an “X” all down the left side.
Hole 12, a 390-yard par 4: “Think center of green.”
Current Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton has plenty of rounds under his belt too, both as a player (back in the Big 8 days) and as a coach, in 2007, ’09 and ’11.
Texas’ John Fields has coached 11 Big 12s here (three wins).
So how much of an advantage do they truly have this week at NCAAs?
“Certainly we have no excuse on where we’re supposed to go,” Bratton said, “but the guys still have to execute shots.”
Said McGraw, with a smile, “I’ve always wanted to be at a course that I’ve seen.”
Many players here just wrapped up finals, and the one-day cram session here Thursday was not much different: There is a lot of information to process and not a lot of time.
That’s why many teams will conduct their own reconnaissance, either after their final fall tournament or during a soft spot in the spring schedule.
No. 4 Georgia Tech played here in the fall. No. 6 Georgia took a scouting trip three weeks ago, before regionals.
Neither were feasible options for No. 8 Washington, but head coach Matt Thurmond and twoassistants made a quick trip in late March. They played 36 holes on Saturday, 18 the next morning and then flew back to Seattle.
“The last thing I’d ever want is for my guys to feel like they’re at a disadvantage,” Thurmond says. “The only reason we came out was so the players at least felt like the coaches had it under control.”
During those visits, though, it was brown, windy and, like usual, a brutal and fair test. When the 30 teams arrived at 9 a.m. Thursday for their one and only official NCAA practice round, the conditions were nothing like it – warm sun, soft greens, light wind.
Midway through his practice round, Oklahoma’s Michael Gellerman, who grew up about 20 miles away in Sterling, said he had never seen the course so calm.
“It’s the easiest I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “There have been times I’ve played here and thought that breaking 80 that day was pretty good.”
Not long after that remark the horn sounded – likely not for the final time this week – as inclement weather approached. After an hour-long delay, Prairie Dunes was back in itselement, with the sun beating down and a steady 20-mph wind. The number of players searching for their balls in the fescue rose exponentially.
The last four times that Big 12s were played here, the three-round winning score was 19, 19, 26 and 29 over par. Those tournaments were played in late April, when the predominant (and more difficult) wind was out of the north, but even this time of year the wind serves as the sub-7,000-yard course’s main defense.
“It’s not an impossible golf course,” Oklahoma coach Ryan Hybl said, “but there have been some horror stories.”
And he would know: The Sooners shot a combined 172 over par during their last three Big 12 Championships here.
Hybl remembers standing on the fifth green one year and seeing a wall cloud closing in, fast. By the time they reached the sixth tee it was blowing 50. When they were on the sixth green the course was unplayable, with balls rolling off the putting surfaces and sand blowing out of the bunkers. All in 15 minutes.
“I fell in love with this place the first time I saw it,” he said, “and that was with a stocking cap and four layers of clothing on.”
Thursday was the first time that No. 3 Stanford had ever seen Prairie Dunes – at least in person.
For weeks they have researched a website, GolfClubAtlas.com, that posts pictures and hole-by-hole descriptions from an architect’s perspective. They messed around on Google Earth. They even received a few tips from Juli Inkster, who won both a U.S.Women’s Amateur (1980) and U.S. Women’s Open (2002) at Prairie Dunes.
In her chats with Cardinal coach Conrad Ray, Inkster stressed speed control on the greens and the importance of the second shot. From many of these back tees, finding the fairway off the tee is imperative, too.
When Stanford junior Patrick Rodgers, the No. 1-ranked player in college golf, prepares on an unfamiliar course, his mission is twofold: 1.) Get comfortable with club selection and lines off the tee; and 2.) Map how the slopes can help around the green.
“You can see all the pictures that you want,” he said, “but until you see how it’s playing you can’t get a good idea.”
Some coaches are wary of information overload, especially on a jam-packed day like Thursday, which brings us back to No. 1 Alabama.
As McGraw broke down sight lines and wind directions and hole locations, head coach Jay Seawell hung back and kept things loose. He had a rangefinder slung around his right shoulder, his umbrella doubled as his walking stick, and he deferred to the man making his 60th tour around Prairie Dunes.
“I’m doing my job,” Seawell said, “and that’s to stay out of the way. I’m just trying to make sure that they take all that information and remember, simply, that they’re good players.”
Maybe that reminder should be scribbled in their yardage books, too.