From Golf Digest Architecture Editor Emeritus Ron Whitten:
In central Virginia, there’s a stream where people still regularly pan for gold. In Arkansas, there’s a park where, for the price of admission, you can dig for diamonds all day. But in Kansas, where I've lived for 50 years, prospectors search for something far more precious—long forgotten Perry Maxwell-designed golf courses.
One of the major Maxwell discoveries occurred in the early 1990s, at Hillcrest Golf Course in Coffeyville, close by the Oklahoma border in the southeast corner of Kansas. It pains me to say that I had a hand in delaying its discovery, and it pains me even more to now report that it’s not quite the major find that many think it is.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in the 1980s, Hillcrest was a scruffy little nine-hole municipal layout right beside the town’s Pfister Park. The clubhouse sat high on a hill, overlooking weed-infested fairways far below. The place was such a shambles, locals called it “Goat Hill.”
Two longtime patrons of the course, Wilma Buckner and Eleanor Kee, insisted there was a gem beneath that crabgrass and nutsedge. It was a Perry Maxwell design, they told everyone and his brother. Problem was, everyone and his brother would respond that, according to the so-called definitive book on golf architecture, The Architects of Golf, by Geoffrey Cornish and [yours truly] Ron Whitten, Hillcrest was designed by Kansas City architect Smiley Bell.
(What can I say? We had it wrong. Smiley Bell designed the other course in Coffeyville, the Country Club.)
Buckner and Kee were sure they were right because Harry Strasburger Jr., the best golfer to ever come out of Coffeyville, had told them he’d been the guy back in the 1930s who had contacted Maxwell, brought him in to remodel Hillcrest Country Club’s primitive nine-hole sand greens course and even hit shots from spots that Perry designated in order to determine landing areas and green locations.
It wasn’t until Sandra “Sam” Graves became Hillcrest’s superintendent in March of 1992 that Buckner and Kee found a sympathetic ear. Sam and her husband Steve, who was superintendent of nearby Independence Country Club, talked with Strasburger, then in his 90s. He verified everything again, even told them how Maxwell had said, “This is going to make you a real nice golf course, but you’re still going to have to climb a hill.” Strasburger even recalled that he played in the inaugural foursome when Hillcrest reopened. Problem was, he couldn’t remember just when that happened.
So the two Graves started researching through microfilmed issues of the Coffeyville Journal, starting with 1939, working their way backwards. It took months, but Steve finally turned a page to the June 15, 1933 issue, and there it was. A full article on the remodeled Hillcrest, a Perry Maxwell design. The writer even quoted Maxwell saying Hillcrest was the very best job he had ever turned out. (This was pre-Prairie Dunes, pre-Southern Hills.)
Sam Graves later pieced together the rest of the club’s history. Membership in the private club dwindled during the Depression, and when war rationing hit in 1943, the club sold the course to the city for a single dollar. And for years, that seemed about the only money the city spent on the course.
In the mid-1990s, Sam moved on. Three superintendents followed, but improvements didn’t occur until 2004, under superintendent Derek Murdock, a Coffeyville native who had worked as a kid for Graves, then attended Oklahoma State. Murdock finally got a modern irrigation system, which allowed him to strengthen the Bermuda turf on the fairways and improve the bent-grass greens. He also established better drainage and cultivated Buffalograss roughs.
As for Buckner and Kee, they found a new crusade in the mid-1990s, lobbying the city to free up some money and expand Hillcrest to a full 18-holes. They happened to play golf with Anita Bahle, whose husband, Tulsa golf architect Jerry Slack, was very familiar with Maxwell’s designs. So Slack was retained to lay out the additional nine, now the front nine, on rolling hills along the fringes of Pfister Park (which also got an upgrade, including a water park.) Slack’s work was completed in 1998, with Buckner and Kee hitting ceremonial first balls.
If you now play Hillcrest (and you should), you’ll probably feel, as I did, that Slack did an adequate job of saluting Perry Maxwell’s style on his nine. It’s by no means as seamless as the additional holes Press Maxwell installed at his father’s nine-hole Prairie Dunes Country Club back in 1957 (where even members have a hard time recalling which are originals and which are add-ons). But you can tell Slack worked hard to fit holes into the lay of the land, create small greens with interesting contours (nothing radical, but nothing flat, either), and position a few Maxwell-like clamshell bunkers at all the right spots. (It’s all the more impressive if you also play Slack’s new nine at Coffeyville Country Club, just down the road. There, he created a links-like prairie nine that doesn’t mesh at all with its tree-lined original. Not his fault. That’s the land he was given. Lucky for him, and us, that Pfister Park had plenty of old trees and ravines with which to work at Hillcrest.)
The Slack nine begins with a dogleg left around a ravine filled with trees, downhill off the tee, then uphill to the green. The cute little third, just 114 yards, plays over the corner of a manmade lake, and the 446-yard fourth, another dogleg left, up over the horizon off the tee this time, then downhill to a green tucked amongst oaks and cedars, is a very fine imitation of an old Maxwell hole. The uphill 498-yard par-5 fifth is not particularly testing, but a bold green contour helps a bit. Don’t blame Slack for its proximity to Veterans Memorial Stadium, by the way. That mammoth structure, home to both Coffeyville Community College’s Red Ravens and Field Kindley High School’s Golden Tornado, came afterwards, opening in 2001.
The nine concludes with a most curious 90-degree dogleg-right, just 326 yards long. It must be played with far less than a driver off the tee to keep from rolling through the fairway into trees and a ravine. From the landing area, it’s straight uphill to a recessed green, with a graceful false front that brings to mind a “Maxwell roll” green contour. The salient feature on the ninth were three oval bunkers recessed into the hillside, just past the landing area, the sort of dramatic bunkering that Perry Maxwell did at Old Town Club in Winston-Salem, N.C., at Southern Hills in Tulsa and elsewhere. Those bunkers made the ninth hole look more like a Perry Maxwell hole than any other on the opening nine.
Alas, the last time I played Hillcrest, all three bunkers had been filled in. Too many washouts, I was told. Too big of a maintenance headache. Personally, I would have invested in a sand stabilizing fabric and worked harder to preserve those three bunkers.
The front is a nice, pleasant nine, evocative of Perry Maxwell, but just barely, especially when compared to the Maxwell holes on the back nine. That nine starts rather slowly, with a straightforward par-4 along the top ridge of the course, past the cart barns. But once you plunge off the 11th tee into the valley below, into the remainder of the course, you’ll encounter one remarkable green after another. Shotmaking and putting are both dictated by the small size and exaggerated contours of those greens. They’re classic Maxwell “potato-chip” greens, with humps and bubbles in the middles and sides and corners that slope off. Greens like those on the uphill par-3 12th and 400-yard 16th have to be seen to be appreciated. The greens contain dips, hollows, even troughs, that surface-drain water and will surface-repel your golf ball if you’re even slightly offline.
I’d love to declare them some of the best Perry Maxwell greens I’ve ever played. Problem is, they’re not Maxwell greens. Slack rebuilt all nine greens in 2000, expanding them from tiny tilted tabletops into the sweeping, rolling potato chips of today. I was astonished when told that, and called Slack for confirmation. Why, I asked him, didn’t you do the same sort of greens on the front nine? “I guess I was a little timid, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I suppose I should have been a little bolder on those greens. When I got the job to rebuilt the Maxwell greens, well, nobody really knew if they were authentic or not. Some certainly looked like they’d been changed quite a bit. So I decided I’d just build the best set of Maxwell greens I could.”
He did a bang-up job in that regard. But by doing that, instead of reproducing the milder greens he’d previously created for the front nine, Slack perpetuates the myth that the back nine is pure, undiluted Maxwell. Truth is, only Maxwell’s routing really remains intact. Most everything else has been changed. That wonderful 16th green, for example, was moved by Slack 70 yards back, to the far side of a ravine, where Slack is convinced Maxwell originally had it.
If you are a fan of Perry Maxwell architecture, I’m sorry to say that Coffeyville’s Hillcrest is not a great rediscovered Maxwell gem. But it’s still worth visiting someday, to play a decent, enjoyable low-budget municipal golf course that sports nine of the finest imitation Maxwell greens you’ll ever encounter. Who knows? Someday this may be considered one of Jerry Slack’s long forgotten classics.