From Golf Digest Architecture Editor emeritus Ron Whitten:
I was once very familiar with Blue Hills Country Club in Kansas City, as I'd served as a marshal there for several years during the long-run of Tom Watson's annual charity exhibition match for Children's Mercy Hospital. (My most vivid memory was the year John Daly, during a practice tee clinic, turned around and fired a tee shot directly over the heads of spectators seated in bleachers behind. It truly startled people and scared some of them.)
I hadn't seen the course since the late 1990s until I recently attended a Korn Ferry Tour event there, the AdventHealth Championship. It emphasized to me just how much the game has changed in the past quarter century. Where I distinctly remember Watson and company hitting long irons off downhill lies to hilltop greens, I now witness kids driving it clear to the bottom of those hills and hitting wedges for second shots.
The course had changed some since I'd last been there. For instance, an elaborate waterscape down the left side of the par-3 14th, added by Craig Schreiner in the mid-1990s, is now gone. And while most of the tall mature hardwood trees still remain, I don't see many evergreens in the rough anymore.
Blue Hills was originally built on a treeless farm field in the early 1960s by Oklahoma golf architect Bob Dunning, who was trained as an agronomist and was responsible for the earliest Zoysiagrass fairways in the nation. I got to know Dunning before his death in 1979. He'd retired to Emporia, Kan., and during one visit he gave me his sketches of alternate-route holes and double-fairway holes and other experiments he said he never got to try for real. I still have his original plan for Blue Hills. Its routing remains exactly as it was on paper, including the too-short practice range that requires a high fence to keep shots from hitting golfers on the fourth fairway.
Dunning's Blue Hills plan was characterized by two things: an inordinate number of dogleg-left holes (nine of the 18 turn to the left) and greens of all sorts of different shapes and levels. His design had a cloverleaf green and an L-shaped one, some long and narrow (like the 18th, which still exists) and some wide and shallow (like the par-3 eighth, which also still exists). What wasn't imaginative were the inordinate number of greens guarded by bunkers on the front left and front right corners. They are evident on his plan and although the course has been rebunkered, most of those dogmatic bunkers remain in place. (This is a slight criticism of my colleague Todd Clark, a fine golf architect with whom I've been working with on several remodeling jobs in the Kansas City market. He redid the Blue Hills bunkers in 2007.)
The bunkering on the hilltop fourth green brings to mind one of my pet peeves. The front third of that green is a "false front," steeply sloped so that golfers in the fairway below can see some portion of the surface of the otherwise hidden green. That section is far too steep for any pin placements, yet it's squeezed by bunkers left and right, two small ones on the left, a sprawling, attractive one on the right. Meanwhile, the back portion of the green, where all the action is, is completely unguarded. So the tactic should be, Miss it Long. The same pattern repeats itself hole after hole at Blue Hills. I counted four greens with bunkers behind them but 15 greens with front bunkers left and right.
There are three new fairway bunkers on the outside turn of the opening tee shot, so new they don't even show up on the AdventHealth course map posted by the first tee. They were just added by golf architect Kevin Hargrave, who is the club's new consulting architect. They are dramatically different than others on the course, with high steep flashes of sand and fairway mowed right up to their leading edges. I suspect Kevin built these as a test run, and if the membership approves, he'll rebuild the remaining bunkers sometime in the future.
I have hope the club will allow him to provide a good deal more variety in the greenside bunkering than now exists at Blue Hills. But alas, I just looked at his proposed Blue Hills master plan on his website, and it's the same old bunkering pattern that presently exists. Change seems to come hard at Blue Hills.