Trip Dispatch: Summer vibes and value golf in Kansas City

A lively scene, bargain green fees and a mix of classic and modern courses make the case for K.C. as a Midwest buddies golf trip.
How's this for a friendly welcome in Kansas City? The opener at Hillcrest Golf Course is a downhill, 240-yard par 3.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – No Convention & Visitors Bureau could possibly drum up a campaign as effective as a local named Amanda, the woman we met on a Friday night in the parking lot of Kauffman Stadium.

The cheerful Royals fan, perhaps especially in good spirits because they had laid nine runs on the Minnesota Twins in the first inning, gleefully offered to load up our merry crew into the back of her SUV to shuttle us downtown to the middle of the action in the Power and Light District. She provided all sorts of local commentary on the way there. And turns out, our destination wasn't even really on her way. What an angel! The $30 saved in fare would be spent on the local economy in other ways.

Travel in early June, 2021, sure felt like a more convivial place than in 2020. Last summer, our buddies trip consisted of no bars or restaurants or hobnobbing. Just golf and back to the house for some grilling and Curb your Enthusiasm. But Summer 2021 is here, and with gratitude to the scientists who were able to roll out vaccines coast-to-coast, citizens can mingle once again. On this weekend in Kansas City full of golf, dining, nightlife and rideshares, this city - reputed to already be a friendly and welcoming place to visitors - seemed especially embracing.

The boys of summer are back in the major leagues.

The public golf on this weekend was at its rollicking finest. "Did you guys order the Fireball shots?" one beverage cart gal hollered to us on the front nine on a Saturday morning, rolling up with two fistfuls of mini bottles. No, we didn't. (A hole later, she shouts over to us, "Nevermind, I found 'em!".) Minutes later, we observed another group shotgunning beers in unison on a nearby tee box. Swing-oil change complete. Full tee sheets everywhere and fairways full of Loudmouth pants and Shark Experience-enabled golf carts kicking the jams.

Hot Duffer Summer in full swing in the heartland.

We settled on Kansas City as our buddies trip destination due mostly to geography. Our foursome's hometowns had it surrounded, and one of us had done some business here and endorsed the town. So we eschewed other better-known golf destinations (previous trips included San Diego and Denver) to see if the golf could hang with its 'cue.

Here's the lowdown on a Kansas City golf trip: It's a city without a true public-access A-Lister, but it has surprising variety, history and excellent value. The most expensive tee time of the week was $68. Four rounds for under $200. That leaves plenty of money to move up a few rows at a Royals game, enjoy a king's feast at the barbecue restaurant of your choice and take in a few rounds of spirits in Westport or the Plaza.

Public Ross, Tillinghast designs near downtown Kansas City

The 10th and 11th greens at Hillcrest Golf Course.

Fans of the classics, listen up: Golden Age architects Donald Ross and A.W. Tillinghast both have affordable public designs you can play and they're close enough to each other you could play them in one day if need be.

Hillcrest Golf Course by Ross has a clever routing that begins with a 240-yard, downhill par 3. Back-to-back par 5s on Nos. 4 and 5 follow. The land rolls pleasantly, with many fairways playing up and over crests to elevated greens. Should someone in your foursome hit the doglegging, humpback 9th fairway, they should be spared from taking their wallet out at the turn. The back nine has two fantastic par 5s that use the small rises in the land wonderfully to create little green reveals on both. The 18th is a short par 4 that, as long as you don't fear blocking a tee shot dead right into the clubhouse, is reachable with a good poke.

New ownership at Hillcrest as of last year has pumped in $800,000 to date restoring course conditions. The new bunkers are complete. Irrigation and drainage work is on going, as are upgrades to the clubhouse. (Green fees: $54-69)

Compare Ross with Tillinghast's work at nearby Swope Memorial Golf Course. Swope is a muni that was built thanks to the generous donation of more than 1,300 acres of land by Thomas Swope. Today, the 6,200-yard layout occupies a dramatic plot within 1,800 acres of green space. It hosted the 1949 Kansas City Open, a PGA Tour event, and the layout to this day - full of elevated tees and greens - is still plenty of challenge for our modern tools. Tillinghast didn't shy away from uphill holes, such as the 3rd and 9th, two of the more wickedly perched greens. Both can be seen from the clubhouse and warn golfers of the trek to come. But two par 5s on the back nine trickle downhill, including a splendid 17th hole with a sunken green and backdrop of downtown K.C. While I walked the course with a push cart, I certainly wouldn't endorse that after a late night in Westport. What the clubhouse lacks in modest amenities it makes up for with historic photography of its illustrious past hosting events and celebrities. (Green fees: $32-54)

Stone Canyon Golf Club

One of the most exciting tee shots in the K.C. market is the short par-4 3rd hole at Stone Canyon.

I was surprised to learn about a public-access Ross design in K.C., and I didn't expect to encounter The Shark, either. Greg Norman's design portfolio is typically reserved for the most exotic locales, usually accompany a luxury resort and have a three-figure green fee. Yet here we were at his Stone Canyon design playing it on a Friday for a non-refundable online special of $35. Opened in 2009, it still operates out of an over-achieving double-wide trailer. The bar and grill is stocked, the practice facility is solid and course conditions were the best of the trip. The layout is expansive with some neat holes winding along rock outcroppings. It's a generally big ballpark void of much development, many holes playing within their own quiet corridor unless your cart mate cranks up the Shark Experience-enabled tunes. There is some solid hole variety and interest on and around the greens. The short par-4 3rd hole from an elevated tee tempts you to take an ill-advised cut at a small but beautifully guarded green.

Stone Canyon is east of town and the drive out passes Kauffman and Arrowhead Stadium, so if you're here on the right weekend, try and time a round here with a ballgame after.

Shoal Creek Golf Course

Shoal Creek Golf Club, north of downtown, features two scenic par 3s on the back nine, including the 17th.

Here are some keys for a good arrival day round when your crew is flying in on four different flights: find a crowd-pleasing layout by the airport with a driving range, locker room and restaurant. We locked in on Shoal Creek, located conveniently between the airport and downtown K.C. The KemperSports-managed facility has a tremendous reputation among KC public golfers and made our Golfers' Choice Missouri list this year. It's a modern design from 2001 by Steve Woffard that weaves through a mix of treelined and more wide open holes. Swinging hammers off a few fairways suggest a robust local housing economy (is that everywhere in 2021?) but the course is generally quiet and forgiving with scenic surroundings. Highlights include two scenic downhill par 3s on the back, as well as the reachable par-5 9th hole with a friendly fairway that kicks drives downhill a few extra yards. (Green fees: $50-69)

Off the course

You'll get a dozen recommendations for barbecue upon announcing to the world you've got a trip planned to K.C. We chose Que39 in Westport because it was near our home rental. The ribs were a highlight as was the service and drink list. We went after golf at 4 p.m. before the dinner rush - a wise move ... I'm pickier about my buffalo wings than my golf architects, so I had to see the wings at The Original Peanut to believe them ... huge, crispy and saucy wings and legs in a dive-bar atmosphere in the Plaza area ... Other fun spots in Westport was Mickey's Hideaway - great for drinks and dinner and had an absurdly long fooseball that could put four players aside. Nearby Char Bar has a big outdoor area and some lawn games like Cornhole ... We spent a late night in Westport at Off-Key, a karaoke bar with private rooms and a gregarious main bar area.

More public golf options around Kansas City

One intangible to consider: since all of K.C.'s public courses are local-oriented, most only open up their online tee sheet about a week in advance. Considering how busy golf courses are in 2021, the small window makes the primary duty of the trip captain a little tougher. I dutifully called a couple pro shops a few days early prior to the tee sheets opening up, explained we were from out of town, and we were accommodated and given a prime weekend slot. How's that for hospitality? | Browse Kansas City tee times on GolfNow

We settled on four rounds but there were a few more courses I wish I'd checked out. Tiffany Greens was another modern course near the airport we considered and gets solid reviews. The most expensive daily-fee facility in the area ($93 weekend) is Troon-managed Ironhorse Golf Club, located south of town. It's a mid-1990s Mike Hurdzan design that touts a difficult layout and some of the best facilities and service in the area. It also made our Golfers' Choice 2021 Kansas list.

I also really wanted to play a short course but time evaded us. Drumm Farm's par-30 executive layout came recommended. Heart of America Golf Course is in the same area as Swope and Hillcrest and features a par-3 course and 2,600-yard, 9-hole course. One of the highest-rated nine-hole courses on GolfPass is also in the market, Falcon Valley, located west of town in Kansas.

About 80 minutes west of Kansas City, Firekeeper Golf Course is also a reputable destination course on Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation reservation and casino affiliated, which usually means great conditions and service. After flying into town, we weren't in a hurry to drive over an hour for golf. But it's by all accounts on the short list for best public experience in Kansas.

The more coveted golf destinations around these parts are the Ozarks and Big Cedar Lodge, but Kansas City certainly fit the bill for a fulfilling combination of solid golf, savory food and nightlife. And we saved a little money to consider going bigger on our trip next summer.

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Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
Commented on

Right on the money. You played some great tracks and ate some great food. Be sure to get out to Ironhorse next time!

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Trip Dispatch: Summer vibes and value golf in Kansas City