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Play Away: Kansas City, Here You Come

In the 1920s, Kansas City was the self-anointed "Paris of the Plains." As the hub of jazz music and home to a decadent nightlife scene filled with booze, brothels and boogie joints, Kansas City attracted hordes of writers, musicians and artists who would help transform a sleepy cow town into Sin City for the next two decades. Some eighty years later, the similarities of KC to the City of Lights are still evident: The jazz scene continues to flourish, a resurgent arts community has taken hold in the city's Crossroads district and, if you stand on one of the bridges crossing Brush Creek and gaze at the elaborate fountains and European architecture that dominate the Country Club Plaza area, transporting yourself to the Pont Neuf isn't impossible.

But there's another renaissance taking place in Kansas City. Over the past ten years, no fewer than twenty new golf courses have been built, a few maturing into top-flight status. The bonus?More bang for your buck. It's tough to find greens fees more than $70, even on summer weekends. So while Kansas City might never be known as the "Pebble Beach of the Plains," that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Kansas City straddles the border of Missouri and Kansas (providing the basis for many spirited bar arguments—MU or KU?), but the action in town takes place on the Mizzou side. The beauty of KC is that it's no more than three hours away from either coast. Grab a morning flight out and you're on the first tee no later than early afternoon. Kansas City International Airport is served by every major airline, with Southwest offering the most nonstop flights. Renting a car is essential; cabs are expensive, and since KC has succumbed to suburban sprawl, you'll be doing a bit of driving to get to the best courses. Downtown and the aforementioned Country Club Plaza (also where many of the hotels and nightlife outposts are located) are twenty to thirty minutes south of the airport.

As one might expect, there aren't many drastic elevation changes on Kansas City courses; the natural beauty comes via gentle hills and natural prairie grasses. But those grasses aren't so beautiful if your ball goes into the thick stuff found at tracks such as Tiffany Greens Golf Club, a mere ten minutes from the airport. Robert Trent Jones Jr. also put water in play on thirteen of the eighteen holes here, with the lengthy par threes especially nasty (the fourth, tenth and fifteenth all require 150-yard forced carries over ponds), especially when the wind kicks up from the south and west. The highlight of the round is the final four holes on the front side, which roll sweetly through the pastoral land with nary a McMansion in sight.

Just down the road is the Shoal Creek Golf Course, which, though city owned, has the feel of a private club, with GPS on all carts, a comfortable clubhouse and a twenty-five-space practice range. Only three years old, Shoal Creek seems to be maturing faster than some of the other area offerings, with the oversize undulating greens and zoysia-grass fairways already in primo condition. At just over 3,300 yards, the back side is three hundred yards shorter than the front but is more demanding, with accurate tee shots necessary onto the narrower fairways and approaches that must navigate deep front-side bunkers at the greens.

Opening around the same time as Shoal Creek, Prairie Highlands Golf Course is the best example of minimalist course design in KC. Here, in the wavy grasslands fifteen miles southwest of downtown, architect Craig Schreiner avoided the heavy lifting by routing each hole into the natural contours of the earth. As you might expect, it's a flat, wide-open and walkable links-style course. It isn't terribly difficult but provides the perfect venue for practicing your low, running wind cheaters.

You'll need that practice for the Ironhorse Golf Club, because it doesn't take long for this Michael Hurdzan track to rear up and kick you in the face. The 211-yard uphill par-three second forces the golfer to fly a giant ravine to a tiny, downward-sloping green; hit it anywhere short and the ball tumbles into the ditch. Located in the well-heeled southern suburb of Leawood, Kansas, Ironhorse is said to be a favorite of professional athletes both local and visiting (the starter let slip that Roger Clemens played it every time he was in town), and it's easy to see why: The back nine might be the best collection of public holes in KC. The stretch is highlighted by the scenic eleventh and the fifteenth, par fours that are both less than four hundred yards but have split fairways bisected by a creek that throws down the ultimate risk-reward challenge. Go long and you're chipping; miss left and get wet. If those two aren't enough, the 475-yard par-four eighteenth finishes it all off with a long uphill second shot over a creek onto a roller coaster of a green. Brutal, but exhilarating.

Nor is any quarter offered at Falcon Ridge Golf Course. Set in the hills on the southwestern fringe of the metro area, Falcon Ridge is deceptively difficult. Its wide fairways afford generous landing areas off the tees, but trees and jungle-thick rough quickly taper in toward the putting surfaces. The 568-yard par-five eleventh is three-shot territory with a long second that must avoid water to the left before an approach to the slanted green. Word to the wise: Falcon Ridge hosts an inordinate amount of corporate events during the week. Playing on the weekend will help maintain your sanity—and your schedule.

Nearly every hotel chain is represented in KC, with the venerable 366-room Fairmont—on Country Club Plaza—considered the best. Two other smaller properties stand out: The Raphael, across the street from the Fairmont, was voted one of Travel + Leisure's top 500 hotels. Originally designed as luxury apartments in 1927, the Raphael is serene and intimate, with a distinct left-bank feel and atmosphere—lots of dark wood, deep tones and cozy sitting areas. Located downtown is the Hotel Phillips. The art deco masterpiece was built in 1931 and recently underwent a $20 million renovation that has given the property some needed sleekness, though it still retains its old-world charm. The modern rooms are a tad on the small side, but after a few drinks in the trendy 12 Baltimore lounge downstairs, you'll hardly notice.

Kansas City cuisine means one thing: barbeque. And while North Carolina is known for pork, and beef rules the pit in Texas, KC barbeque doesn't discriminate, piling it all onto one heart-attack-inducing platter after another. Of the two most renowned pits, Arthur Bryant's and Gates & Sons, the slight nod goes to the no-frills, order-at-the-counter Bryant's—once declared by writer Calvin Trillin as "the single best restaurant in the world"—for its succulent sliced beef and chewy burnt ends (a true KC staple, burnt ends are the end trimmings of a smoked brisket). Fancy by local BBQ standards, Fiorella's Jack Stack has the most extensive menu in town and actual table service. But the real treasures are the lesser-known places—at least to visitors—like LC's and Oklahoma Joe's (located inside a gas station), where meaty ribs and melt-in-your-mouth sliced pork are the respective kings.


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