Photo courtesy of the USGA.
With a relentless desire to create something world class, a passion for wildlife and an entrepreneurial spirit, Tom Devlin knew he found something special upon discovering the land that is now Flint Hills National Golf Club.
In 1990, Devlin began working to make his dream a reality. His ambition to build a destination-worthy course led him to search for land in the heart of south central Kansas.
“I knew what I wanted and I knew the need was here.”
– Tom Devlin, Owner
“The Wichita area didn’t need another golf course. They needed something world class, a course people would travel to play.”
While his dream was clear, the search for where this course would become a reality was a bit more challenging.
After searching by car, Devlin decided to take to the sky, hovering in a helicopter over a 10-mile radius of land outside of Wichita near Andover and Rose Hill. Beyond a tree line of hundreds of mature trees, he found William Graham’s sprawling 640-acre estate.
Upon returning to the ground and exploring the landscape by foot, he discovered the natural hills, trees and water he was seeking to include to attract wildlife as part of the design of the course.
A deal was struck with the Graham family beginning the swift movement forward.
Devlin knew he needed help with the oversight of the intricate details required to build a championship course. His next call was to a friend, Tom Dower, one he knew and trusted to make good knowledgeable decisions and build the course alongside of him. “The combination of the two of us was the right one to build the course,” said Devlin.
Prior to even securing the land, Devlin knew he wanted one of the nation’s top golf course architects,
Tom Fazio to build the course. Fazio, an architect from Hendersonville, N.C., was known for taking a piece of land and designing it to include its natural elements while maintaining good short holes. While on his way to build another course, Devlin convinced Fazio to drive through the Flint Hills property to see the natural timbers and expansive piece of land. Fazio agreed the land was good looking and ripe for a golf course, but his waiting list set the prospect of him being able to help create the course back by three years. A bit of luck led a course in another state to be delayed and Fazio to call Dower and say “If you can start next week, we’ll come now.”
Dower and Devlin accepted Fazio’s swift bid and took a leap of faith. In September of 1995, Fazio joined Devlin to walk the land and place the initial routings.
Fazio was presented with a blank canvas – a square mile of green land with no roads or houses to interfere with design. Like an artist with the ability to create a freehanded sketch, Fazio could create whatever course he felt was best for this piece of land.
“I have built a hundred golf courses. Everything I learned from the first 99 went into this,” Fazio said. “I always strive for a visual impact of a special place, one that people will remember. I seek something sensational and dramatic.
Yet I believe that a golf course should look difficult, but actually play easier than it appears,” said Fazio.
Devlin, Dower, Devlin’s wife Myra and key members of the Flint Hills National staff, set out on a trip to visit the best golf courses in the country. Their goal was to determine the elements they must include at Flint Hills National. Friends of Devlin at these top courses generously provided a backstage view and revealed the keys to creating the highest-quality experience in golf.
Equipped with new knowledge about the attention and details required, and relying on their individual passions, Devlin and Dower returned to Kansas and set to work. With an eye on intentionally designing the best quality course with the most natural beauty and wildlife around, Devlin longed to create a wildlife preserve, not just a course.
“We wanted to create a place where people could escape, a sanctuary to experience the natural beauty of the sights and sounds of the wildlife present,” Devlin said.
To create a mature-looking wildlife preserve and course required a bit of ingenuity. Trees that were originally at Flint Hills National were carefully scooped up and moved to a nursery to be tended to while the course was being built. When the time was right, the trees were brought back to places on the course and replanted. Thousands of trees– cottonwoods, cedars, maples, pin oaks, redbuds, pines, willows – were transplanted this way, adding an aged appearance to the ridges and fairways.
The new golf course now looked 100 years old, made evident by a ridge holding 600 tree transplants spanning 60 feet tall.
The mature greenery lining the course welcomes a variety of wildlife that now call Flint Hills National home. From fish in the lakes to geese on the green and white-tail deer off in the thicket, the visions of wildlife on a lush green backdrop add to the magnified rustic appeal.
In addition to his passion for wildlife, Devlin and Dower hold a passion for people, in this case, the people who contributed to building this world-class course.
More than 150 people were involved in the creation of the course, from maintaining the landscape to paving cart paths and walkways, and building bridges over lakes, people gathered to build a course for the community.
“Everybody aims to build a special place. If you’re lucky, you get one.” – Tom Dower, President Emeritas
The design team also involved Devlin’s family, including his wife Myra, who would ride her bike along the greens, writing down ideas to influence the natural beauty and who designed the clubhouse and lodges to feel like home with elegance in simplicity eliciting a feeling of never wanting to leave; his son, Tommy who built tee boxes; and son Tim who was the head of the irrigation crew design team.
“It was a family project,” Devlin said. “They really took part in taking ownership of the golf course.”
Flint Hills National quickly became a setting for great golf and great golf people.
“What I learned in my business career was to hire the right people and have good people working with you,” Devlin said. “If you do that, the rest of the business is easy.”
When visiting Flint Hills National, golfers will see the same staff year after year, emphasizing the intentional relationships unique to this course. The original golf pro, assistant golf pro, groundskeeper, office manager, executive chef and others on
the founding staff are still present – showcasing continuity in the people, which adds to the quality feel and welcoming Kansas appeal. All hold a desire to respect the game, the anthem of Flint Hills National.
With a focus on maintaining the integrity of the land and the ability to retain the people who make Flint Hills National a site for personalized world-class golf, Devlin and Dower watched their dream course become a reality.
Flint Hills National opened for membership in 1997 and is celebrating 20 years of operation this year.
“The feeling Flint Hills has from the way members treat each other; to the ambiance of the course; to the way employees treat the members, I attribute all to Tom Dower.”
– Tom Devlin, Owner