MAYETTA — Holding the distinction as the No. 1 public golf course in Kansas isn't something Firekeeper Golf Course head professional Randy Towner takes lightly.
In fact, it's something he and his staff not only take pride in, but also an honor they strive to achieve and sustain every day.
"I can't imagine approaching anything and wanting to be average," Towner said. "One of our mottos is, we always want to be as good as we can be."
Since opening in spring 2011, Firekeeper has arguably been the crown jewel of public courses in Kansas. The course, located 15 miles north of Topeka in Mayetta just off Highway 75, was ranked as the No. 1 public course in the state by Golfweek in 2018 (the 2019 rankings aren't out yet) and was a Top 100 resort course by Golfweek for 2019.
Firekeeper also was named the top overall course in Kansas, public or private, by Stacker.com.
The recognition, Towner said, is a culmination of everything Firekeeper Golf Course has to offer — from a championship-level 18-hole golf course to the adjoining Prairie Band Casino and Resort to the customer service provided by he and his staff.
"I think people want to go some place that's fun," Towner said. "Where you can get something nice to eat, a golf course that gives you a good experience, maintenance people who are friendly, a staff that is welcoming. ... People want to feel welcome and in a sense we are entertainers.
"I tell our staff every year that the man at the top of the mountain didn't fall there. He worked to get there. We're trying to make sure they understand what we're trying to do."
At Firekeeper, the bulk of the front nine offers an open look with the major defense for the holes the tall native grass and numerous sand bunkers, including a buffalo-shaped bunker guarding the front of the green on the par-5 No. 6 — a green which is actually shared with hole No. 1. But starting at No. 7, the course begins to be carved out of mostly tree-lined layouts for the holes.
No. 18 offers a unique look off the tee with a split fairway. The adventurous and confident golfer will look to drive the creek that bisects the hole, a solid if not challenging carry. The conservative golfer will simply play to the shorter fairway and hit a longer iron into the green.
The competition across the state is fierce and Towner is fully aware of it. The first signature course of four-time PGA Tour winner Notah Begay III, Firekeeper was designed in partnership with Jeffrey Brauer, who has left his imprint on the state in a big way.
Two other Brauer courses also make Golfweek's top five with Colbert Hills Golf Course in Manhattan coming in at No. 3 and Sand Creek Station in Newton checking in at No. 4.
Colbert Hills opened in 2000 and is ranked as the No. 1 public course in Kansas by Golf.com and GolfLink. The links-style course was built into 315 acres of the Flint Hills and features drastic elevation changes on several holes, including a "top of the world" tee box on No. 7, and unique bunkers, including the signature Wildcat paw on No. 5.
While the course, which is home to the Kansas State golf teams, doesn't have an adjoining casino, its amenities are also attractive and will be enhanced with the addition of stay-and-play cabins in the future.
"Colbert Hills is a great destination course due to its unique layout for this part of the country and its central location in a small college city," Colbert Hills head professional Steve Gotsche said. "We draw many visitors, most of which are in a 300-mile radius, and many others just passing through who have heard of us from friends, publications, accolades etc."
Sand Creek opened in 2006 and is No. 2 in the Kansasgolf.com rankings. The course plays on the town's railroad history with several holes showing characteristics of early American holes, which typically fronted railways. No. 16 is a replica of the famous Road Hole from St. Andrews in Scotland and another hole replicates the Redan hole at the North Berwick Golf Links in Scotland.
All three designs are unique and make the trip there worth it.
"I think it speaks highly of Jeff and he's gone a masterful job," Towner said. "There are three uniquely different terrains he had to work with and his courses doesn't look like there was much manufactured. He took what was there and made it into a masterpiece."
Either side of the state also boasts top-notch courses that are worth the drives.
Buffalo Dunes Golf Course in Garden City is ranked No. 2 by Golfweek and No. 5 by Kansasgolf.com. Opening in 1976, the course has very few trees, offering little protection from a generally prevalent south Kansas breeze.
"Buffalo Dunes is a hidden treasure," head professional Jason Hase said. "It is continuously ranked as one of the best places to play for the price and hosts the 'Road to the LPGA' Symetra Tour and Garden City Charity Classic each September. It's a course where everyone is welcome from novice to elite players."
In the Kansas City metro area, Ironhorse Golf Club in Leawood has emerged as a top-notch destination. Located just 30 minutes from downtown Kansas City and the Country Club Plaza and minutes away from Overland Park just off the Kansas-Missouri state line, Ironhorse has added a new event space capable of holding 200-plus guests, giving the club even more enhancement to a stellar course layout.
"Ironhorse is a perfect place to hold a destination golf or social event," Ironhorse head professional BrettMeyers said. "The golf course has a beautiful layout with recently renovated bunkers, while also being demanding, making golfers use every club in their bag."
The list of worthwhile public courses in Kansas goes well beyond the "Fab Five." And that knowledge makes them work even harder to provide their guests the best experience possible.
"First of all, it's neat that there are that many great courses in this state," Towner said. "We understand there's a lot a lot of competition there and quite frankly, we're glad there's a lot of competition. It's bringing people to our state. We get a lot of people who come back year after year from out of state and that tells you you're doing something right."
Other recommended public courses: Cedar Hills GC (Washington, 9 holes), Cherry Oaks GC (Cheney), Cimarron GC, Eagle Bend GC (Lawrence), Falcon Lakes GC (Basehor), Hesston GC, Mariah Hills GC (Hays), Spring Creek GC (Seneca), Sycamore Ridge GC (Spring Hill), Wellington GC.