The Heart of America Golf Course is aptly named. It’s located in the nation’s heartland, in Kansas City, Missouri.
And while its championship-length River Nine is a popular attraction, the facility’s 9-hole short course, the Rock Nine, serves as a portal to the game for new golfers and, perhaps, a pleasant diversion for those with more experience and skill. That was especially the case in 2020 when the Rock Nine hosted more than 27,000 rounds.PGA professional Craig Martin is the club’s general manager. He works for Orion Management, which manages the facility for the Kansas City Department of Parks and Recreation. A Class A member of the PGA of America since 1989, he’s been at Heart of America for 11 seasons
Martin notes the facility was so overwhelmed with demands for tee times on the River Nine last year that it was forced to pair golfers who did not know each other. The Rock Nine offered an alternative for golfers who didn’t feel comfortable doing that at a 9-hole rate of $12, $10 for seniors, and $8 for juniors. Those who want to play a second nine pay only a $2 turn fee.
“We were so busy on our other nine and we had to pair people up just to accommodate volume,” Martin says. “We did not make people do that on the par-3 course. It just gave us a nice outlet for maybe the couple, where the husband is trying to teach the wife how to play or the dad is trying to teach the kid how to play, that type of thing. It made them feel more comfortable, having that ability not to be paired up with more advanced golfers and people they didn’t feel comfortable with.”
Heart of America dates to sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, almost certainly prior to America’s entry into World War II. Martin says it was a course designed “For the common man,” those of modest economic means. It was also a place where Black golfers were welcome.
The Rock Nine was created when the entire venue was redesigned in the early 1990s. It was designed by Richard Allen, a landscape architect by profession who worked in the Parks and Recreation Department. The nine par-3 holes range in length from 64 to 157 yards. Two holes offer front and back tees. An 18-hole trip maxes out at 1,102 yards.
Despite its length, the Rock Nine presents a test, even to experienced golfers. “It’s a nice course,” Martin says. “It’s not an impossible course, but it gives you a challenge. It’s great for people to work on their short games and their iron play.”
Martin sees the Rock Nine as an ideal venue for newcomers to be introduced to the game, particularly juniors. “It’s just in ideal place to take them from not only learning how to swing the golf club but how to actually play the game,” he says.”
To that end, the Rock Nine is the venue for a First Tee program, as well as a junior program for youngsters in the Kansas City metro area and a series of golf camps. High school teams utilize the Rock Nine for practice sessions. At one time, it was the setting for an outing held in conjunction with the Korn Ferry Tour’s annual visit to Kansas City, giving the tour players a chance to relax in an informal setting.
Superintendent Sam Marlin is responsible for the team maintaining both nines at Heart of America. Marlin played junior college golf and also worked at a golf course and as a superintendent before arriving at Heart of America in March 2017. He started as an assistant superintendent. Then, out of necessity, he was a mechanic before being named the head superintendent in September 2019. He accomplishes a lot with a small staff.
“I have a full-time assistant,” he says. “(During the winter) it’s just him and I. During our busy months, we usually have three or four full-time guys and four or five part-time guys that are older, retired guys that can come out and mow greens in the morning.”
The Rock Nine is open year-round unless snow or frost becomes problematic. It features Meyer zoysiagrass fairways and tees with bentgrass greens. It was built to withstand Kansas City’s brutally hot summers.
The course features a collection of ponds that come into play on four holes but no bunkers. Every bunker was taken out in 2018 when it became clear that they needed to either be extensively renovated or removed altogether. When it comes to maintenance practices, Marlin and his team work to adhere to the same standards on the Rock Nine that they implement on the River Nine.
“Obviously, the majority of our focus goes to the River,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean that we just leave the Rock alone and completely forget about it. If we’re spraying greens, for instance, we’ll spray both sides the same way on the same chemical program and fertilization program. As far as general maintenance, we’ll mow greens the same way. We actually alternate the two courses between mowing and rolling. We’ll mow the River and roll the Rock on Monday and then flip-flop the next day and basically go back and forth like that.
“As far as mowing fairways and rough and tees and all that, I basically tell guys to start on the River Course just to get that done. It’s a little easier getting that done before we get a bunch of play. Then, they’ll come to the Rock. If they don’t finish it that day, they can finish it the next morning. We try get the River taken care of first, but we still try and get the same stuff done on the Rock Course.”
The Rock Nine at Heart of America was not intended to host a tour event or a USGA national championship. Short courses such as the Rock Nine, though, play a big role in sustaining the game. They offer settings where new golfers can be nurtured and encouraged. Viewed in that light, they are as important to the future of golf as any championship venue.Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.