Along with Dancing Rabbit and Circling Raven, Firekeeper may be in the hunt for best name for an eighteen-hole golf course.
Everything good about Kansas is found here, and the club is planning on adding a short course designed by Christine Fraser.
The current layout was designed by Jeff Brauer, former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects (now its director of outreach), and Notah Begay III, a Native American who played on the PGA Tour and is now an analyst with Golf Channel and NBC. Firekeeper sits an hour west of Kansas City, 20 minutes north of Topeka, and a day’s drive from the geographical centre of America.
Brauer considers Firekeeper his best work, noting the course traverses three distinct environments while creating minimal disturbance to the existing land. The course, which opened in 2012, is an endeavour of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, and the tribe was very interested in preserving the character of the land, which Brauer feels he and Begay managed. “Their main goal was to build a course that stands with the best in Kansas,” says Brauer. “It seems most people think we achieved that, making it a very successful project for my firm.”
Michael Powell, a PGA professional who has been at Firekeeper since it opened, suggests the course has generated a clientele that has changed the perceptions of the area and its tribal cultures. “Gaming has been a source of financial income to take care of each tribe’s people,” he says.
Powell, who is a member of Osage Nation, notes Firekeeper sits on land toward the end of the Trail of Tears. “A lot of tribes got shoved off into the middle of nowhere,” he says. “Well, nowhere is now this beautiful golf course. A lot of nations have taken advantage of building top-flight resorts and changing attitudes and the living conditions of our native people.” The club has already added 10 acres of wildflowers and a pollinator garden.
The short course project is personal for Powell. “I see it as a way for me to teach the young kids, and the elders, how to play the game that is a vehicle to better oneself.”
Choosing Fraser as the architect is very much in keeping with this plan. Fraser’s MO in design is aimed at making golf more inclusive. “I’m optimistic that golf will change for its own sustainability in terms of participation and interest,” she says. Fraser brings this perspective to her design. “How can we make golf smaller? How can we bring the rules, footprint, land, usage of fertiliser, maintenance and budget all back to size while keeping the architecture, vistas and challenge of the game? This will allow social relevance going forward… equity is always the pursuit.”
Powell notes the Potawatomi nation in Kansas now includes a boys and girls club, early childhood education centre, senior centre, functioning government, and an excellent golf course.
“It’s nice being part of the operation that invests in continuing to be great,” says Powell. “I mean, let’s face it, reservations were not selected for deeds of access and prime real estate. But we’ve made something great. And we are fortunate that we are within a short drive of major metro areas, pulling from several populations.”
Powell adds: “When we first built Firekeeper, people viewed it as ‘The Indian Casino’. There were negative connotations of the reservation, but then people came and saw our property, people saw how unique it is. In 13 years, the perception has changed considerably. There are no houses around the course, and it will stay this way. The resort also funds a lot of the operations of a functioning government and culture.”
Land with a capital L is deeply embedded in native cultures. Powell sees his role as golf operations, but also to be an ambassador for the community. “I want our course and staff to represent every tribal member,” he says. “We strive to save on resources, to be more sustainable and responsible. When I hand it off, I want to say I have been a good steward. The land is going to outlive us.”
And this is where Fraser’s chapter of the Firekeeper story begins. “The minds behind the short course project at Firekeeper have a comprehensive understanding of responsible stewardship, community engagement, and sustainable design,” she says. “The design concept will use equity and fun as the foundation to create a playground for people of all abilities and backgrounds. The small footprint combined with thoughtful design will allow for minimal maintenance intervention and efficient use of resources. The goal is to remove barriers, reach beyond the fences, and invite the community in. The short course will be a service to the community through recreation, environmental justice, and a safe space for people to be themselves. At its best, this project will have a profound effect on the lives of our youth.”
Brauer is also in the mix, coming back later in the year to oversee work on bunkers and other items that will be restored to the original intent.
If golf is a vehicle for self-improvement, Firekeeper and its people get better every year.
Mark Wagner is a golf historian and the founding director of the Binienda Center for Civic Engagement at Worcester State University.
This article first appeared in the July 2023 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.