Sand Creek Station preps for 2024 U.S. Adaptive Open

The crew at the railway-themed golf course in Newton, Kan., is ready for the championship, which showcases players with physical, sensory or intellectual impairments.


Sand Creek Station
Sand Creek Station in Newton, Kan., is the home of the third USGA U.S. Adaptive Open Championship, and marks the first time the championship will be held outside of Pinehurst No. 6. Photo by Russell Kirk/USGA

In the spring of 2023, the staff at Sand Creek Station Golf Course in Newton, Kan., approached the USGA about the possibility of hosting a future U.S. Adaptive Open.

The course, which opened in 2006, was built with accessibility in mind and had a history hosting USGA events, notably the 2014 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship.

And, as Sand Creek GCSAA Class A superintendent James Houchen says, “We’re always looking for new events to bring people into the community and to showcase what we have.”

A handful of USGA staffers visited the course about 30 miles north of Wichita, Kansas’ largest city, that spring, discussed the tournament and toured the grounds. Houchen and the team thought the pitch went well, and the USGA crew left, indicating they didn’t really have a timeframe for making a decision.

Imagine the Sand Creek Station staff’s surprise, then, when the call came that June asking if the course would be interested in hosting the 2024 U.S. Adaptive Open, just a little over a year away.

“We were actually thinking two or three years down the road,” says Houchen, a 24-year GCSAA member who has been at Sand Creek Station since its grow-in.

Seeing the opportunity as too good to pass up despite the accelerated timeline, Sand Creek accepted and began prep for the third U.S. Adaptive Open, which will be held July 8-10 at this public Jeff Brauer-designed course that sees close to 40,000 rounds per year.

“It’s something new for me, something we’ve never done,” Houchen says. “We have 100 outings a year, but this is something entirely different. It’s exciting.”

And, likely, a bit daunting.

After all, it’s one thing to prepare a golf course for a major championship. It’s quite another to prepare it for the major adaptive championship, which carries its own set of standards and challenges.

“And that’s where Kemper Sports (which operates Sand Creek Station) was the final push over the hill for the selection,” says John Petrovsky, CGCS, manager of the USGA’s Green Section Education who was tapped to support the USAO as a championship agronomist. “That really sealed the deal. We knew if things came up, there wouldn’t be any issues in resolving them. Private courses might be more worried about aesthetics, but a muni might be a little more willing. And Sand Creek Station is so proud to host. The mayor got emotional talking about it the other day at media day. It means a lot to Kemper Sports and the course and the town.”

Sand Creek Station
Sand Creek Station’s railway theme is obvious from the start. Visitors are greeted by the course’s train-centric logo on the drive to the clubhouse. Photo by Andrew Hartsock

Adaptive challenges

The first two U.S. Adaptive Opens were held the past two years at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club’s No. 6 course. Houchen and Sand Creek Station GM Dustin Housh made the pilgrimage to Pinehurst to attend last year and learn about setup for course and facilities.

Houchen “learned a lot” about putting on a USGA event when he and the Sand Creek Station crew hosted the 2014 Amateur Public Links Championship, the last such event under that banner. The event changed to the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship starting in 2015.

“This is the second USGA championship in 10 years there,” says the USGA’s Petrovsky, a former superintendent and 13-year GCSAA member. “That’s kind of a big deal for a course, especially one that young.”

Setup for this month’s championship will be drastically different from previous ones.

The 96 players who qualified for the Open will play in one of eight impairment categories: intellectual impairment, lower limb impairment, multiple limb amputee, neurological impairment, seated player, short stature, upper limb impairment or vision impairment. There will be one individual overall men’s and women’s champion.

Since nearly each category has men’s and women’s divisions, there are 15 “flights” (there is no women’s short stature entry), each with its own considerations, the most obvious of which is that, for the USAO, Sand Creek Station will have five sets of tees.

Sand Creek’s tips normally play to close to 7,500 yards. For the Open, the tees will play from 6,460 yards down to 3,862, depending on the category.

That means Houchen and his crew had to carve new tee boxes into roughs and, in some places, fairways to accommodate.

It also created a somewhat comical attempt to replicate the course’s signature railroad-track tee markers, a nod to Sand Creek Station’s railway theme in reference to Newton’s history as a stop on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

“Normally they’d just take out two sets of nine tee markers, and the course set-up crews would go about their business,” Petrovsky says. “But with 45 total tee markers on each side, that created a problem. They wanted to use their cool railroad track tee markers. Everybody loves them. But the fact there are five sets for each hole … they’re just so heavy. There was no way to transport them around the course.”

Sand Creek Station
The fifth hole at Sand Creek Station. The facility was chosen, in part, because it was built with accessibility in mind and had a history of putting on USGA events. Photo by Russell Kirk/USGA

‘Agronomy is not a priority’

Additional tees were just one change to the set-up. Every aspect of play was considered to make the course accessible to all 96 golfers.

“It’s really the only championship where agronomy is not a priority,” Petrovsky says. “We want to showcase the talent of the golfers and make sure the course is set up that way.”

Among the considerations: the use of yellow flags, rather than red or black-and-white, for golfers with visual impairments; forgoing sanding of divots over concerns of slipping or unsure footing; removal of dew each morning for the same concerns; and the mowing down of some native areas to make them more accessible.

“There was a lot of thought put into making sure the ball doesn’t end up in places where it’s difficult to reach,” Petrovsky says. “So they’ll be mowing down a lot of tall fescue. At Pinehurst, it was easier because it’s bermudagrass. Here, it’s tall fescue. Cutting tall fescue in Kansas in the summer took some consultation to make sure they could incrementally reduce it.”

Another area of prime concern was bunker accessibility, especially for the nine participants in the seated player categories.

“I was mostly scared about getting into and out of bunkers,” Houchen says. “I thought we’d have to cut some edges down to make a smoother entrance, but we were OK. They had some challenges with the seated carts. I came up with a pretty good idea using a steel drag mat, like you’d use on a ball field. We laid one down when we had a couple of seated carts out here, and that worked well.”

Still, Houchen says, a handful of bunkers might be marked as ground under repair.

All participants can choose to walk or navigate the course by cart; those in the seated player categories are permitted to drive on the bentgrass greens.

“I was worried about driving carts on greens,” Houchen says, “but after observing it, it doesn’t bother anything.”’

There was a brief moment of panic during an early site visit when the USGA crew took a close look at the cart path that runs under the live train line that bisects the front and back nines. The short tunnel — which is entered and exited by way of steep ramps — is the only way to get from one side of the tracks to the other, and it’s very much a live railway. Trains rumble through rounds on the regular.

“We took some quick measurements and used the Pythagorean theorem, but we decided it would work,” Petrovsky said with a laugh.

Sand Creek Station
An old Atchison, Topeka & Sante Fe caboose is another element of Sand Creek's railroad-centric features. Photo by Andrew Hartsock

‘Absolutely fantastic’ staff

Though the USGA might have loosened its agronomic standards a bit from other big championships, it hasn’t completely dismissed them.

For example: Houchen says he’s been asked to have his greens rolling about 10½ -11 on the Stimpmeter.

“Green speed is right there where we’re at typically,” he says.

However … “They have higher expectations on turf quality and aesthetics. They’re wanting us to mow fairways and tees every day, where we average two or three times a week usually, says Houchen, who hopes to buttress his crew of seven to 10 members, most of whom work part time, with volunteers come tournament week.

Houchen’s biggest worry is how the course’s bentgrass fairways will hold up to the summer swelter. He planned to adjust by using more wetting agents than usual.

“That Public Links couldn’t have been held on a better week. It was 75 and sunny. That’ll never happen again,” Houchen says with a laugh. “Our biggest challenge will be the bentgrass fairways. Having effluent water is nice, but it comes with its challenges, like the salinity and pH. I’m happy where we’re at, but I think our biggest challenge will be our bentgrass fairways. The mounds tend to dry out with the summer heat.”

Sand Creek Station
Hosting the third U.S. Adaptive Open is big not just for the staff at Sand Creek Station but also for the small town of Newton, Kan. Photo by Andrew Hartsock

In addition to the APL, Sand Creek Station has hosted its fair share of large events, including a junior college national championship, Summit League championship, a Monday qualifier for the Wichita Open, two state amateurs, high school state tournaments and the annual The Railer, the Kansas stroke-play championship.

“I’m forgetting a lot,” Houchen says. “But this one is big, top 1 or 2, this and the APL. It’s very important. You want the community to like the golf course, and the spectators and the players. That’s what’s top of mind for me.”

And the USGA has come to appreciate that.

“We can’t overstate how great our partnership with James has been,” Petrovsky says. “He and the staff have been absolutely fantastic. Not once has he come back and said, ‘I can’t make that happen.’ He’s done absolutely everything we’ve asked.”

Andrew Hartsock ( is GCM’s editor-in-chief.