Bob Lutz

Cottonwood Hills an enigma

Cottonwood Hills Golf Course
Cottonwood Hills Golf Course The Wichita Eagle

Seclusion has always been one of the finest traits of the Cottonwood Hills golf course, just a few miles east of Hutchinson. Obscurity has always been a roadblock.

You can't see the course from the nearest byway, Buhler Road. So since the land was purchased by Hutchinson native Lane Neville and other investors in 2003, mystery has surrounded the place.

Is it open? Will it open? What's it look like?

Cottonwood Hills, with a course designed by Nick Faldo, did open in 2007, to much fanfare. Faldo was on hand for the ribbon cutting, and chests were puffed out. A magnificent, if sometimes confounding, golf course had been added to the mix. Skeptics, of course, wondered if the market was already saturated and whether a course with the hazards of a Cottonwood Hills would appeal to the weekend duffer.

A series of financial issues, though, has been the biggest problem so far for Neville, a land developer in Scottsdale, Ariz., whose father, Lyle, was a decorated high school wrestling coach for decades at Hutchinson High.

Cottonwood Hills opened, then closed, then re-opened, then closed again. The only golf being played on the course now is by a few guys who have connections and get to walk on and play a few holes at a time. One of those is Chuck Porter, who coached high school football and won two state championships at Wichita East in the early 1980s and found the perfect retirement job at Cottonwood Hills.

He is hoping, like many others, that Neville can find a way to resuscitate the golf course one more time and get some residential development up and running.

There's not a house on the plot of land yet. Nor is there infrastructure for housing.

Neville, whose family has taken on the responsibility of making sure Cottonwood Hills gets a smattering of TLC, at least, is hoping to find more investors who see promise, not defeat.

"The reality is that we've been hit really hard the past couple of years,'' Neville said, referring to the economic downturn that has been especially hard on real estate. "We're in the process of putting together a core group of private investors so we can try to stabilize, re-open the golf course and move from there.''

Who knows how long that will take? Or how likely it is to happen?

Neville first spotted the property, which shares the same sand-dune topography as nearby Prairie Dunes, when he was attending his 20-year high school class reunion. He immediately knew what he wanted to do and set about making it happen.

Cottonwood Hills was meticulously developed and has been a talker from the day its existence was announced. People were curious to see what kind of course Faldo could put together and how it would play.

It didn't take long to find an answer. Faldo's course is aesthetically profound and a difficult test for even a scratch golfer.

Some people who have played Cottonwood Hills during the short time it has been open swear they will never go back; that it's just too demanding.

Others fell in love.

In that way, it's typical of most golf courses. Holes 15 and 16, especially, drew the ire of golfers because of the blind shots that exist on both.

But Cottonwood's positives far outweigh its faults and it did gain a loyal group of players. Now those players wonder if they'll ever get another crack at the place.

Neville's brother, Brad, took me for a tour of the golf course last week and while it looks dry, it still has its beauty. Brad Neville waters as much as he can, but he's pretty much a one-man grounds crew, depending on help from other family members and friends.

The greens and fairways get all the attention, but Brad Neville said that if he gets the word, he can have the course ready to play in three weeks.

So far, though, there has been no word.

My reaction as I toured the course fluctuated between awe for the course's beauty and sadness that it might never take off.

"We're trying to build a master plan golf community,'' Brad Neville said. "We really thought it could work in this community because God gave us this incredible corridor of sand dune. It's a freak of nature.''

Cottonwood Hills opened just a couple of years after Sand Creek Station, a public course in Newton, opened. Sand Creek has flourished and homes continue to pop up on the golf course. It, too, is laid out over a gorgeous piece of land.

Cottonwood Hills never found its legs.

Lane Neville said his plan has been scaled back. He wants to start with two small neighborhoods on the golf course, then trust the development will grow from there. He hopes he can open the golf course again before the end of 2010. And he recognizes how skeptical people have become about whether Cottonwood Hills can ever be viable.

"It's been a real battle,'' he said. "But we love this property. We have a lot of money in this and there's already a lot of value in the ground.''

Neville, who will be 47 this month, said he spends about 25 percent of his time working on ways to get Cottonwood Hills going again.

"I'd like it to be 50 (percent), the way it used to be,'' he said. "Because that means we've turned the corner.''

Neville insisted he isn't looking to sell the property.

"What I am working on is the idea of bringing in some kind of new, local relationship,'' he said.

The insinuation was that Neville is looking for some local investors to join in him trying to make Cottonwood Hills what it was always intended to be "a great golf and housing destination.

"In our current state,'' Neville admitted, "it's tough to hang on.''

But just as tough not to.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle