Super Spotlight: Clay Payne from Buffalo Dunes

Payne (far left), Varty, and the crew of Buffalo Dunes on the newly remodeled 14th green complex.

My wife loves telling this story and isn’t shy about sharing it on her own, so guess there’s no harm in dropping it here. When we first met in college, I asked her where she was from. The conversation went something like this:

JAP: So, where are you from?

BCW at the time, now BCP: Western Kansas!

JAP: Really? Me too!

BCP: Wow! Where are you from?

JAP: Isabel, but I went to high school in Medicine Lodge.

BCP: Medicine Lodge!?! That’s not western Kansas.

JAP: Sure it is! It’s west of Wichita! It’s west of I-35!

BCP: I’m from Leoti*. That’s Western Kansas.

*pronounced lee-o-ta not lee-o-tee (they don’t like it when you pronounce it wrong, I learned that lesson later).

Not sure when exactly I fell in love with her, but that conversation is one that still sticks out to both of us. I thought I was from Western Kansas. It took several trips to her old neighborhood for me to realize that I wasn’t.

And I’ll be honest, at first, I dreaded the four hour car trip one way from Wichita to her hometown every summer. Now, I kind of look forward to it. Of course, I also negotiate golf into our itinerary now, but there’s more to it than that. Western Kansas is such a unique region of our state for so many reasons and it’s great to see and experience those people and places that are seemingly so different from where we now live, yet remarkably the same.

I baked a trip to Buffalo Dunes south of Garden City a couple years ago on our yearly pilgrimage out west and I think this course embodies that idea about Western Kansas: it’s so unique and different from anywhere I’ve ever played, yet the quality of the golf is the same.

An early morning glimpse of Buffalo Dunes through the fog.

A huge part of why Buffalo Dunes should be on your golf bucket list is due to the skill and expertise of this Super Spotlight feature: Clay Payne. If you haven’t been to Buffalo Dunes, or you’re like me and haven’t been in a year or two, now is a good time to start planning because there are some big things happening in the sand hills of Western Kansas. Appreciate Clay taking the time to chat with us and look forward to getting out to see him in person soon!

JAP: Give a little background on you personally. Where are you from? Tell us about your family? How’d you end up at BD? Know your old man works up the road in Cimarron right?

Clay Payne: I’m from Cimarron, KS, and grew up 17 miles north of town. My Dad, Jake Payne, was the head cowboy for Warner Ranch while I was growing up. I went to work with him from an early age, doing everything cowboys do. I learned what it means to put pride into every job you do as well as the proper work ethic needed.

My wife, Samantha, is originally from Dodge City. We now have three children: Sawyer (5), Emmitt (3) and Wyatt (newborn).

I worked at Dismal River, in Mullen, NE, for five years as an assistant and superintendent. I maintained a Jack Nicklaus Signature course while also growing in the Tom Doak designed “Red” course. It was rated as the #1 New Course in 2014 by many publications. From Nebraska we moved to Holyoke, CO, where I was the assistant at Ballyneal for two seasons. While there, we built Tom Doak’s first ever Par-3 course. It was recently voted as one of the top-25 Par-3 courses in the world. Ballyneal continues to hover around the top-50 in the world ratings.

Samantha and I had started a family at that point with the birth of our daughter Sawyer. I had accomplished many things professionally and wanted to get a little closer to family. Buffalo Dunes was my favorite course growing up and they had an assistant position open. I accepted the position knowing the superintendent was planning to leave within a year. I was fortunate the City of Garden City gave me an opportunity to become their 4th superintendent in Buffalo Dunes history early in 2017.

JAP: Whoa man. You’ve worked at some pretty incredible places out here in the middle. That’s super impressive! Where’d you go to school that got you into this? I’m assuming K-State but maybe that’s me looking at this through purple colored glasses?

CP: I went to Hutchinson Community College for two years and then finished out my degree at K-State.

JAP: How’s your golf game? Strengths, weaknesses of your game?

CP: I am now a skeleton of what used to be a good golfer (laughs). I currently carry a 3-ish handicap. My strength: I’m a good iron player and have good length. My weakness: keeping the ball in position off the tee.

JAP: Damn! We have a stick here folks! You’ll be giving the Middle Pin boys some strokes when we get out to see Buffalo Dunes next season. Do you get to play much?

CP: We can play straight up on the front nine and maybe adjust on the back (laughs). I play nine holes a week. My Assistant, Mitch Chalkley, our Golf Pro, Jason Hase and I play in their merchant league. Other than that, our crew tries to play at least nine holes every Friday if the course doesn’t need our attention. I’m probably the 4th-5th best player on the crew so it gets pretty competitive.

JAP: How did you get into this? What was/is your motivation?

CP: Like most of us, I enjoy being outside as much as possible. We moved into town around sixth grade and I became completely wrapped up in the game. Initially, I thought about the design side but it was not a defined path in how to become a golf course architect so I went the maintenance route. I’ve been lucky in my career to get a mix of both so far.

JAP: What are some of the major projects you’ve tackled at Buffalo Dunes? Guessing the recent reno has to be up there?

CP: The CIP, Course Improvement Plan, has been in the works since 2018. Working through the government process can take awhile, but Garden City is a very proactive community and understands the need to update one of their most popular attractions. No major construction/updates had been made to the course since opening in 1976. The plan was passed in the summer of 2020.

We were only giving $18,000 to work with this first season. We completed three green complexes which included:

-Greens being expanded to original dimension and shaped to original contour intent.

-New Bentgrass turf (grown on-site).

-New Bluegrass turf (grown on-site).

-8 new or reconstructed bunkers.

Before, during, after.

Zach Varty was our Shaper/Architect during this process. All labor was completed in-house with a staff of four. We had help laying the greens sod from the Zoo Department, Parks Department, and membership volunteers. The total process was completed under budget and in just shy of four weeks. We are beyond happy with the results and can not wait for fifteen more holes of improvements.

Few highlights of the CIP:

-15-20 Acres of irrigated turf being converted to non-irrigated native. We believe this will equate to about 15 million gallons of water saved each season. It will also save around 16 hours a week in labor needed to maintain those areas.

-More environmentally friendly (less fertilizer, chemicals, water, etc.).

-Improve variety and playing conditions for golfers of all skill levels.

-Decreased overall funds needed from the City of Garden City to maintain our current level of maintenance.

JAP: Wow. That’s really cool that the community recognizes what they have and wants to improve it like that. I’m excited to see what you all do because your place was already awesome to begin with. What’s your timetable to complete the entire CIP? And considering you had some aspirations on the architecture side of things, might we see some interesting personal touches from you in this reno?

CP: Our plan was to have the renovations finished in six years, which correlates with Buffalo Dunes 50th anniversary. It really depends on the funds we are allotted each year and maximizes those monies.

The 2020 season marked the fourth year I’ve worked in the field with Architect Zach Varty. We have developed a trust in each other’s vision and abilities to implement those thoughts and ideas. We constantly bounce ideas and concepts off one another. Don’t get me wrong, it’ll still be 95% Zach but there’s a couple crazy ideas out there that came from the maintenance staff.

Will you lay up to the left or take on the new fairway bunker on #14?

JAP: What have been some of your biggest challenges at BD and how have you addressed those?

CP: Normally, it’s smooth sailing, luckily. I inherited a great course. One hurdle with the CIP was the tree removal. People love them some trees. Fortunately, they see our vision on the direction we’d like to take the course and are now on board. There isn’t one tree between the course and town. Our sandhills are beautiful by themselves and there isn’t a need for 450 trees to hide them.

JAP: Couldn’t agree more. I laughed with excitement the first time I played Buffalo Dunes because the landscape around your course is incredible and so different from some of the surrounding areas. I’m sure there are some amazing views of that landscape if you get past some of the trees. Changing subjects a bit: what are some things golfers do that piss you off, other than not fixing divots?

CP: Just the lack of general courtesy normally, like waiting for the maintenance staff to get out of the way and rarely showing the crew the credit they deserve for producing a great, quality course/experience consistently everyday.

JAP: I think there is a special place in heaven for supers. You all don’t get enough credit for what you do for golfers and I think part of that is because we don’t always see you doing it. It’s easy for our dumb brains to think this stuff just happens right, but the reality is you, and your staff, are out there at the crack of dawn doing it all before we even show up for our 10 am tee time. What aspect do you enjoy most about your job?

CP: I enjoy working with a living, breathing piece of ground. Each day presents something new. And, of course, the sunrise.

JAP: I feel like every Super we’ve talked to raves about the sunrise on the golf course… What is the one thing you do that has the biggest impact on players that most of us don’t know about/recognize?

CP: I don’t think golfers understand how many different moving parts and decisions we make on a daily basis. They think we just come in and mow grass all day, when actually a normal day includes: crew scheduling, equipment set-up, irrigation monitoring/repair/night scheduling, chemical application, just to name a few.

View of Buffalo Dunes looking back north toward Garden City and the rolling sand hills.

JAP: Other than BD, give us a couple of your favorite places to play?

CP: Cimarron Golf Club (play most of my golf there)

Wamego CC

Prairie Dunes

Ballyneal

Dismal River (Red)

JAP: We’ve heard a lot about Cimarron since we started this venture. Next time we’re out to see Buffalo Dunes, we’ll definitely have to stop in and check it out. Couple follow ups on Ballyneal and Dismal River: do you make it back there often and do you need playing partners (laughs)? I’m kidding of course… What is the one thing you see in golf courses that would be the easiest to fix (thinking of small town places and how they might be able to fix something easy they don’t know about)?

CP: Less rough. Golf is hard enough for most of us. Either eliminate it (in between tees) or maintain it at a lower height. This should free up some labor to focus on other areas of the course that are of higher priority. Also, rough units are normally the most expensive piece of equipment in most barns. Less rough means a longer life on that piece of machinery.

JAP: Interesting and shows how little I know about all of this because my thought is that maintaining rough at a lower height would take more time to maintain? Or are you talking about native area? Might have you explain that answer a little more for my dumb brain…

CP: In the Spring of 2020 we converted four acres 2.5” bluegrass rough to ½” fairway height. The fairway mowers we now use to maintain those four acres are nearly 50% faster than the rough units that previously mowed that area.

Native between the tees makes a ton of sense as long as you can keep it under control. In Garden City we only receive around 18” of moisture annually so keeping thin native is not a problem. Another “fix” that we tend to put on the back burner is a simple irrigation audit. Level heads is a good start.

*photo credits: Clay Payne

Appreciate Clay’s time and effort in answering our questions! Like I said, now is a great time to start planning for that next trip to Western Kansas to see and play Buffalo Dunes for yourself. Just make sure if you’re playing Clay to negotiate some strokes for yourself ahead of time…

As always, we’re glad you’re here.

– tMP

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