A Centennial with a Dash of Gold

Five minutes into his interview, Rich Fairman knew he wanted to be Blue Hills Country Club’s general manager. He learned about the vacancy at a national conference for club managers, and he was talking to a couple of them who said, “I’ve got a great club in Kansas City that would fit you.”

The Blue Hills clubhouse patio before (above) and after (below) the renovations in 2012
Above: Tom Watson dedicated the Player’s Classic Grill Room in the Blue Hills clubhouse on June 1, 2012.
Below: The 19th Hole Grill Room after the renovations in 2012.
Blue Hills Country Club staff dressed in outfits from various era for the November 2012 Centennial celebration.

Last spring, he accepted the position.

“I already knew I loved Kansas City,” Fairman says. “That wasn’t the sell. It was the fact of moving the family out here. It did not take long for me to make my decision.”

And 2012 was no ordinary year to move to Blue Hills.

The venerable club on Burning Tree Road just east of State Line marked its centennial last year with a string of celebratory gatherings and events, which took a centennial committee almost two and a half years to organize. This year is more of the same, but on a smaller scale, with the 50th anniversary of the club’s move to the southern section of town from its original location between 58th and 63rd streets, just east of The Paseo.

Jerry Haake, a Blue Hills member since 1982 who served on the centennial committee, had an uncle who was the club president when the decision was made to swap property with a developer. A number of members groused.

“He would mention some of the rancor that occurred, some people very pleased and some people displeased, because they were uprooting from a location they’d been at for 50 years and moving to a new location,” Haake says. “To people at that time, that was the end of the earth. Some people were frightened by the move, thinking at that time that it was more farmland than it was a country club or residential area. But obviously that area expanded and grew to where you have several courses you can play now with Leawood South, Hallbrook and Loch Lloyd.”


Blue Hills Brawn

Blue Hills is certainly a forerunner because of where it was built, but also how it was built. The course sits on 156 acres surrounded by homes, and with all this real estate at course architect Robert Dunning’s disposal, Blue Hills has some brawn. It can stretch out to almost 7,400 yards if you want to play from the tips, as opposed to the compactness of other courses of the same vintage, and the large greens average 8,600 square feet.

“It challenges the new modern game. Although the course itself we’re currently located at is 50 years old, it can definitely handle the new technology that’s out there,” says Fairman, who was previously the general manager for 10 years at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club in Grand Blanc, Mich. “It also is manageable to where somebody who may not have that length can find their way around the course. I think that’s, first and foremost, why this course will continue to grow and continue to be one of the leaders in the Kansas City market. It’s because of the golf course and the routing that was put in place.”

The golf course is also synonymous with one of the finest charity events of its kind, the Children’s Mercy Golf Classic, which spanned 25 years until 2004. As host, Tom Watson would invite the biggest names in the world of golf to play in a foursome or fivesome on a Tuesday in June, ranging from Fred Couples and Phil Mickelson to Watson’s old friends Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer.

As much as the golf entertained the spectators, members of the club had the distinct pleasure of volunteering for an event that raised a combined $12 million toward Children’s Mercy Hospital.

“It was wonderful exposure for our club,” Haake says, “as well as great recognition for the work at Children’s Mercy.”

Watson returned to Blue Hills last year for another Children’s Mercy fundraiser, where he delivered a dedication speech for a clubhouse that was refurbished in time for its centennial. The second-floor bar room that offers a picturesque view of the first tee and practice putting green was redesigned and renamed the Centennial Room. Among other changes, the club’s board approved the repainting of the exterior, a reconfiguration of the 19th Hole downstairs and an extension of the family dining area into what used to be the men’s card room.


The Neighborhood Club

In accordance with its 100-year history, Blue Hills also turned back the clock for themed parties representing different generations. Last summer the club had a boardwalk-style carnival that evoked the 1920s, and in the fall it threw a party with food stations that recreated all the decades since 1912, from World War II C-rations to diners and drive-ins. The staff sported attire that golfers from the different eras would have worn. Members donated bulletins, newsletters, jackets, sweaters, ashtrays and other memorabilia, which added to the retro flavor.

And during the 50th anniversary of this golf course, Blue Hills is the site for the 106th Missouri Amateur Championship on June 18-23. Watson won the Missouri Amateur four times (1967, 1968 at Blue Hills, 1970 and 1971), and the late great Payne Stewart won it in 1979. Fairman knows a thing or two about what is required to organize golf tournaments. Warwick Hills was the course that held the Buick Open on the PGA Tour, known for its big crowds and low scores, from 1958 until the tournament was discontinued in 2009.

“There’s really not much we have to do to gear ourselves in tournament condition,” Fairman says of the course at Blue Hills. “Our members expect it to be tournament-condition ready. I think we’re ready to hold a championship at any time. I would put it on the level of what I used to run at a PGA Tour event day in and day out.”

More fun is in store when Blue Hills formally recognizes the gold anniversary of its southern migration with another club get-together in December. There’s no horse track like the early days of the original club in 1912, but there’s golf, swimming and tennis for this tight-knit and growing membership to enjoy. Nearly 100 people have joined Blue Hills in the last year to bring the total to 552 members.

“It is the neighborhood club, to come and just talk about your family in general,” Fairman says. “I think that’s what bonds everybody together, they’re all growing up together. Their kids are growing up together, and I think that’s what makes it special.”

photos: Quinn Hancock