The question of string came up at LaCrosse as well. When the high school players reached the green, they measured the distance from the cup to the ball in putter lengths, crouching and crab-stepping. They then repeated this process along a smoothed path they had made to the hole, marking their ball positions with lines in the sand. Historical sand-greens players did it differently. A long string was tied to the base of the flagstick, and the player simply drew the string out to his ball, picked up his ball along with the string and walked both around to the equidistant spot on the smoothed path.
No one at LaCrosse had heard of the string system. Bob Bergmann, the Jetmore High coach, carried a 1964 Rules of Golf booklet with Kansas sand-greens rules appended, but nothing in Rule 35, The Putting Green, stipulated how the ball should be moved. Neither did the rules mention "fluffing the cup" (illegally using the drag to fashion a drainlike ring around the hole) or "feathering" (using the lip of sand at the end of the drag path as a backstop). The book did call for a stroke penalty if a putted ball caromed off either wall of the path and into the hole. "Had to," we explained to a nongolfing mom. "Otherwise you could drag off-center and just ride the rail into the hole."
It was a 9 a.m. shotgun start. We wandered over to the 1st hole because Group 1-A included Adam Stanley, the sand-greens sensation from Dighton, a one-course town near the Colorado border. Stanley was a senior and the favorite to win the individual tide, having shot a 13-under 59 on his 4,220-yard home course in the regional.
A tiny grandstand had been erected behind the 1st tee, near the lidded box where guest golfers normally deposit their greens fees. We took a seat and watched the first threesome warm up. Stanley, we decided, had to be the slender youngster with the reverse-C finish and the cool, if not textbook, way of rolling his right foot on the follow-through. Like the star hoofer in a Broadway show, he was dressed in white—shoes, socks, shorts, untucked polo shirt and cap—but he chatted easily with his playing partners and did nothing to set himself apart. Until he teed off, that is. His drive painted a perfect are to the favored side of the 480-yard 1st hole, stopping about 290 yards away. "Nice drive," the two other players said in unison.
Stanley went on to birdie number 1, almost chipping in for an eagle 3-But he bogeyed the 2nd, a par-3, and the day's pattern emerged: sound ball-striking, sloppy putting. He chipped in for birdie on 4. (Chip-ins are common in sand-greens golf. The players fly the ball almost to the hole, where it skips and stops.) He also birdied the par-5 5th after driving perilously close to an electric cattle fence. ("That was ooogly," Stanley said.)
Watching all this with interest was a young man, not much older than Stanley, who encouraged all three players and talked with them between shots. This self-assured youngster turned out to be Matt Urban—a sophomore at Barton County Junior College, an alumnus of LaCrosse High and a winner of 26 sand-greens tournaments, including the '96 high school championship. Urban had graduated to grass greens (he was just back from the junior college nationals) and admitted that the transition had not been easy. "I had to relearn the whole game," he said. "Even etiquette, how to behave on the greens, that sort of thing." He had also had to familiarize himself with clubs that throw the ball up in the air. "I never used a wedge until college. It was all seven-irons around the greens."
If there is a written history of sand-greens golf, we couldn't find it. Librarians shrugged helplessly. Search engines reported: Nothing found. The records are in farmhouse attics and the basements of town halls. "We have almost nothing," said a librarian at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J.
Finding existing sand-greens courses is almost as difficult. There is no national registry, and outside Kansas the courses are so scattered that interclub matches are a faint memory. Most tips ("Iowa still has a few") led us to agriculture professors at state universities, and the professors invariably dashed our hopes. Most cited environmental concerns for the death of sand greens, although none had heard of harm or damage caused by the courses.
But a few old courses survive and even thrive. Last summer we played a couple of rounds at Mountain Meadows, a nine-hole sand-greens layout at Red Feather Lakes, Colo., a fishing resort. Each green had a rake and a drag, but the flag-sticks were stringless. "What we do is this," said Chris Deits, a retired banker. "You step off, one, two...." He took long strides from his ball to the cup. "But when you go this way, you go one, two...." He took baby steps back up the putting path, grinning as he walked.
As for the environmental concern about putting oil on the sand, Deits shrugged. "I don't understand why it's such a big deal," he said. "The ground is where it came from."