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Drawn in the Sand
John Garrity
June 29, 1998
A simpler, and still practical, form of golf is celebrated every spring at the high school sand-greens championship in Kansas
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June 29, 1998

Drawn In The Sand

A simpler, and still practical, form of golf is celebrated every spring at the high school sand-greens championship in Kansas

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A week later we played a municipal sand-greens course in Harrisonville, Mo., which had strings tied to its flagsticks and dirt paths for motorized carts—signs of an active membership. On these and other trips, we collected factoids. Several sources told us that golf courses in the South, where turf-grass used to perish in the summer heat, had rice-hull or cottonseed-hull greens. A Minnesotan said he had played in the Chrome Banger Open, a sand-greens tournament in Billings, Mont., where the greens used to be filled with chrome tailings from a local mine. ("Those greens weren't the smoothest, but they were certainly the shiniest") We learned from a coffee-table book that North Carolina's Pinehurst No. 2, always ranked among the world's top courses, started with sand greens.

On the science of sand greens, we found little. Motor oil, sometimes mixed with diesel fuel, is sprayed on the sand to stabilize it and make it smooth for putting. "Technically [spraying oil] is illegal," says Jim Snow, the USGA's top agronomist, "but there's no good substitute." One Kansas course bonds its sand with Parathane, a finishing agent. Others use vegetable oil, despite reports that it can attract rodents. Michael Hurdzan, the well-known grass-greens architect, has suggested the use of water-absorbing polymers.

"Nobody's doing research on this," Snow says, but that could change if low-cost golfing options gain in popularity. Sand-greens courses are literally dirt cheap, which is why $4 buys an all-day greens fee at LaCrosse and $20 is all it costs for a teenager to play all summer. "If the low-cost concept keeps going," Snow says, "it could encourage someone to invent a substitute to stabilize the sand."

In mid-May we drove to Rolla, Mo. It had struck us from the beginning that sand-greens golf died too recently to be forgotten. We had been asking old-timers for the names of sand-greens stars, and we finally got a lead when a former touring pro said, "Ken Lanning. They called him the King of Sand."

We remembered Lanning as a formidable golfer in Missouri in the '50s and '60s, a three-time medalist in state amateur qualifying and four-time captain of a Missouri Amateur team that included Walker Cupper Jim Jackson. We didn't know that Lanning had won more than 250 sand-greens tournaments, including 10 state titles; that he had won more than a thousand sets of clubs, all of which he had given to deserving youngsters; and that he was in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. "He was unbelievable on sand," our source said. "He won one of those 27-hole tournaments with rounds of 29-28-27."

Lanning was easy to find. He still lives in Rolla, best known for his alma mater, the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy. At 73, he is retired from a half-dozen careers (real estate agent, car-wash owner, bowling alley proprietor, etc.) and lives at Oak Meadows Country Club, which he co-founded. In his garage he keeps a red '56 Cadillac convertible—"Just like the one Jayne Mansfield died in," he says—and in his trophy room he has enough brass and bronze to start a foundry.

"Sand greens were poor man's greens," he told us, sorting though a pile of scrap-books. "Only the big-city courses had grass. Before the Second World War, I would guess it was 80 percent sand in Missouri." With a smile, he pointed to a brown photograph showing him putting shirtless at the old Rolla sand-greens course.

We showed him a scorecard that read, All play governed by N.S.G.A. rules. Why, we asked, could we find no record of a national sand-greens organization? "There never was an NSGA," Lanning said. "We had a Missouri SGA when sand greens were big, but nothing national." In season small-town clubs held weekend tournaments, often a 27-holes-on-Sunday affair with nine holes of qualifying in the morning and 18 holes of A- and B-flight play in the afternoon. Yes, he said, he once shot consecutive nines of 29-28-27. "But the par was 34," he said. "I tell everybody that." His actual lowest score was 19-under for 27 holes in 1951, at Charleston, Mo.

He rattled off other towns he had played in: Clinton, Poplar Bluff, Sikeston—"We used to say that there were more horse's asses than horses in Sikeston"—Chillicothe, Marceline, Kirksville, Moberly. "We'd usually take our lunch because there weren't any restaurants near the courses," Lanning said. "You'd go to your car and eat. No air conditioning. You'd get absolutely filthy. You'd have oil lines on your pants and dust on your shoes. You couldn't wait to get home and shower. Like I said, it was a poor man's game."

Lanning said it was the St. Louis touring pro Dutch Harrison who dubbed him the King of Sand. Harrison also taught him the knockdown shot he used so effectively—a low-flying buzz bomb that landed about three feet short of the flagstick and splashed in the hole with some regularity.

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