"On sand greens, putts never broke more than six to nine inches," Lanning said. "The secret of putting was in the dragging. There was an art to it." A humble art, to be sure. At some courses the drag was a piece of carpet with a rope handle.
As Lanning saw it, sand greens didn't die from environmental concerns—"If oil gave you cancer, I would have died 40 years ago"—but for social and economic reasons. In the '50s government guarantees made it feasible for banks to lend money for small-town courses. At the same time a growing middle class pursued the country club ideal, which called for grass greens, a course superintendent and endless griping about poa annua. Lanning quit the sand game in the early '60s, when Jackson told him it was ruining his short game.
With nine holes played at LaCrosse, the golfers came in for hot dogs, baked beans and potato chips. Stanley's one-under 34 had him a shot behind leader Andy Adcock of Chase County High, in Cottonwood Falls, but a half-dozen players were within two strokes. The team standings pointed to a race between Cottonwood Falls and Downs, a team from north-central Kansas. The Cottonwood Falls coach, Ken Holds-worth, was a relaxed, folksy man who teased his players while keeping a caring eye on them. "I've got four ornery ones and two sane ones," he said, chuckling, "and the ornery ones tend to make the sane ones ornery."
After lunch the kids fanned out on the course for another shotgun start. This time we followed Adcock, a stocky junior who was breathing rarefied air after the morning nine. (He had shot 81 in the regional, fifth-best on his team.) Adcock, we noticed, had no woods in his bag. He hit his long shots with an old driving iron, applying considerable body English as well as the spoken kind. He had already given back two strokes to par when he got to the par-5 5th hole, where the tee markers had been moved into a corner, up against two fences. Adcock said, "Why don't we just tee off in the pasture?" That thought must have been fatal, because Adcock hooked his tee ball over the fence. Re-teeing, he hit a classic worm-burner that killed a few daisies and plugged in a marshy patch of fairway. "Jeez," he said.
Adcock rebounded, however, making a birdie on the 7th and finishing with a two-over 72 on the 5,620-yard course. His score, combined with 71s by teammates Brian Alexander and Jeremy Palenski and a 73 by Brad Ingalls, would give Cottonwood Falls its second state title of the '90s.
Stanley, meanwhile, had made two bogeys and two birdies. When we caught up with him on the 9th tee he was struggling with a decision: to drive it over a creek or lay up to the right. Jarod Schmidt of Downs, playing in his threesome, was even par for the day, and Stanley wondered if he should gamble with a one-stroke lead. "The longer I sit here," Stanley said aloud, "the longer I think I shouldn't do it." When the fairway cleared, Stanley stepped up and laced a rocket way up the hill. Schmidt chose to lay up, but rolled his ball into the hazard and made 7.
Stanley ended with a flourish, sticking his 70-yard approach five feet from the cup and holing the putt for birdie, a 68, and the individual championship. "I've never been that nervous," he said.
Afterward the winners picked up their trophies and medals and posed for pictures by the clubhouse. Then we joined the Cottonwood Falls boys for a late-afternoon victory dinner at a Pizza Hut 30 minutes up the road in Hays.
"State champs!" one of them burbled at the table. That's when we raised the question of the string. Greeted by six blank expressions, we explained how historical sand-greens players had used a string tied to the flagstick to measure their putts. No stooping. No crab-stepping. After a moment's silence, Adcock slapped his forehead. "How stupid are we?"
Another said, "That makes so much sense." Coach Holdsworth nodded. "String's not all that expensive," he said. "We could do that."