A sign at the edge of town prepared the visitor: LACROSSE, KANSAS—BARBED WIRE CAPITOL OF THE WORLD, so we weren't surprised to find a 38-acre anachronism straddling the town's southern limit, near where an abandoned drive-in movie screen loomed over a herd of grazing cows.
From a car speeding past on state highway 138, LaCrosse Country Club barely merits a sidelong glance. Not many planes fly low enough to perceive the nine brown circles of sand scattered over the property, pinned to the earth like infantry divisions on a battle map by nine perfectly centered flagsticks. This was the surprising part: teenage golfers, dozens of them, on the buffalo-grass fairways.
It was last fall when we heard that Kansas had a high school sand-greens championship. The news was both delightful and disturbing—like finding an undelivered letter from your father years after his death. We called the Kansas State High School Activities Association to ask if we needed credentials to cover the event. "Good gravy, no," said Cheryl Gleason, the assistant executive director. "Just show up."
So we did. This year's 18-hole final, which followed regional qualifying at three sites, drew nine small-school teams to western Kansas on a warm, sunny morning in late May. A banner on the three-room clubhouse—GOOD LUCK LEOPARDS—encouraged the host team from LaCrosse High.
Outside, Richard Schmidt, the LaCrosse coach, explained the local rules to the gathered players. "The ball will be played up in the fairways, but you can only move it the length of a scorecard and only with the clubhead," he said. "You can't pick it up." There were other rules for casual water, fence lines, gopher holes and rock piles. Checking his list to see if he had missed anything, Schmidt ended on an apologetic note: "If school was still on, we'd have kids volunteering to rake, just to miss class. But school is out, so you'll have to rake your own greens."
The reader may not know about sand greens. The reader may be younger than 50, city bred or otherwise unfamiliar with golf's ungrassed past. If so, the reader is not alone. Last year the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America queried its members and got a mere handful of E-mail responses to an open-ended question about sand-greens golf. Most of the green-keepers who answered thought we were referring to USGA specifications for sand-based, as opposed to soil-based, turf-grass greens. Only a few responded appropriately, in sepia prose.
"I worked at a course in Brawley, Calif., that converted from sand greens in the early '50s," wrote GCSAA member Bill Kissick. "The sand surfaces were oiled with a lightweight oil and rolled for compaction. When the golfers arrived at the green they would use a smooth rake to make a path to the cup. The ball rolls about a five on the stimpmeter, so you have to give it a firm stroke to get it to the hole."
Another greenkeeper asked, "Are you talking about the old oil sand that was used years ago? I find it hard to believe anyone is still alive who has actually built the old ones."
On a Golf Web site, we read this posting: "HISTORICAL SAND GREENS. Sand greens were built by hulling out the area very much like we do today on USGA greens. A very hard base—rock, slate, clay—is installed. In the Southeast it was clay. A clean sand was used to fill the hole and heavy, clean (not burnt) motor oil was sprayed on the sand.... All greens were rolled every day. The cup was in the center of the green and never moved. A firm little roller rake had to be used every time a golfer played the green, as tiny marks were left when a ball rolled across it." And finally: "Oil is toxic to plant life, so the collars were always dead and a site of erosion."
That description was fine, as far as it went. The under-the-hood smell of oiled sand was not mentioned, nor was the fact that sand-greens courses were rarely irrigated, making summer fairways hard as macadam. The posting didn't point out that 1996 U.S. Open champ Steve Jones was a sand-greens star when he was in high school, or that three-time Open champ Hale Irwin got his start on a sand-greens course in southeast Kansas, or that the PGA Tour's Byrum brothers, Tom and Curt, were sand-greens phenoms in South Dakota. And inexplicably—to a Missourian, anyway—the string was ignored.