Madcap Doug Keister and friends play and party in a Western wasteland
It'S like golf on Mars, except there's a general store half an hour up the road. "Last food for 92 miles," the sign reads. Beer sales there go into orbit around the summer solstice, when a motley mix of golfers passes through Empire, Nev., on the way to the Black Rock Desert Self Invitational.
"It's golf. It's a party. It's surreal," says two-time champ Kent Cooper. The tournament, dreamed up as a lark 10 years ago by Albany, Calif., photographer Doug Keister, has evolved into a sort of Masters of bizarro golf. Each year Keister and a few dozen friends play a two-man scramble on a course they spray-paint onto the desert floor. Open to anyone who brings $50 and a smile, the Self Invitational is its founder's tribute to his favorite wasteland. "There's no place else like this on the planet," he says.
In 1988 Keister brought several friends to this ancient lake bed 100 miles northeast of Reno to celebrate his 40th birthday. They buried coffee cans in the scorched earth and slapped balls around a landscape Keister calls "flat as a tabletop, with a climate like a vast blow-dryer." Rocket cars use the Black Rock Desert, which is larger than Rhode Island, to break the sound barrier. Last October the world land speed record of 763.035 mph was set here by driver Andy Green, who zoomed through the middle of Keister's course.
The Invitational's speedsters don't make sonic booms, but they play fast enough. Contestants ride trail bikes on the 7,056-yard, par-76 Lucifer's Anvil Golf Course, where the greens are fanciful paintings of a flaming Hades, a patch of freeway, even a suburban living room complete with thrift-store furniture. "We use all the Rules of Golf," Keister deadpans, "except when we don't." His latest innovation: a green in the shape of a chessboard, featuring knee-high rooks, bishops and pawns. "You can move the pieces if they're in your way, but only with a legal chess move," he says.
In last weekend's 11th Self Invitational, Cooper teamed with Dale Brown to repeat as king of the desert. On their way to a best-ball 74, two under par, they teed up every shot. "Putts, too," Cooper says. "It's rugged terrain." The course's garish greens, now equipped with regulation cups and flagsticks, are covered with cracks. Some players chip with seven-irons until they reach tap-in distance. Many use machine-gun shell casings, left over from Black Rock's years as a firing range, as tees. "Hit your putts hard, that's my advice," says Cooper. "And stay hydrated."
At a course where the water hazards are mirages—biodegradable blue paint on arid clay—and the outdoor toilet is behind a prop door painted with a half moon, one liquid is plentiful. "We enjoy a few beers," says one player, whose postround recreation is taking midnight rides on his trail bike. "I like riding into the pitch dark at top speed," he says. "There's nothing out there to hit, except maybe another drunken person." Veteran Black Rocker Jeff Hunt says he appreciates "the wildlife. It gets hot, so we'll see some scantily clad women. Girlfriends, mostly, but now we're starting to get some women players too." Two of them surprised Keister and company a couple of years ago by showing up campily clad in sneakers and Elizabethan dresses.
"What's at stake here? It's still mostly male pride," says lawyer Richard Brown, designer of the Living Room hole. Keister, naturally, has a quirkier take. "A man would never ask another man to go for a walk," he says. "Golf is our way of taking a walk together."
But is the patty at Black Rock really golf? "It's a lot like golf. It's golf plus freedom," Keister says.
After European stars Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood asked for, and received, sponsor's exemptions to last week's Western Open only to send their regrets at the last minute, claiming that they were pooped after enduring the U.S. Open, tournament director Greg McLaughlin lit into them. "This is totally outrageous. It's almost unbelievable," McLaughlin fumed last week. "You can see why the European tour has so many problems if they allow players to do that." Don't expect to see Clarke or Westwood at Cog Hill anytime soon. "Neither player is welcome at the Western, period," McLaughlin said.