When I was growing up in the 1950s, Kansas City's sprawling Swope Park had two municipal courses. Swope No. 1, a hilly, demanding layout with crowned greens and steep-faced bunkers, was designed by A.W. Tillinghast, the creator of Bethpage Black. Swope No. 2, a short course set mostly on the flood plain of the Little Blue River, was designed by elves.
To reach holes 11 through 15 at No. 2 you had to climb a switchback trail up a wooded bluff, keeping an eye out for venomous snakes. Holes 6 through 9, on the other side of a park road, took you under the forest canopy. No one took Swope No. 2 seriously. Senior golfers played 13-hole rounds, skipping the exhausting hill holes. Teenagers made a beeline for the 15th tee, which sat atop the bluff, 110 feet above the 15th green. (I used to hit three or four balls there, mesmerized by the hang time. When the course was wet, the balls would plug so deeply that you had to dig them out.) My dad, a three handicapper with an unhealthy fixation on swing mechanics, would go to the secluded 16th and 17th holes, short par-4s, and play them over and over, hitting mulligans when necessary—and when they weren't. "Johnny, I think I've got it," he'd say, waggling his five-iron over the ball. "Swing 13-A. Take it back on the inside, and then bust the hell out of it with the right hand." The greenkeeper knew my dad had been there by the half-smoked Camels scattered on the fairways and tees.
Above all—literally—No. 2 had its infamous 12th hole. It was up on the bluff, an incongruously brutal par-3 of 228 yards. Your tee shot had to carry a rocky ravine to a citadel green guarded, left-front, by a big oak tree. Anything short of the green rolled back into the ravine. Anything long or to the right bounced into the woods. Even my older brother, Tom, who was the best player in Kansas City, took a deep breath when he got to the 12th tee. "If I draw a one-iron just so," he'd tell Dad, "I can slip it around the tree and get on." My approach was more imaginative. I'd take my driver and aim for the oak tree, because a ball in the upper branches would sometimes pinball from limb to limb and drop onto the green.
I'm 55 now and play at a private club on the other side of town, but I still visit No. 2 from time to time. It's where I made my first birdie and my first eagle. It's where I clubbed a snake to death with a nine-iron. It's where I once hit a ball so far that it vanished over the distant downtown skyline and never came down.
It's my home course.