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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

June 29, 1998
June 29, 1998

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June 29, 1998

Golf Plus

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

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.

This is an article from the June 29, 1998 issue

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
greenkeepers 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 GolfWeb 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.

The question of string came up at LaCrosse as well. When the
high school players reached the green, they measured the
distance from the cup to the ball in putter lengths, crouching
and crab-stepping. They then repeated this process along a
smoothed path they had made to the hole, marking their ball
positions with lines in the sand. Historical sand-greens players
did it differently. A long string was tied to the base of the
flagstick, and the player simply drew the string out to his
ball, picked up his ball along with the string and walked both
around to the equidistant spot on the smoothed path.

No one at LaCrosse had heard of the string system. Bob Bergmann,
the Jetmore High coach, carried a 1964 Rules of Golf booklet
with Kansas sand-greens rules appended, but nothing in Rule 35,
The Putting Green, stipulated how the ball should be moved.
Neither did the rules mention "fluffing the cup" (illegally
using the drag to fashion a drainlike ring around the hole) or
"feathering" (using the lip of sand at the end of the drag path
as a backstop). The book did call for a stroke penalty if a
putted ball caromed off either wall of the path and into the
hole. "Had to," we explained to a nongolfing mom. "Otherwise you
could drag off-center and just ride the rail into the hole."

It was a 9 a.m. shotgun start. We wandered over to the 1st hole
because Group 1-A included Adam Stanley, the sand-greens
sensation from Dighton, a one-course town near the Colorado
border. Stanley was a senior and the favorite to win the
individual title, having shot a 13-under 59 on his 4,220-yard
home course in the regional.

A tiny grandstand had been erected behind the 1st tee, near the
lidded box where guest golfers normally deposit their greens
fees. We took a seat and watched the first threesome warm up.
Stanley, we decided, had to be the slender youngster with the
reverse-C finish and the cool, if not textbook, way of rolling
his right foot on the follow-through. Like the star hoofer in a
Broadway show, he was dressed in white--shoes, socks, shorts,
untucked polo shirt and cap--but he chatted easily with his
playing partners and did nothing to set himself apart. Until he
teed off, that is. His drive painted a perfect arc to the
favored side of the 480-yard 1st hole, stopping about 290 yards
away. "Nice drive," the two other players said in unison.

Stanley went on to birdie number 1, almost chipping in for an
eagle 3. But he bogeyed the 2nd, a par-3, and the day's pattern
emerged: sound ball-striking, sloppy putting. He chipped in for
birdie on 4. (Chip-ins are common in sand-greens golf. The
players fly the ball almost to the hole, where it skips and
stops.) He also birdied the par-5 5th after driving perilously
close to an electric cattle fence. ("That was ooogly," Stanley
said.)

Watching all this with interest was a young man, not much older
than Stanley, who encouraged all three players and talked with
them between shots. This self-assured youngster turned out to be
Matt Urban--a sophomore at Barton County Junior College, an
alumnus of LaCrosse High and a winner of 26 sand-greens
tournaments, including the '96 high school championship. Urban
had graduated to grass greens (he was just back from the junior
college nationals) and admitted that the transition had not been
easy. "I had to relearn the whole game," he said. "Even
etiquette, how to behave on the greens, that sort of thing." He
had also had to familiarize himself with clubs that throw the
ball up in the air. "I never used a wedge until college. It was
all seven-irons around the greens."

If there is a written history of sand-greens golf, we couldn't
find it. Librarians shrugged helplessly. Search engines
reported: Nothing found. The records are in farmhouse attics and
the basements of town halls. "We have almost nothing," said a
librarian at USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J.

Finding existing sand-greens courses is almost as difficult.
There is no national registry, and outside Kansas the courses
are so scattered that interclub matches are a faint memory. Most
tips ("Iowa still has a few") led us to agriculture professors
at state universities, and the professors invariably dashed our
hopes. Most cited environmental concerns for the death of sand
greens, although none had heard of harm or damage caused by the
courses.

But a few old courses survive and even thrive. Last summer we
played a couple of rounds at Mountain Meadows, a nine-hole
sand-greens layout at Red Feather Lakes, Colo., a fishing
resort. Each green had a rake and a drag, but the flagsticks
were stringless. "What we do is this," said Chris Deits, a
retired banker. "You step off, one, two...." He took long
strides from his ball to the cup. "But when you go this way, you
go one, two...." He took baby steps back up the putting path,
grinning as he walked.

As for the environmental concern about putting oil on the sand,
Deits shrugged. "I don't understand why it's such a big deal,"
he said. "The ground is where it came from."

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 scrapbooks. "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.

"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 Holdsworth, 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."

We only mention it here so that future historians will know how
the string was introduced to Kansas.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Against the grain Sand greens like this one in LaCrosse, Kans., are an inexpensive alternative to grass.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG On track All the players in a group putt on the same path, which is created with a roller or a toothless rake. [Player putting on smooth track of sand]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Clean sweep Before a golfer goes to the next tee, he rakes the entire green, removing the putting path, ball marks and footprints. [Golfer raking sand green]THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Champs Stanley (driving) was low man at LaCrosse, and Cottonwood Falls (from left: Brett Watts, Brandon Tastove, Adcock, Ingalls, Palenski and Alexander) took the team title. [Adam Stanley; Brett Watts, Brandon Tastove, Andy Adcock, Brad Ingalls, Jeremy Palenski and Brian Alexander; sign for LaCrosse, Kansas]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID WALBERG Sand man Also a fine player on grass greens, Lanning was the King of Sand, on which he won more than 250 tournaments. [Ken Lanning]
Three-time U.S. Open champ Hale Irwin got his start on a
sand-greens course in southeast Kansas.
"I never used a wedge until college," said Urban. "It was all
seven-irons around the greens."
"You'd get absolutely filthy," said Lanning. "You couldn't wait
to get home and shower."