I first felt the surge of “competitive juices,” that sport induced adrenalin rush, while caddying for my dad, “Big John.” We were about to tee off for the final nine holes of the Southwest Kansas Sand Green Golf Championship. The venue was Fort Hays Country Club in Hays, Kansas, a wind-swept hill-top 9-hole course built on the historic grounds of old Fort Hays. It may have been sand green golf contested on a blood soaked battle ground, but Championship Golf is Championship Golf.
Sand Green Golf represents a mid-point between the early sea-side golf played on sheep pastures and the manicured oasis that we call golf courses today.
For a ten years old kid pulling a home made golf cart, the Championship was the biggest thing I had ever been a part of. I felt a shiver of intensity as I pulled the hand knit head cover off the “War Club,” Big John’s pet name for his custom made, jumbo-head, X-shaft, E-2 swing weight, Spaulding Top Flight driver. As I handed him the War Club, the wind was whipping Big John’s soft peach colored slacks across his always spotless brown and white FootJoys shoes. With the War Club resting against his thigh, Big John used both hands to secure his white Ben Hogan cap snugly on his head.
With a mighty and very athletic swing, the never-to-be-out-driven, Big John smashed a brand new wound rubber Spaulding Dot golf ball nearly 300 yards to the flat part of the fairway on this down-hill dogleg left par 5. The monster drive left Big John with a risk-reward 175 yard shot to the tiny sand green target neatly tucked under a cliff face.
The first hole at FHCC could have been created in the mind of famed golf artist, Bud Chapman. Standing in the fairway, your eyes were immediately drawn to a black spot in the cliff face that rose about 35 feet directly behind the green. The black spot was a shallow cave who’s wall was charred black by smoke stains from centuries of Native American, Cheyenne and Arapaho, who used the cave and cliff for shelter from the constant winds of western Kansas. A small pond, usually dry but very much a hazard, sat directly in front of the green. Huge twin cottonwood trees framed this memorable picture.
Lay-up, like the others in the final foursome? Never! With his left hand, encased in a fingerless glove, Big John released a few blades of the buffalo grass to gage the strength of the side wind. He pointed at his five iron. After two practice swings Big John hit a very high shot that started directly at the great old cottonwood tree that guarded the front right of the green. As the ball lost its velocity the brisk wind racing along the cliff face caught the ball; it began to move left. The Spaulding Dot hit the deep raked groves in the oily sand about 12 feet to the right of the hole and never moved from the impact divot.
Sand greens were made from sifted sand that had been mixed with oil to create a substance that had the consistence of wet sand. The oily sand did not dry out or blow away. A smooth putting path was created for each golfer to putt on with a heavy metal rake or drag. The drag section of the rake was a four foot length of 2 inch pipe with half inch welded teeth spaced evenly on one side. The other side of the drag was smooth and flat. The drag section was attached to a smaller diameter pipe handle about five feet long. To create a putting path a golfers would pull the drag, teeth down making groves, away from the hole to the approximate area of his ball. (exact position was not important because sand greens were basically flat). The drag would be turned smooth side down and pulled back along the line the teeth created about three feet beyond the hole. The heavy drag packed the oily sand into a remarkably smooth and true putting surface. A large metal spoon was available on each green to remove the sand from of the hole after dragging. When all golfers had putted out and the flag stick replaced the putting paths would be erased by dragging the rake, teeth side down, in an expanding circle starting at the hole, until all path marks were smoothed with roughed groves. The golfer who putted first, longest putt, was required to drag the green. If there was a caddie in the group, he would drag all greens for a nickel or dime from each player.
Big John meticulously dragged his putting path with even pressure to create a true surface. Then he rammed that putt into the center of the hole for a dramatic eagle. His first lead of the Championship.
I first became aware of the huge gallery, in reality maybe 75-100 people, who had gathered two or three deep behind the hill-top third green. The hexagon shaped lime stone clubhouse, that once served as the administrative headquarters for Fort Hays, was near.
Fort Hays, named in honor of Civil War hero General Alexander Hays, was established in 1866 immediately after the Civil War – That same year Willie Park Sr. beat “Old” Tom Morish for his fourth (British) Open Championship. Fort Hays was established to protect the thousands of Union Pacific Railroad workers as they moved the “Iron Horse” across Indian Country toward Denver and beyond to the Pacific Ocean. Fort Hays and adjacent Hays City, that sprang up to support the Fort, was the transient home of many wild-west folk heroes including: James B. (Wild Bill) Hickok, William (Buffalo Bill) Cody and Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Today the Ellis County Court House proudly displays the limestone rock that Sheriff Hickok used for target practice. It was Cody’s job to slaughter the abundant Great Plains buffalo to feed the railroad workers and soldiers; thus his nickname. On the treeless prairie the Fort did not have an exterior log fence, all buildings were constructed from the native yellow limestone and connected by a series of tunnels. History was an integral part of every round of golf at FHCC, though nobody even thought about it.
The spectators, mostly tournament flight players, had gathered behind this long, up-hill par 4 to see how the leaders would negotiate “The Waller” that guarded the front of the green. (“The Waller,” correctly names “buffalo-wallow,” a pit created over hundreds of years by thousands of bison as they rolled in the dust to scratch, itch and discourage the various parasites that lived in their thick and matted fur.) The Waller was not defined as a hazard, but was definitely rough. The natural bowl shaped pit was about 25 yards across and ten feet deep. The truly “natural hazard” was a constantly changing nightmare for golfers who went for the green in two and failed. A ball in the The Waller, too steep to mow with very clumpy buffalo grass, meant a boggy or worse in the days before the 60 degree lob wedge.
Another monster drive by Big John sent his Spaulding Dot over the wagon ruts 240 yards away. The wagon ruts were the very visible twin scars that horizontally crossed the fairway. The ruts were made, almost a century earlier, by the numerous wagon wheels in the contentious commerce of the active Fort.
The excellent drive left an up-hill second shot of about 160 yards. Big John’s knocked-down, quail- high, 5 iron held its line in the stiff side wind and splattered the well oiled sand directly behind the hole leaving him with sure-thing (on sand greens) 6 footer for a two shot lead. The appreciative gallery cheered and clapped like a Knute Rockne touchdown in the mostly Catholic community.
My chest swelled with pride as the growing gallery marveled at the variety of pars and another birdie that Big John scored over the next five holes.
My mother, now a part of the growing throng, smiled at me as I sometimes had to run to the next tee after raking the green. A combination of monster drives, some well off line, wonderful pitch shots and fine putting left Big John with a one shot lead over two other fine players with only the treacherous ninth hole left to play.
The ninth was a square dogleg left 370 yard par 4. Sounds simple! Not! The inside the dogleg was out of bounds with another part of the old Fort standing in the way. The old lime stone guard house, another name for jail, created a blind landing area over the dogleg. The prevailing south wind was always in your face on the 9th; as it was late on this Sunday afternoon. If you did not cut some of the dogleg you had almost 200 yards left to the green. If you did cut it, you better catch it solid and not turn it over.
With no birdie since the sixth Big John was hitting third. His nearest competitors had both successfully drilled their tee shots over the corner of the long stone guard house to the fairway beyond. With the dust devils, whirl-winds or mini tornados, swirling on the horizon and his light blue and white Hawaiian shirt flapping in the wind, Big John’s hand hesitated over the head cover with 4 white rings. (My mother had knit the head covers for his Spaulding Woods.) Was he going to play it safe? Not on your life! Big John defiantly grabbed the War Club, teed his ball a little lower on the oiled clay tee box, and smashed that Spaulding Dot into the stiff south wind. The line of flight, though straight, was 30 yards left of a smart line. It sailed directly over the ancient guard house. A collective gasp, as we all held our breath.
We could not see the ball land…. the delayed roar from “Big John’s Army” let everyone standing at the ninth tee know his ball was safe.
Truth is, I do not remember what he scored on that hole. I just know, WE WON!
The beautiful bronze “loving cup” trophy, that I still have today, was the reward for beating all the other fine golfers in the Championship. From that day on, I knew that I wanted to be part of “THAT.” I wanted to feel that competitive juice feeling again.
Though we played golf together until he was 84, Big John never admitted that he really did pull that tee shot.