Cheyenne Golf Course, in Cheyenne, Oklahoma, is more reminiscent of Tom Joad than Tom Watson. It consists of nine rugged holes, ornamented at their peaks with greens made not of grass, but copper-red sand mixed with biodegradable oil. Greens with tattered, canary-yellow flags stabbed into their centers, resting a stone’s throw from the hot pavement of Oklahoma Highway 283. Greens surrounded by the wind-lashed plains near the Black Kettle National Grasslands that seem to unfurl for days, naked but for their clusters of cedar trees.
During a visit to Cheyenne last July, I found Bob Cannon dressed in blue jeans and a rancher’s shirt, cooled from the sun only by the shade of a cowboy hat. He was joining six other golfers for their weekly scramble tournament. People have been playing sand-green golf here since the 1930s.
“In our heyday we had about 20 golfers,” said Cannon, a 79-year-old farmer of wheat and cattle. “Four, five, six under usually wins (the scrambles).”
They play golf, but everything the casual observer knows about the game is noticeably absent. The dusty clubhouse is a shack about 20-feet long by 12-feet tall and made of wood and tin. The only amenity inside is a picnic table, surrounded by empty cartons of golf balls, a hollow case of beer, and an empty pack of Marlboro Reds.
Outside the clubhouse, hovering over a dry tangle of yellow wildflowers, a metal stand meant to keep clubs off the dirt is painted white and rusting at the base. This is where I stood to meet Cannon as he crested the hill on the ninth hole with four other golfers.
There was Glenn Green, a retired military man of slight build in his 70s; he was wearing a trucker hat and plaid shirt and toting along a curious grandson. In a separate cart was Sam Maddox, a broad-shouldered college student in a camouflage cap, t-shirt, and khaki shorts. He, apparently, had drawn the short straw and clipped the fairways with a farm tractor earlier that morning.
I watched as Green knocked a pitch shot into a splintering patch of Bermuda runners about 12 feet from the flag. His ball was in the sand, yet expected to eventually be putted.
Green walked out onto the sediment. He pulled a string out from inside the cup and into a taut line atop the round surface’s level playing area. Then, with a straight guideline, he used a broom-shaped roller to mat the sand together and form a direct putting path from his ball to the hole. Cannon gave his playing partner a read on the putt, but not before two grasshoppers nestled into his line of sight.
“It’s going to break to the north a little. Guarantee it,” Cannon announced. He was proven correct after he rolled in a smooth putt that barely veered left and made a light jingle at the bottom of the cup. No gallery roar greeted the small accomplishment, but Cannon’s group had indeed won the scramble, and the gentlemen lined up and asked for a picture, which, they assured, would run in the local paper sometime later in the month. the horizon.
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U.S. Golf Association historian Mike Trostel told me none of golf’s governing bodies keep particularly close tabs on sand-green courses like the one in Cheyenne. He couldn’t confirm if it was the only one of its kind left in Oklahoma, but did venture an estimate that roughly 100 still exist in America, most being nine-hole layouts in Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado.
Perhaps fading now, sand greens are nevertheless enmeshed in golf history. From its inception in 1907, Pinehurst, the venerable North Carolina resort that hosted the 2014 U.S. Open, used sand greens for more than two and a half decades under direction from world-renowned designer Donald Ross, who didn’t allow a grass conversion until 1935. Three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin was said to have played sand-green golf during his youth in Kansas.
“I was 14 years old in Baxter Springs, where I grew up,” Irwin told me in July after he missed the cut at the U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National in Edmond. “We had a little nine-hole course there, a muni(cipal). It’s since been converted to grass. Another sand-green course bites the dust, I guess. Or the sand. It just gave you a relatively permanent, relatively cheap way to play golf. It’s not grass, but it does have its own characteristics.”
The courses don’t require water, chemicals, or expensive mowing equipment and can get by with a few tractor passes per month. A course in Watonga once kept its grass low by employing hungry sheep—a perfect example of how rural areas have breathed life into the sand game for nearly 100 years.
Mike Hurdzan wishes there were more of them. The golf course designer of more than 400 grass-green layouts worldwide—including Erin Hills of Wisconsin, which will host the 2017 U.S. Open—knows the statistics. According to the National Golf Foundation, only 14 new golf courses (18-hole equivalents) were built in 2014 in the United States, and 157.5 were shut down.
Courses with sand greens might provide a solution. Hurdzan envisions how one- or two-hole layouts like these could grow the sport as a whole by making pickup games of golf possible in parks or playgrounds. He and his son, Mike, have already laid out eight old-fashioned Scottish links with sand greens at Glenlaurel Resort in Rockbridge, Ohio, in addition to consulting with Air Force engineers in Iraq who are interested in building a recreational sand-green course in the desert.
“It’s an inexpensive way to provide golf that is just as much fun and rewarding as grass-green golf,” he said. “It provides a memorable experience. It gets to the core of why we play the game. Golf has always been constricted because it’s had to be played on golf courses, which have always implied expense.”
Some sand-green courses erect a wooden box near the first tee, where donations of any size are welcomed. At Red Rock, an informal name of Cheyenne Golf Course, you can show up to play any time with nothing but rocks in your pocket. Show up on Sundays, and you’ll find Bob Cannon.
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“I grew up right here, in this country. In fact, my dad lived two miles south of where I’m at right now. We lived around this country all our life. All but a few years. I went over in Texas for six, seven years, and they had about all of me they could stand.”
In the high plains of Cheyenne (population 801) jokes fly fast as the wind. And there are quite a few people in the sparsely populated area who like golf, too—out at Sayre Golf Course, Elk City Country Club, or maybe a little farther to Riverside in Clinton. There are even still a few who hang around and play on the sandy greens of Red Rock.
“Now if we have eight out here, we’ve got a pretty good crowd,” Cannon said. “You go back a few years, there’s a lot of Sundays we’d have ‘em comin’ out of the woodwork, had a few young guys that were gettin’ interested. Then they just kind of drifted off.”
A modern course saddled with water limitation, expenses, and local competition would have already “up and died” in such a scenario, which is why Red Rock is so special—its small patronage continues despite the past four years of drought in western Oklahoma. “The people who have these courses have a love for the game that’s so strong they’ll continue to play on something like a sand green most of us would say you couldn’t play golf on. I admire the heck out of them,” said Jim Moore, an agronomist and former course superintendent who is now director of education for the USGA Green Section in Waco, Texas.
Moore doesn’t expect sand greens to make a comeback. Part of the reason for their decline, he says, has been a lack of a good substitute for the crankcase oils used to mix with the sand during times of less environmental awareness. Vegetable oil is a common choice now, but some argue it attracts unwanted rodents.
More superintendents are identifying surfaces on their properties—the ones least often used by players—to leave for all-natural growth. But while these native areas decrease ecological footprint and cut down on maintenance costs, they still comprise mere percentages of the entire grounds.
Sand-green courses are all native, all the time.
“It’s the willingness—and this will sound corny—to play the course as it is,” Moore said. “I think the problem we have (in golf) is our expectations of conditions have gotten so high; it’s resorted in extraordinarily high maintenance budgets, which makes the game more difficult to play. If the game wasn’t based on looks more of the time, we’d make golf more affordable. The sand-greens golfer epitomizes you don’t play the golf course for its look; you play as it is.”
At my request, Cannon drove me all over Cheyenne Gold Course, as it is. He cautiously hit the pedal of his gas-powered golf cart and we started up the first hole, with fields of wispy buffalo grass dancing unapologetically in the wind. The fairways seemed anything but fair, but the buffalo grass is much better to play from, he said, than the renegade tufts of plains bluestem that invade certain areas.
Batting away small grasshoppers and withstanding 100-degree sunbeams, Cannon showed me spots where he used to be able to hit drives. Showed me how he plays the holes now. Showed where water used to gush in the creek, “back when we used to get rain.”
We cruised around a heavily wooded area containing a small ravine and a dry creek bed, forging into a criminal southwest wind, horseshoeing into the horizon before returning to the uphill par-four ninth that leads to the highway.
Then we pulled to a stop in the gravelly parking lot, where the earth cracked and the wind swirled and the ants raced in circles. I stood with a hand on the plastic roof as we exchanged a long goodbye. Cannon told more jokes and finally admitted that, as he ages, golf is one of the few things he does anymore.
“Come back and see me,” he said, and his eyes were warm and there was seriousness to the offer.
“I’ll sure do it,” I said. “Maybe for a round?”
In hindsight I realized my answer may have lacked the conviction of his proposal. But I was serious.
Published in This Land, Vol. 6, Issue 3, February 1, 2015. A version of this story was previously published in The Lawton Constitution.