Where Greens Are Sand

A father takes his 9-year-old son to a farm-field golf course in Gary, South Dakota. The Gate City Golf Course measures only 2,473 yards and has a par of 33. You pay on the honor system, and you drag the sand greens after putting out.

My 9-year-old son, Luke, is golf crazy. This past weekend while watching the PGA Championship, he invented par 3s and 4s around my in-law’s living room floor so he could putt during commercial breaks. While the wood trim on the walls took a beating when Luke’s putts carried a little too much speed across the carpet, I didn’t have the heart to tell him to take a seat. And FYI: He’s been belly putting for 4 years and is extremely concerned about the new rules against anchored putting and how these changes might affect his career.

Prior to watching the pros, Luke and I took a short drive to play one of our favorite 9s, the Gate City Golf Course in Gary, South Dakota. And before you waste your time trying to learn every little detail about this course on your smartphone, let me explain that it’s “farm-field golf.”

Never heard of farm-field golf? Then sit back and let me take you on a photo journey of modern-day golf that mimics the game the boys across the pond played centuries ago.

As the rules on the course sign state, you play—and pay—on the honor system. Pay envelopes are provided and you drop your cash into the blue-and-white pay box.

GC measures only 2,473 yards (par 33), but Luke and I often play sideways, backwards and any other way we can imagine. And because 99 percent of the time we have the course to ourselves—literally—we don’t bother a soul, even on a beautiful weekend afternoon.

Prior to teeing it up, Luke loves to turn the handle of the vintage ball washer. And I have to admit, the metal contraption still does one hell of a job.

The prairie is often rock hard, so getting your tee in the ground can be a bit of a challenge. Mother Nature takes care of all the watering, so the fairways are green only when she gives the soil a drink. Mr. Farmer mows everything the same length with his tractor.

A dirt road marks out of bounds on the south side of GC, and a paved road handles that duty to the east. If you hit it beyond the barbed-wire to the west or north, then you’ll be playing from either soybeans, corn or alfalfa; it all depends on the crop rotation for that particular growing season.

With no artificial watering, you’re probably wondering about the condition of the greens. Think anti-Augusta. GC features sand greens, which is sort of like the misnomer of a metal fairway wood. The sand greens/circles are all the same size (about 30 feet in diameter) and pancake flat. Luke and I typically leave our putters in the car and simply putt out with whichever club we happen to have in our hands at the time.

Usually the sand greens are firm enough that you hardly leave tracks when you step upon them, but as a courtesy Luke always makes it a point to use the provided carpet drag before heading to the next tee. I take pride in knowing he respects the game, even with no one watching but cows.

There is no cart girl at GC. You are, however, welcomed to bring your own drinks and food, and the city of Gary graciously provides benches under the shade of massive cottonwood trees. On this day, Luke used the bench to rest, gather his thoughts and clean the grooves of his mid iron.

And that reminds me. You don’t need all 14 clubs to play farm-field golf. Luke carried a driver, hybrid, mid iron and PW; I carried seven clubs and left the rest in the car. It’s easier to walk the course with less weight, and because the ground is so hard, it’s almost always best to run the ball onto the greens instead of flying it on from the clouds. Playing with fewer clubs is a ton of fun, too, and at some point I’m going to do the same when I visit a “modern” course. And I won’t be surprised if I shoot a lower score because, for whatever reason, when my mind is less cluttered with fewer club choices, I strike the ball beautifully.

Finally, with no clubhouse available, you’ll have to make a 2-mile drive into Gary to buy your buddies a round of drinks to celebrate your hole-in-one. I suggest the Rock Room Bar & Grill for great food and friendly SoDak conversation.

Have you ever played a course that has sand greens? What were green fees?

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