by Stan Bartlett
Not all sand-green golf courses blowing away
If you look at progress from a golf perspective, the game has changed dramatically in Saskatchewan not unlike the rest of society. The first track in the province was established in 1899 in Regina's Crescent area and used for three years until "roaming cows and hordes of mosquitoes" drove the members to an alternate location along the banks of the Wascana Creek.
Since the birth of the Regina Golf Club triggered a frenzy of golf course building - there are about 250 courses now, more per capita than anywhere in Canada - a couple of recent trends have emerged. In the last few years, there has been unprecedented growth in wonderful high quality courses. As well, many sand green courses have converted to grass greens or simply been abandoned as small prairie communities disappear. But some of the remaining 60 or so nine- hole sand green courses are thriving with golfers quietly enjoying the spirit of the game.
"Most of us wouldn't trade it for anything," said Eileen McPherson, who golfs three times a week with her buddies Cecile Duff, Sophie Kelln and Daisy Stockton, at the Craig Golf Course just down river from the now Royal Regina Golf Club. "We like the exercise, the fresh air and the companionship."
The sand green courses, which date back to the troubled economic times and harsh weather of the1920s and 1930s, are slowly disappearing in Saskatchewan as grass greens became more affordable and easier to build and maintain. In his book "Ninety years of golf", author Mickey Boyle listed 132 courses in 1987 that were sand courses. Author Sandra Bingman, who wrote "Breaking 100: A Century of Women's Golf in Saskatchewan," said most of the early rural courses used sand greens because there was no reliable water supply with which to grow grass. Surprisingly, many of the province's major courses today, such as the Stanley Thompson designed Tor Hill in Regina and Golf Kenosee in Moose Mountain Provincial Park, got their start as sand green courses.
There are advantages to playing sand green golf, or as some golfers call it, "pasture golf." With only 65 members at Craig, there's no problem getting a tee time because there aren't any - you just show up. There's more emphasis on fun and the social aspects of the game rather than competition - ask members about their Hawaiian, western and Halloween themed socials. It's eco-friendly - there are seldom pesticides or herbicides used. And for these seniors, it's only a short car drive from home.
Like Mike Weir and Lorrie Kane, these ladies play a game with which we are not familiar. The 2,332-yard track at Craig is a pretty spot along the river's edge with abundant birdlife and wildlife. As for the fairways untouched by earth-moving equipment, think second even third cut. There are no sand traps or four sets of tees (or ball washers for that matter). However, there are sand greens - typically about 25 feet in diameter, circular and flat with the cup always in the centre. The sand greens, depending on the type of sand, can be slow or fast and daunting even to the initiated.
"If you can play sand green courses you can play anything," says McPherson who plays regular courses in Texas during the winter. Once a golfer lands on the green, the surface can be tidied up with a rake and a matt attached to a rope is dragged from the ball to the flag to smooth the surface. Years ago many greens were oiled to help smooth the surface (and to prevent it from blowing away) until concerns were raised about polluting aquifers. There's no need to read the putt - although it's wise to take into account any larger pebbles - you just plough the ball to reach the hole.
"There's the potential to make Craig a grass green course, but then the fees would go up," said Kelln, who once aced the 124-yard 8th hole and who once fell in the river while retrieving a ball. You won't find any bag drop at their curling rink which doubles as the clubhouse, any high priced titanium drivers and specialty gear in a pro shop, or any glasses of chardonnay on the deck at the nine-hole Craig. You can get a cup of coffee for a dollar to wash down the cookies and muffins someone brings along for the post game get together. The fees are $5.75 a round or $155 annually.
But there's even cheaper golf out there. In south-west Saskatchewan, the village of Pennant has what may be the only golf course that doesn't charge green fees. The Indian Hill Golf Course near Swift Current doesn't even have a donation box and is run on the honour system like many other sand green courses. Owner Dave Dowdeswell farms in the area and operates it with the help of a few community donations and neighbours who help maintain the nine-hole prairie track. "It's a nice quiet place to have a round with no crowds," said Dowdeswell. There are local fun days and service club tournaments at the non-profit club.
Just down the highway, you'll find the nine-hole Chaplin Municipal Golf Course which was a sand green course until recently. When the Rough Riders installed a new turf a few years ago, avid golfers at the Chaplin course asked for and got enough astro turf to cover nine greens. "The turf works," said Julie Bauck, village administrator for Chaplin. "The putting is fast, but there's no mowing and no watering." Adds Bauck, "I've not seen a football player out here yet."
Daniel Rauckman, the executive director of the Saskatchewan Golf Association, which counts 49 member courses with sand greens, grew up playing on a pasture course at Leroy. He feels it was a great introduction to the game. "It was fun. It was just golf - I didn't know any different as a child," said Rauckman. "But if I mention sand green golf now at a national meeting, it's quite a shocker to them."
About the Author: Stan Bartlett is a journalist-photographer-golfer living in Saskatchewan and owns saskgolfer.com. The mission of saskgolfer.com is to showcase in a fourth generation website, the best, the most, the greatest, the top, products, people, companies and facilities in the province.
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