Golfers in the (very) rough

City slickers learn a thing or two from a pair of prairie pros.

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Our family was having a fine time at the old homestead. A group of us cousins had converged on the farm to scuff up our city souls. Balfour, N.D. (pop. 20), was a prime vacation destination when we were children, world-famous – we assumed – as the Home of Grandma.

Now we were adults, and Grandma was gone, and the hayloft and silage pit no longer held the same appeal. When Uncle Cliff noticed us passing the time by chipping golf balls into a gopher hole, an activity that annoyed the grasshoppers no end, he suggested we drive southeast a few miles for a real game. Uncle Cliff stopped at the cafe to pick up his friend Jake, a wiry old man who was nearly consumed by his own overalls, and off we went.

The clubhouse at the Drake Golf Club was closed so Elmer could get his hay in, but the course was wide, wide open. Uncle Cliff tucked $2 per player into the little envelopes provided and slipped them into the slot like a church offering. He allowed as how we could use some of his clubs. He himself used only one club, homemade, with a massive leaden head and almost no loft at all. It would have appealed to a Neanderthal.

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Also, he had a putter.

My husband, Dave, selected a shiny, unmarked nine iron from Uncle Cliff's bag, confident it had 150 yards in it, and teed up, hair streaming behind him. The wind was coming straight out of the north; it had originated somewhere in the Yukon and barreled south without resistance for a thousand prairie miles. This, in short, was a breeze with some pop to it.

Dave gave his ball a good fat whack. We watched it sail into the distance, hover, and return a half minute later, dropping a few meek yards away.

Then Uncle Cliff and Jake got down to business with their giant leaden clubs. Uncle Cliff had a cranky hip, and Jake practically needed rocks in his pockets to stay on the ground, but they had the home field advantage. Either one of them could decapitate a column of prairie dogs with a single drive. Uncle Cliff's and Jake's balls skimmed over the fairway like stealth bombers and thunked onto the green.

The second hole was a dogleg to the right, or so we were told. It was easy enough to make out the doglegs: They were defined by barbed wire. The fairway was distinguished from the rough by the relative absence of cow flop.

I proposed to make the green on the diagonal. But that, I was informed promptly, was cheating. First you drive west, then you hit north to the pin. The trees in the dogleg at the Drake Golf Club were the most common variety in North Dakota: imaginary. You are expected to assume the trees are there.

Assume nothing else. The greens were brown. The grass was sand. The sand was oiled. The jig was up. The geezers were in charge.

I would not want to generalize about the sort of stuff a person needs to prevail. But let's just note that the two players who had dry-farmed through the 20th century and tallied up decades of North Dakota winters without indoor plumbing rolled to an easy victory.

There are things to be said for city living, but it gets you no guarantee of glory at the Drake Golf Club.

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