Golfers in this week’s U.S. Open will be trying to avoid hitting a ball into the sand. But at courses in Harrisonville, Missouri, or Leonardville, Kansas, finding the sand is equivalent to a day at the beach.
They’re sand green courses, where the usual finely manicured, welcome-mat grass is replaced by sand. And a big fan of these unconventional courses is NFL star wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who grew up playing on them in Riley County, Kansas.
“I remember playing as a little kid walking around with my dad,” said the 33-year-old who reports to the Oakland Raiders training camp later this summer after 10 years with the Green Bay Packers. “But I was left-handed and he was right-handed, so I just used the putter the whole way around the course.”
Nelson hosts an annual charity golf tournament at a nine-hole sand green course in Leonardville, about 25 minutes northwest of Kansas State University. It’s in walking distance of the restaurant his mother, Kim, runs in downtown Leonardville.
Kansas City — neither Kansas nor Missouri— has no sand green courses. The closest is the Harrisonville Golf Club, a municipal course adjacent to the city park. As is usually the case at sand green courses, it’s maintained by volunteers and generates money through memberships ($200/year, $300 with stored golf cart)
Peculiar’s Marilyn Gustafson, who is the secretary/treasurer for memberships, recalled that she first played sand greens in Harrisonville in the early 1950s.
“As a kid I played barefoot out here, carried my own bag and complained the whole time that it was too hot to play,” she said, chuckling.
Courses with sand greens are a lot easier to maintain because they hardly tap into the water supply. Maintenance costs are huge for grass green courses, and that was a major reason courses closed throughout the U.S. after the 2008 recession.
Gustafson says golf courses with sand greens are also dwindling, but for a different reason: People don’t want to play on sand. Off the top of her head, Gustafson listed Missouri towns like Lamar, Butler, Clinton and Pleasant Hill that once had sand-green courses but don’t now.
Overall, the number of sand green courses in the U.S. is unknown because neither the National Golf Foundation nor the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America separates them from the master list of about 15,000 courses.
But, according to the National High School Federation, Kansas is the only state that conducts a high school sand green championship. This year’s winner: Riley County High School, where Nelson graduated from but participated in track and field during the spring.
Shari Taylor is in her fourth year as the team’s golf coach. She said she knows it’s more appealing to play on grass greens, and some students haven’t tried sand greens before coming to the high school.
“Some kids are disappointed,” said Taylor, who played in Nelson’s sold-out fundraiser. “We have some kids that transferred in. They’ve played grass.”
Nelson could have chosen a picturesque grass green course like the Manhattan Country Club or Colbert Hills. But he said he wanted to “keep it in the community. That’s what we’re about.”
Nelson and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers were one of the best passing tandems in NFL history, but in Leonardville, he wasn’t above manicuring the sand greens himself with the two most important tools on the course — the drag and the rake.
After removing the metal cup, the drag smoothes out the path from the hole to the ball. After everyone takes a shot at sinking a putt, the rake erases any sign of footsteps on the green.
The Leonardville Golf Club has been around since 1927. In a sport that prides itself on tradition, the care that goes into its sand greens — or any of the others still around in Kansas, Missouri or elsewhere — is a relic.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter for KCUR 89.3.