El Dorado, Kansas

Wild Golfdom

There is a story from the Vietnam War about a downed airman who had an extraordinary rescue. The story is told in a book called Bat21 - the call sign of the downed airplane. The officer in question was an Air Force intelligence officer and considered someone that could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands so extraordinary measures were taken to rescue him. In the end, he was guided out of enemy territory by an amazingly clever method. Bat21 happened to be an avid golfer and the Air Force Forward Air Controller who was keeping tabs on him from the sky contacted all of Bat21's golfing buddies and got a list of his favorite holes. Then, one night when enemy activity was at a lull, the FAC called him on the radio and told him to take out his compass and pretend he was playing the first hole at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver. Bat21 walked the appropriate distance and direction for that hole. On arriving the FAC told him to play another familiar hole. And using that method, Bat21 managed to evade North Vietnamese patrols and rendezvous with a Green Beret rescue team. He would later describe it as "the most terrifying round of golf I ever played in my life."

Clearly, he never played the 9-hole American Legion course in El Dorado, Kansas.

I learned golf like I learned most sports - guided by my older brother. Roger was a decent athlete - not a star but competent. More competent than I was. Rog is also right-handed. I am not. Truth be told, I am more or less ambidextrous. I write left-handed which no one taught me to do - I just did it. So odds are my brain favors the left hand a bit. But experience has taught me that I can learn to do something with either hand, if I choose to. I won't be especially good at it, but I can learn. I learned to throw a ball, swing a bat, bowl, and golf right-handed largely because Roger taught me to do these things.

When I was twenty-nine and living in Manhattan, I enrolled in a fencing class at K-State's University for Man extension program. The instructors were Army helicopter pilots who were fencing enthusiasts. The first night, we were standing around the room and one of the instructors asked, "Is anyone here left-handed?"

I slowly raised my hand and asked, "Should I be?"

He nodded emphatically and said, "Yes, you want to be left-handed."

Turns out that fencing left-handed can be a major advantage. Most of the defensive parries used in fencing are more or less instinctive. You see the general direction of the attack and parry it away. Except, when that attack comes from a lefty, you have to parry the opposite direction. And since this is largely instinctive, unless you practice against lefties a lot, you wind up parrying toward empty air and getting poked in the chest.

The bad thing about being ambidextrous, in my experience, is that people misinterpret it. A lot of people think being ambidextrous means you're really good with either hand. For me, it tends to mean my dexterity is just as bad with either hand. I can strike out from either side of the plate. I can throw gutter balls just as easily with either hand. I've never golfed left-handed. Based on my right-handed game, it would put a lot of innocent bystanders in peril. Of course, those of us who golfed at the Legion 9-hole are no strangers to peril.

The course starts out looking innocent enough. You face a wide fairway with a gradual downhill crossed by a narrow creek. Well, actually it's not a creek. You rarely ever saw water in it. What you usually saw was rocks, dirt clods, beer cans, and the occasional beat-up golf ball - probably one of mine. Actually I didn't hit that many into the ditch. I tended to have a wicked slice in those days so a lot of my tee shots ended up bouncing across the Sunset Motel parking lot in the general direction of the Sonic.

The second hole teed off across another creek - this one deeper, wider, and heavily overgrown with brush. I suspected alligators or at the very least water moccasins were lurking in that one. I never went in there. Mind you, I hit enough balls into it to justify sending in an expedition, but I was frankly a bit nervous about what might be down there. The second played well uphill toward the corner of Haverhill and Central. As long as you avoided the wicked slice that would send your ball scurrying toward TG&Y, the second offered little danger. Things really didn't start to get dangerous until the third hole.

The third hole played due south, parallel to Haverhill Road. On the right was about ten acres of prairie hay. Seriously, in season they actually sent a tractor out there and baled the right rough. If you hit a golf ball in there, you weren't going to find it unless you brought a retriever with you and happened to have treated the ball so it smelled like a pheasant. Also, in the summer, which was when I had the most opportunity to play this course, Kansas usually did its best to live up to its name - Konza, meaning the people of the South wind. Most summer days in Kansas, the third tee had you trying to hit a golf ball straight into the teeth of a twenty-knot headwind that felt like the exhaust port of a blast furnace. But that wasn't the really scary part. The scary part was the sinkhole.

For those of you who never played that golf course, I must explain. El Dorado is sitting atop an oil field. When you pump oil out of the ground, you sometimes see the earth cave in over the empty subterranean oil pool. About fifty feet to the right of the third green, there was a hole. We're not talking gopher hole or even manhole. We're talking gaping tar-coated funnel-shaped maw that seemed to lead straight down to the depths of hell. It was surrounded by a concrete bunker topped with barbed wire. Everything about this screamed danger. I managed to put a ball into this thing once and saw it sitting there stuck to the side of that funnel, enticingly close to being reachable. But deep inside, I could hear a tiny voice telling me that climbing over the fence to get that thing was to risk falling about ten miles down into the bowels of the earth.

I had occasion once or twice to expose college friends to that hole. None of them came back. Ever.

Around the 4th hole, I would begin to realize that the man who designed this golf course clearly did not have a right-hand slice. The fourth and fifth holes were side-by-side but in opposite directions. They shared a right boundary - the right side of hole 4 was also the right side of hole 5 which went the opposite direction. The problem is that this boundary was defined as an in-bounds out of bounds. That means if you sliced your ball from one fairway across the boundary into the other, it was considered to be out of bounds and a penalty stroke was assessed.

By this point, one cannot have helped but notice that having your ball slice wide to the right off any of the first 5 holes resulted in a punishing situation. On hole 1, you were in a motel parking lot. On hole 2, your ball was either trapped in a ditch or merrily skipping across Central. On hole 3, your ball was lost in waist-high prairie grass. On hole 4 or 5, your ball was legally out of bounds, though to add to your torment, it looked like it was innocently sitting on the adjacent fairway.

I have no idea who designed this course, but speaking for everyone who has a natural slice off the tee, that designer is a jerk!

Even without the slice, hole 5 was a killer. You teed off straight south again, right into the teeth of the Kansas summer trademark wind. On top of that, the hole was enormously long. Well over 500 yards, in fact, gradually curving southwest in the general direction of Butler County Community. As if that wasn't enough, I have actually seen balls completely disappear down gopher holes right in the middle of the fairway. On a hot summer day, after hacking your way down the length of this hole into the wind, golfers tended to arrive at that corner of the course looking like survivors of a Saharan death march.

As you turned toward the east for hole six, it was easy to be lulled into thinking things were taking a turn for the better. After all, the wind was now more of a crosswind and even a bit behind you as the hole angled kind of east-southeast. But as you headed down the fairway, you began to realize this wasn't as nice as it seemed. For one thing, the hole was long - not as long as the fifth, but still pretty long for prairie golf. In addition, as you approached the green it became obvious that the terrain around it was treacherous. Woods lurked on the right - woods full of poison ivy. There was another ditch behind the green - one so deep they built a footbridge across it. To the left there was a swamp. This being a golf course built on top of an oilfield, the swamp usually had a nice oily slick to it. Anything living in that swamp was probably vaguely prehistoric with a resistance to man-made chemical weapons. I'm thinking caiman or crocodiles or maybe plesiosaurs. As you wended you way into that pocket of vegetation and liquid surrounding the sixth green, you began to feel like you'd left the civilization of small-town Kansas behind.

The seventh hole looked innocuous enough. It was a very short par four - so short, in fact, that I have driven the green on that hole. However, the fairway was one of the narrower ones and it was lined on either side by trees and ditches. The trees were, for the most part, Osage Orange or what we called hedge apple trees. They have thorns. Long thorns. Long vicious, rapier-sharp, angry thorns. Those ditches were also relatively full of poison ivy, as well. Not to mention venomous snakes. No kidding - I was hunting a ball in there once and found a copperhead. After that, I considered bringing a mongoose with my on my next round of golf.

The eighth hole actually looked rather charming at first. It was a par three and you hit the ball over what was depicted in the course map as a pond. The green sat up nicely, framed by a lovely pair of trees. Of course, what was in front of you wasn't actually a pond. It was in fact, something of a cross between Everglades and La Brea tar pits. I swear I once saw caddy disappear into that 'pond' as if it was quicksand. The hole might have been short, but I have a hunch it devoured more than its share of errant golf balls.

When you finally got to the ninth hole, you found yourself facing what seemed to be safety. You were headed back to the clubhouse which meant civilization. Also, there wasn't really a lot of danger there. To the left was the first fairway and to the right was a lot of open space. There was a ditch across the middle of the fairway, but it was close enough that it was actually rather easy to hit across it. The only problem was that after the ditch you headed uphill. Steeply uphill. I've had golf carts just flat out die on that hill. After eight and a half holes of hauling me through forest, swamp, and prairie, the poor things just didn't have the juice for that final climb. It's sad, really.

This course, though relatively short, was not one for wimps. You had to be tough to survive out there. Firearms, a machete, and prayer were highly recommended when you set out on a round.

If you question my recollections on this course, I am sorry to inform you that you must simply take my word for it. The course is no more. It was brushed aside by the brand, spankin' new Butler County Community College football stadium. I have to admit, the stadium is nice and the team is successful enough to deserve it. But that golf course was so absolutely unique, there will never be another one like it. Nor should there be.

Geico has a commercial where golf announcers quietly describe the action as a kraken emerges from a water hazard and grabs a hapless pro. I can't watch that commercial without thinking of the 8th at the American Legion.