These golfers head for the hay

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

ELLENSBURG, Wash. -- Fred Hicks couldn't decide between a 7- or 9-iron, but that wasn't his only concern. Just finding a spot among giant sagebrush and painful sticklers covering the tee box was challenging enough.

The hole was only 125 yards -- a picturesque shot from one perch to another, across a large gully, with the rolling, sage-covered hills of central Washington on the horizon.

"I don't want to be short," Hicks said.

He didn't want to be long either. Not with land owned by the military for a firing range beyond the hole. Never mind he was firing at a 5-gallon bucket filled with dirt serving as the hole, a wooden post representing the flag stick and a putting green of recently swathed hay.

This is the essence of pasture golf, playing on a "course" cut from 550 acres of orchards and hay fields in this farming town about 110 miles east of Seattle.

While the small group of players on this blistering summer afternoon are the extreme, they represent the growing discontent of golfers exhausted by the increasing prices of play and equipment.

"The price of golf on real golf courses has gotten insane," Bruce Manclark said. "Golf use to be this very affordable thing. ... We're trying to advocate inexpensive golf and low-key golf."

Manclark's Web site, www.pasturegolf.com, isn't necessarily about going out and designing a course in the local wheat field, or trying to entirely recreate the origins of the game in Scotland, where sheep often were used to cut the grass.

Instead, the site focuses on affordable golf -- places where it's still only a buck a hole, with a metal box tacked onto a fence post for a cash register and the honor system for a marshal.

Pasture golf frowns on courses with no relationship to the land. Manicured fairways and greens are discouraged and brown spots are welcome.

Ultimately, the pasture golf movement is a "minimalist" shift toward simplicity in the game -- and it seems to be catching on.

"I think there was a real spike when Tiger [Woods] became a rock star," Manclark said. "They really overbuilt $100 greens fee golf courses. Everyone thought everyone was going to be willing to pay that much for it, and they didn't."

According to research by the National Golf Foundation, there has been a plateau or slight decrease in the number of golfers over the last five years, following decades of growth.

Between 2004 and 2005, there was a drop in the number of core golfers -- those playing eight or more rounds a year -- and golfers are showing signs of being more selective on just how often they play.

Manclark sees it in those who visit his site.

"Most of the people that go to the site get it. Other folks think we're making fun of things and we're not," he said.

Manclark picked up the idea after visiting his brother-in-law in Palmer, Alaska, where the community had pooled its resources to turn vacant farmland into a nine-hole course. The site now lists more than 50 courses in 32 states and five countries, including Australia and Scotland.

There's also a listing for the Northwest Highland Golf Tour, an open competition among highly acclaimed pasture golf courses in Oregon.

On this Saturday afternoon, the $500 adjustable-weight titanium drivers, $1,000 forged irons and $50 distance golf balls were left behind. Second-hand irons, real-wood woods and well-worn balls were the norm, along with bug spray and watching out for stray coyotes.

This was the third year of the Vanderbilt Country Classic, a gathering of friends on Urban Eberhart's property that includes orchards of apples and pears, along with fields of hay.

The longest hole was 310 yards, the shortest 79. Holing out required hitting the ball in or off the bucket or flag pole. Hole-in-ones were rare. Lost balls were common.

Golf bags weren't required and most only carried two or three clubs.

"It's almost like people who take up golf think they need to do it in a really high-tech way and they go and get their custom clubs and they sink a bunch of money into it," Cory Eberhart said. "This is like the counter to that. ... You don't have to have a lot of money to play golf."

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