MADDOCK/LEEDS, ND — The state title trophy still looks in pretty good shape, even though it was 50 years ago this month that Leeds High School won the North Dakota sand greens state golf championship. Yes, the two words are correct: Sand and green.
It’s more about nostalgia now, the Route 66 of high school golf in the state. At one time, sandy green courts were common, certainly enough for the North Dakota High School Activities Association to host a state tournament.
Now? There are believed to be only a handful left in North Dakota that include Maddock, Leeds, Drake and Berthold.
What started as a quest a few years ago became a reality earlier this week: a true greens tour. Veteran PGA teaching professional and North Dakota State men’s assistant coach Larry Murphy had never seen one. I didn’t have that either. In the early 1980s, Dave Holm played from the Fargo Tioga Country Club in northwestern North Dakota, which are now grass greens.
The professional pro in the sandgreens pack is Edgewood head pro Greg McCullough, who won back-to-back individual state sandgreens titles in 1980 and ’81, playing for Hope High School, which won a team title in ’80. This day was a trip back down Memory Lane.
It was McCullough who taught us the proper etiquette of how to rake a path to the hole when reaching the sand green, using a “T-tool” with a heavy cylinder at the bottom. Back in his competitive days, it was often a lengthy process that provided the smoothest route to the hole.
If four players were spread out on the green, each player would rake a path to the green.
“As funny as it sounds, there’s an art to what you’re doing to make that path,” McCullough said. “You can kind of manipulate that path a little bit to what you want it to do.”
In Maddock, with firmer greens, there was nothing to do post-hole. In Leeds, where the sand is much looser, golfers are required to fork rake the green to create grooves that make it easier for the next group to land the ball on the green.
Therein lies the difference between sand and green grass. We could have left our wedges at home; the high flop is not recommended.
“The game is different in that you attack the golf course a little bit differently,” McCullough said. “Not necessarily off the tee, but once you get in range with an iron, the ball is more on the ground than it is in the air. You’re always trying to drive it in there. And then you have to decide how far you want it to jump off the green and how far you want it to run.”
Golf Digest, in a 2013 story, estimated at the time that there were less than 100 sand greens left in the United States. Most are cared for in a labor of love by a volunteer and maybe cut once a week. Don’t expect country club fairways, but the price is also reflected in the experience.
A single membership on the Leeds course is $40 per year; a family pass is $80. Most of the sand green courses have a drop box to deposit green fee money. At Maddock, it’s $3 per round or $10 all day.
In Hope, whatever green fees were invaluable to McCullough, who later played at the University of North Dakota.
“You’re in a small town in North Dakota, and back then there were a lot more sand green golf courses than there are obviously now,” he said. “You can play anywhere and this was a way to play a sport that became a sport for life for me.”
Perhaps no course is as unique in the sand greens business as Gateway Cities Golf Club in Portal, ND, located on the US-Canada border northwest of Minot. Eight holes are located in Canada, with the first hole and clubhouse in the United States so the course could obtain a liquor license.
Since the ninth tee box is in Canada and the green is in the United States, and because Saskatchewan does not observe daylight saving time, it often takes an hour and 15 minutes on a clock to play that hole.
Leeds: Sand greens champs
Leeds has had some good teams in a few sports over the years, like the 1954 and 1999 boys basketball teams that won North Dakota Class B state championships. Since the small town of Munich defeated Leeds-Wolford in the 1992 title game, Leeds and Milnor (2013) are the only two very small communities to win state B championships.
The back-to-back sand green golf titles at Leeds in 1972 and ’73 still hold a special place in the school’s history.
“You’re a state champion,” said Jim Braun, a member of the ’73 team.
“It was a lot of fun back then,” said Dennis Paulson, also a member of that team. “We had some good golfers. That’s all we had to do in the spring, go up against a lot of other schools that are now grass. So we faced a lot of good golfers, too.”
The Lions came close to a true greens dynasty, finishing second in 1974 and 1975 by one stroke each time.
“You come in and you think you’ve lost it more than that because nobody played that well,” Braun said. “But it was a lot of fun back then.”
The first sandgreens state tournament was in 1962; the last in 1995. More often than not, it was difficult to unseat the defending champion. Seven players won at least two individual championships: Dwight Stempson of Rugby (1969, ’71), Craig Bauley of Oakes (1975-76), Dennis Flom of Michigan (1978-79), McCullough, Charles Kranz of Underwood (1985-87) ), Mike LeBeau of Burke Central (1989-91) and Steve Winkler of Elgin-New Leipzig (1992-93).
Perhaps fittingly, the last two champions were from Leeds with Shawn Holmes in 1994 and Leigh Haagenson the following year.
“It was a big thing, you’d have big tournaments out here,” Braun said.
There is one tournament left each summer in Leeds, but it combines nine holes on a grass green in Rugby and finishes in Leeds, followed by a roast on a large charcoal grill.
The Leeds course is sneaky hard, with high water this year affecting a few holes, including taking one of the sand greens. As an alternative, we used a bench as a target.
“The water made it so hard,” Braun said.
It is located on an old gravel pit just off highway 2 on the western side of town. Remove the current high tide and it’s a well-designed layout that takes full advantage of the undulation of the land.
There are doglegs, there are long par 3s, there are greens with surprisingly few breaks, and there are water hazards. The course originated in 1927 when 14 residents met in the fire hall and formed Leeds Golf Club. That land is now Omfartsvej 2, where the current layout revived a light rail in 1963.
Leeds hosted the state sand greens tournament in 1983 and ’84. It was a very different environment than the competitive high school years for Murphy, who attended St. Paul Central. His team went undefeated and won a Minnesota State Championship in 1961 at the University of Minnesota golf course.
Before last week he had heard of sand greens but had no idea they still existed.
“I had no idea what to expect and it far exceeded what I thought I would find and see,” he said. “I was pretty excited to play sand greens and see what it was all about.”
Maddock: Small town pride
Some advice for the adventurous golfer willing to tackle the sandy green: When in Maddock, make a point to stop at Harriman’s Restaurant & Bobcat Bar for lunch or dinner. The beautifully renovated building at 114 Central Avenue, built many moons ago, is a city treasure.
However, the course a few miles west of town is a return to golf at its most basic. There’s also something very North Dakota about it, and if you can’t find peace on the Maddock golf course, you won’t find it anywhere.
“Fantastic, couldn’t have had a better experience,” said Holm.
A nearby cow’s moo greeted us at the first hole. Unlike the Leeds course, the greens at Maddock offer a different variation of sand that makes a putt quicker off the blade.
“Better putting than I ever expected,” Murphy said. “Interesting shots into the green and firmer than I thought they would be. The ball bounces over the green so we had to play some British golf today.”
In true British tradition, the course has a pothole of its own ala St. Andrew’s in Scotland. The dirt road to the course literally goes through the 334-yard fifth hole. The layout ends with a bang with a 520 yard par-5 that feels like 800 yards.
Although not as undulating as Leeds, the course makes the most of the different topography.
“It’s a small course, but for our caliber it’s perfect,” said John Benson, who, along with Howard Jacobson, has run the place for about the past 20 years.
The biggest annual task is preparing the greens each spring so they are packed and ready for summer. The big club fundraiser is a tournament every 4th of July weekend.
“I never really got into golf until about 25 years ago,” said the 71-year-old Benson. “But when I started playing I started to love it. There’s a certain pride in the pitch, it’s always nice to see it in good shape.”
The group recounts the adventure on the Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack, Saturday mornings 10-11 on 740 The Fan.