- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 25, 2004

CARTERSVILLE, Va. — Pasture golf is returning the game to its rural roots.

In an era defined by $100 greens fees and frustrating, five-hour rounds, what would you say if we told you there was a course a little more than two hours from the District that could guarantee you first-off privileges, wait-free solitude and a leisurely two-hour loop at no charge?

Welcome to the little piece of hacker’s heaven known as Green Acres Golf Course.

“I guess you could just call it a hobby,” says James “Spanky” Pleasants, owner of the 3,690-yard, par-62 course located behind his general store — Blanton & Pleasants — in Cartersville, a bucolic burg of 1,367 residents perched above the James River between Richmond and Charlottesville.

“My son is a golf pro, and he gave me some clubs in 1998. My grandson and I used to hit balls in the field out here, and one day, he suggested we put up some flags as targets. Well, one thing just sort of led to another….”

The final product consists of nine tauntingly tiny greens and 18 sets of tees strewn across 37 gently rolling acres formerly used as a dairy farm.

Now, Augusta National need not worry about its station as the South’s most prestigious course. There is no clubhouse at Green Acres, although there is a porta-john by the first tee. The fairways, which are cut with a conventional riding mower, are best defined as the slightly shorter stuff between the buttercups. The most menacing hazards are the two dozen cows that wander the layout. Only first-timers at Green Acres bother carrying a putter; veterans opt to attack the hairy greens with a pitching wedge or the like, flying the ball nearly to the cup to minimize the vagaries of the surface.

In fact, the greens might annoy even the most understanding thrill-seeker if it weren’t for the “Spanky Circle,” a one-foot radius outlined in chalk around the cup. Shots that come to rest on or inside the circle are considered to be holed. Thanks to the circle, players are likely to focus on the backyard novelty of the concept rather than the rustic nature of the greens.

The course record for 18 holes is 43, established last year by Mr. Pleasants’ son, David, a pro at the Foundry outside Richmond. Green Acres plays host to four tournaments each season, starting with the Farmers Invitational in April. Fittingly, the winner receives a green jacket bearing the John Deere crest.

Aside from the four tournament dates, tee times aren’t necessary, although players are encouraged to call Mr. Pleasants in advance, so he can cut the fairways and put out the pins, which the cows tend to lean on and shatter if they’re left out between play.

Your wallet, like your putter, is unnecessary at Green Acres.

“I might eventually charge people a couple of bucks, so I can buy a proper mower for the greens,” Mr. Pleasants says. “Heck, maybe when I retire I’ll turn it into an exclusive country club.”

Fact is, Mr. Pleasants knows most of the folks who seek out his backyard beauty are looking for relief from the country-club mentality. They are players like Bruce Manclark, golfers addicted to the game but disturbed by the escalating greens fees, ultra-manicuring, overcrowding and often stuffy aura that defines the modern upscale, daily-fee facility.

“I played a course in Alaska called Fishhook Glen a few years ago, and it was totally raw, totally unmanicured but at the same time both amazingly beautiful and really fun,” says Mr. Manclark, who launched a Web site (www.pasturegolf.com) dedicated to courses such as Green Acres three years ago. “Part of the impetus behind the Web site was a reaction to the rising cost of public play. Part of it was a backlash to the ridiculous manicuring you see now. What’s the No. 1 rule of golf? Play the ball as it lies. Well, most players these days expect perfect lies, and that eliminates a lot of the creativity that was originally intended when the game was born centuries ago.”

So, Mr. Manclark and his computer-savvy wife, Cory Eberhart, started the Web site, which asks for help in identifying and listing rugged, low-cost, natural courses.

The response to Mr. Manclark’s Web site has been positive. Initially, most of the courses listed on the site were from Mr. Manclark’s home state of Oregon. But the site’s course catalog now comprises more than 60 courses from 23 states and six countries. Most are nine-hole layouts, measuring about 3,000 yards, and cost about $10 to play. And almost all of them feature idiosyncrasies that are as charming as they are comical.

At Fishhook in Palmer, Alaska, the course that inspired the Web site, the official season is listed as “between snowfalls.”

Players at Woodburn Golf Club just outside Portland, Ore., can experience sand greens. After each group completes play on a green, it must soak and smooth the putting surface by dragging a carpet around the affected area, much in the same manner that baseball infields are smoothed between innings. Woodburn’s scorecard explains that this task “usually falls to the loser of the hole.”

A sign near the first tee of Yanchap National Park Golf Club just outside Perth, Australia, warns players “snakes, bandicoots and other wildlife are protected. Better to take a drop than to search for lost balls in the rough as to do so could be hazardous to your health.”

At Bear Valley Meadows in Seneca, Ore., the second hole plays over an abandoned helipad.

Should you decide to play a round at Doltonwood Golf & Country Club in Oregon City, a course whose motto is “a club so exclusive it has no members,” the scorecard explains that you may do so free of charge, “though donations of a bag of fertilizer (Not weed & feed) or a claw type mole trap are appreciated.”

The pasture-golf phenomenon thrives on such oddities. And although nobody expects it to supplant the traditional public experience, even unrepentant golf snobs can appreciate pasture golf’s underlying allure.

“I recently played a round on a pasture course in Hatch, Utah, at 7,400 feet,” Mr. Manclark says. “It was gorgeous, but the wind was just screaming. Those kind of conditions reduce the game to its absolute essentials, and that’s what pasture golf is really all about. What’s essential? That’s a concept every golf purist understands and respects.”

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