Golf on Colorado’s drought-stricken plains faces challenge to survival

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Gail Crawford hits an approach from the fourth fairway amid sprinklers at the Eads Golf Club June 29, 2022. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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As the foursome begins its round at the Eads Golf Club in midday heat, the only things flying faster than the verbal jabs among old friends are balls rocketing off the tee in quick succession and bounding along a browned-out fairway on their way toward a distant island of green. 

From the pace of this daily competition, you might think these guys were playing on borrowed time. 

“We don’t take practice swings,” says 75-year-old Gail Crawford as he slides into his cart and speeds toward a well-placed drive. “Don’t want to waste any.”

It’s one type of conservation that helps Crawford squeeze every drop of golf he can from a course where he served as the first real groundskeeper, once he retired from teaching and coaching generations of local kids. The course was born in the 1960s as a sand-green layout that Crawford helped convert decades later to its current, more traditional greens. Silky groomed bent grass replaced the gritty putting pits that required relatively little maintenance.

But years of drought and climate change have begun to reshape the landscape for golfers on Colorado’s drought-stricken Eastern Plains. For generations, locals have adapted their courses to often challenging conditions, from too little water to too much wind to declining population. 

We don’t take practice swings. Don’t want to waste any.

Gail Crawford, longtime coach and former greenskeeper at Eads Golf Club

The courses, including one dating to the late 19th century, have long featured affordable fees and hosted regular tournaments that comprise a regional “tour” of sorts, stitching together the cultural fabric of plains towns that look to them for social, as well as competitive, outlets. And as befits an agricultural region, their fortunes often have followed the weather — thriving in years of plentiful precipitation and struggling in dry times.

These are dry times.

For many of the courses, maintenance is melded with the whims of nature. Fairways, often some variation of native buffalo grass or strains like blue grama, can be left to whatever watering the clouds deliver, reducing or eliminating the need for costly irrigation systems. Those that have found the resources — through well water, money for infrastructure or both — to install sprinklers often use them judiciously, prioritizing greens and tee boxes while the native grass crackles underfoot.

But still, incessant wind can foil the best-laid sprinkler system, winterkill can leave the cherished bent grass greens mottled with brown and the combination of both can leave even hardy native grasses brittle and scarred with bare spots. Scarce water can leave a course struggling to survive — or close it altogether.

Eads, with a population of under 700 at the last census, is a case study in the battle to keep tradition alive. 

Marty Barnett celebrates after draining a 35-foot putt June 29, 2022 at the Eads Golf Course. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Key local connection

Back in the early 2000s, some of the older players who established the original course had passed on, and younger people had grown weary of sand greens. Fortunately, a city manager in the early 1970s had raised money for an irrigation system to keep the trees watered — but his vision extended beyond that. So when Eads Golf Club started its move to grass greens, those lines were big enough to carry the water they required and also provided a head start on what would have been a huge expense.

Eads had another advantage. Local product Mike Hines, who by then was working with renowned golf course designer Jim Engh, volunteered to design the greens at no cost. Hines would go on to launch his own design company and also manage the public course in Limon for 12 years before leaving in 2017 to take a job in road design with the Colorado Department of Transportation — trading fairways for highways.

He knows the courses across the Eastern Plains and the people who play them as well as anyone. (Case in point: Crawford is his father-in-law.) And he sees an existential crisis looming for a deeply ingrained pastime with a storied history — but a cloudy yet parched future.

Some courses already have felt the heat, so to speak. Hines points to the Antelope Hills course in Bennett, a full 18 holes that opened in 2002 but — as development put mounting strain on water resources — closed in 2015. The Tamarack Golf Club, the full turfgrass public layout in Limon that he used to manage, recently lost a well that served the 90-acre course and is scrambling for a workaround.

Wide swings in temperatures during the fall and winter also play havoc with a course, he adds. An October cold spell could necessitate shutting the sprinkler system down — only to see the thermometer hit 70 a month or two later. 

“You’re always to some degree at the mercy of Mother Nature,” Hines says. “Big courses run pipes deeper, so they can do some winter watering, and the Front Range gets more water, whereas out here, we get the wind more than anything. If we continue with the drought, it makes you wonder how much water supply is in the aquifers that these courses pull from.”

At the Tamarack course, manager Jeff Coonts now finds himself working to revive an old well that’s been dormant for years, hoping it might replace the one that went dry once the neighboring farm started irrigating its alfalfa. Growing things on the plains involves a lot of moving parts, and over the last couple years it seems to Coonts that forces of nature have conspired against him.

“If it can go wrong, it is going wrong right now,” he says. “We got a hot, dry spring — I mean, frickin’ 90-degree weather and the wind blew 60 miles an hour for a week straight. It’s just not not a good combination for growing grass anywhere.”

It doesn’t help that the course still relies on a sprinkler system installed in 1967. Or that harsh winters throw a lethal (for grass) combination of wind, cold and lack of snow

He recalls a recent conversation with a member who wondered why the course couldn’t do more to mitigate the dry conditions. Coonts asked him what he saw when he looked out his window. Dead grass, came the response.

“There you have it,” Coonts says. “It’s not only on the golf course. We’re just a microcosm of what’s going on in the whole of eastern Colorado right now. We’ll fight tooth and nail to keep this course open as long as we can. We’ve dealt with this water situation for two years already and we’re still clicking along.”

Shae Withington pitches onto the ninth green at the Hugo Golf Club’s sand-green course on June 29, 2022. Though a vanishing feature, sand greens still make golf possible in rural areas where conditions won’t support traditional grass greens. At left are tools to smooth a putting path and then re-rake the sand afterward. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Playing in the sand

A little more than an hour up U.S. 287 from Eads, Gary Withington and his 19-year-old daughter, Shae, line up their shots on the ninth hole at the Hugo Golf Club. Nobody is dead certain, but an exhibit in the clubhouse claims this patch of prairie to be one of the oldest courses in Colorado, dating back to 1898.

They’re the only players on the course, and they swing into a stiff wind that harmonizes with the steady whine of semitrailer traffic along the highway. Shae had barely gotten home after a seven-hour drive from her Nebraska college town earlier in the day before her dad coaxed her to play a round. Now, she reacts to yet another tee shot gone awry. 

“I can’t hit it straight,” she sighs.

And her father, who has won Hugo’s club championship more times than he can remember, is right there with consoling words.

“You hit it straight,” he deadpans, pointing a finger toward the heavy rough beyond the fairway. “Straight over there.”

The Hugo Golf Club, situated close to U.S. 287, is one of a handful of sand green golf courses in Colorado. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

One shot later, both players approach the green. Only on this high plains, bare-bones course, the “green” is splotchy brown, its hues blending with the arid prairie. Instead of the smooth, green contours of a traditional putting surface, Hugo’s course sports a roundish expanse of grimy sand, with a flag stick bending in a blow-dryer breeze.

Welcome to sand green golf. Cow-pasture pool. 

These courses used to be plentiful across North America’s breadbasket, though now they probably number somewhere around 100, with only a handful estimated to remain in Colorado. In the state’s rural farm and ranch country, where conditions from weather to sparse population make thirsty bluegrass fairways and bent grass greens impractical, sand greens offer accommodation. 

Courses laid out on plentiful farm or ranch land, often featuring strategically planted lines of trees to help delineate fairways of native grass, scratch the locals’ golf itch — even though, in some respects, this variation on the ancient game places very different demands on players. 

The hardened ground and often clumpy patches of turf makes “winter rules,” which allow players to improve their balls’ positioning on the fairway, a year-round proposition. And as with most any course in this region, motorized carts need to be kept solely on the gravel or asphalt paths to minimize damage in times of dry and brittle grass — which, these days, is always. 

And then there are the sand greens themselves.

Loads of sand, spread several inches deep in a roughly oval or circular shape somewhat smaller than most traditional greens, surround the flag stick. Often, a spray of diluted motor oil would be applied every so often to create a smoother putting surface and also keep the greens from eroding in the wind. In more recent years, biodegradable oil variations represent a nod to environmental concerns.

Once all players have reached the green, they’re on a literal level playing field. The player whose ball sits farthest from the hole uses a tool with a metal cylinder on the end to smooth a path from the hole to the ball. Then all the players move their balls from their landing spots to a point the same distance from the hole. Once they’ve all putted, one player uses a metal rake to return the sand to its original condition. 

Steve Jones, a multi-sport star growing up in Yuma, developed his game on Colorado’s prairie  courses — he won two sand-green state titles, when that was a thing — before forging an excellent, though injury-plagued, golf career at the University of Colorado and as a professional. He won eight PGA Tour events, including the 1997 U.S. Open, and earned a spot in the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.

The Hugo Golf Club is one of a handful of sand green courses in Colorado. The nine-hole course was established in the late 1800s. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But for all the scaled-back expectations, this expanse atop a prairie rise, next to land the golf club parceled off for the Catholic cemetery, has fallen on similar hard times to traditional courses on the Eastern Plains. From the very first hole, which features a historical marker indicating that your tee shot will send you retracing the path of the Smoky Hill Trail, the 19th-century route to Colorado’s gold fields, the drought has taken its toll. 

Withington, who farms and ranches near the neighboring town of Genoa, has seen the impact on both his livelihood and his pastime. Conditions now are “50 times worse” than he’s ever seen them — drier than even his 98-year-old uncle can recall.

Despite drought, which has burned bare spots into the fairway, and the wind, which can add a stroke per hole if you don’t play it right, he’s still drawn to the course where his name hangs among the annual champions many times over in the white A-frame clubhouse.

He succinctly describes the course’s attraction. “Cheap. And close to home.”

But the club’s future, he says, is slipping away.

“These kids just don’t hang around,” he notes, nodding toward his daughter. “I told her, why don’t you come back and farm and she says, ‘I’ve watched you cuss that my whole life. Why would I come back?’ ”

“When I was younger it wasn’t half bad,” Shae interjects, noting that she’s now an English major and aspiring book editor. “But when I hit my teen years it was like, no.”

George Ehlers, the current club president, explains that a club the size of Hugo’s could never afford to irrigate a golf course — certainly not in an economy where farmers are aching for water to nourish crops and cattle. Only the course’s trees merit water. Ehlers estimates they number 600 or so, most delivered by a member who flew his own plane to Craig and brought back the saplings that, now grown, stretch like dotted green lines across the prairie.

But he echoes Withington in lamenting the aging club membership that has felt the impact of attrition in recent years. The ones who play a lot of golf have left, or they’re busy with their kids’ baseball games. Fewer members means fewer volunteers to take care of the course, to do the mowing, upkeep on the clubhouse and grounds. 

“Out of 30-some members, there’s probably 10 of us who give a damn,” he says. “When my dad was doing this, they had 50 members and there’d be 40 out here working to help us.”

Gary Withington, Hugo’s club champion many times over, putts on the ninth hole of Hugo Golf Club’s sand-green course as his daughter Shae Withtington, left, and club president George Ehlers look on. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Then the rain stopped

The Springfield Golf Course, another of the few remaining sand green tracts, lies tucked in the far southeast corner of the state. Nine holes of buffalo grass spread over 180 acres were first leased to local golfers in 1955 by a town banker for $1 a year in perpetuity — so long as it remains a golf course.

And it has, though the drought and the wind have so wrung out the landscape over the last three years that the course sometimes seems to be slipping away. Over decades, the trees planted along the course, lining U.S. 160 and serving as a natural snow fence, have slowly disappeared — victims first of drought and then the chainsaw.

Conditions didn’t always seem so dire. There would be dry years, for sure, but usually enough moisture would arrive to keep the resilient native grass going. But then it stopped raining. What snow fell mostly drifted and blew away like fine powder before it could begin to soak into the ground.

“Drought has changed the whole course,” says Joe Self, a recently retired power company lineman and avid golfer born and raised here. “About three years ago it was all green and it looked like a real golf course. Now it’s bad. And it just keeps getting worse.”

Self used to volunteer the Fridays of his four-day work week to care for the course. Since his retirement, that schedule quickly expanded to become a near full-time — but still volunteer — gig that he shares with Jack Carson, who still works four tens for the county and pitches in on Fridays like Self always did. 

These days, they mostly mow around the greens, where the sand tends to hold what little moisture arrives and then sprouts weeds. But there’s not a lot they can do to green up like the courses 50 miles away in Lamar or in Johnson City, Kansas, where irrigation can hold off the climate conditions and lure players hungry for a more traditional round.

About three years ago it was all green and it looked like a real golf course. Now it’s bad. And it just keeps getting worse.

Joe Self, greenskeeper at the sand-green course in Springfield

“As long as it’s raining, you know that buffalo grass will grow and it turns green and it acts just like any golf course you know,” Self says. “It’s beautiful. But once it stops raining, it turns gray and it gets crunchy and when you walk on it or drive on it, it just breaks off until it’s down to nothing.”

Since its inception, the Springfield Golf Course has survived as a nonprofit kept afloat by its members, who Self says have dwindled to fewer than 40. They pay $60 for a single membership or $100 for the family, but for some it’s more of a charitable contribution. About 10 regulars play a tournament every two weeks. 

Anyone’s welcome here. Members pay nothing beyond their annual fee. Every so often a passerby will stop to sample the novelty of sand green golf. They can just stop at the can attached to a post and drop in their greens fee on the honor system. All the golf you care to play, all day long, for five bucks.

“If people put their $5 in there, great,” Self says. “And if they don’t, it doesn’t matter.”

That said, money has always stood between the course and the ability to raise the bar above what nature, and drought, allow.

Sand green courses have also weathered a sketchy environmental history in another respect. When the Environmental Protection Agency cracked down on dumping motor oil, many sand green courses pulled back. Self recalls that a few years ago, some members found a business willing to donate vegetable oil as an alternative, so they sprayed that on the sand to see if it would have a similar softening effect. 

“Everybody smelled like french fries for a while,” he says. But the sand crusted over and required even more raking to maintain the greens, so the Springfield course decided to just go back to natural sand.

Other ambitious projects, like installing artificial turf at $20,000 per green, could never get past the conversation stage. An irrigation well is another dream that seems perpetually out of reach. If locals could raise the money to install such a system, they feel they have a sufficient volunteer force to follow in Eads’ footsteps. 

Build it, Self figures, and the golfers would come.

“As long as we don’t have water, we may as well keep the tradition of sand greens,” he says. “But if we had real greens, people would go nuts.”

Greens and tee boxes at the Mossland Memorial Golf Course in Flagler get regular waterings, but the fairways rely on Mother Nature for their water — and with ongoing drought conditions, she hasn’t been kind. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Golf amid climate change

In a state that pays close attention to its precious water supply, the golf industry — like many others, including recreational outlets like skiing — has heightened awareness of how it can employ conservation strategies and best practices to use water more efficiently.

In its 2021 economic and environmental impact report, the Colorado Golf Coalition, a collection of state organizations, reported that the industry’s water consumption represents less than 1% of the state’s 2018 total — 41,213 acre-feet, compared with 4.7 million acre-feet for agriculture, the largest consumer. 

It also touts the positive environmental impact of its more than 33,000 acres of greenspace statewide, of which a little more than 16,000 acres constitute irrigated turfgrass, species like bluegrass that can endure high traffic and low mowing heights ideal for golf. That’s more than 17% less irrigated acreage than in 2002. 

By region, the courses in the Denver metropolitan area account for more than 43% of the irrigated acreage. Since the 2002 measurements, Colorado courses have increased use of reclaimed water and significantly reduced use of municipal sources.

Still, golf courses have joined lawns as targets for restrictions in places like Aurora, where Mayor Mike Coffman invoked the “new reality” of water scarcity in Colorado in support of a proposed ban on new courses — unless they employ the buffalo and blue grama long a staple on the Eastern Plains — as the city looks at limiting grass yards, medians and decorative office park areas. 

That same reality has been felt at Mossland Memorial Golf Club in Flagler, where the town built a nine-hole course in 1986 on donated pasture land just south of Interstate 70. The acreage came with a bonus — a 9-acre lake that collected effluent from the town’s treatment plant and allowed for irrigation.

That worked for several years. But drought triggered accumulation of sediment and algae and other aquatic growth in the lake, which led to continually clogged sprinkler heads. Plus, the chlorine used to treat the effluent built up salts in the water, which affected the soil pH, which meant changing fertilizers and additional attention. 

With the lake no longer an efficient option, the club sought a way to tap into the city water. That required construction of a 6-inch main line under railroad tracks and the interstate, but starting last fall, the course hooked up its sprinkler system — more like a high-end residential system than the commercial systems used by urban courses — to Flagler’s water supply. 

Gray wallflower pokes through grama grass in one of the fairways at Mossland Memorial Golf course in Flagler, Colo. Winter rules are the rule at the course as long as your ball is in bounds. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It’s made a world of difference in the growth of our grass,” says Tom Arensdorf, president of the club’s board and head greenskeeper.

The club raised funds and applied for grants to pay for $75,000 in system upgrades. And while the town allows the course some free water, the club awaits its first bill for the excess — and they’ve already used more than anticipated. 

Even with the new system, the course uses water only to irrigate the tee boxes, approaches to greens and the greens themselves. The fairways rely on native grasses like so many others in the region, and remain subject to the ravages of drought. Arensdorf notes that over the last few years, some courses have seen grass deteriorate or die off altogether.

“We were lucky last year, we got some pretty good rain and our grass made it through the winter OK,” he says. “ We’re not that bad off yet. But we’ve only mowed our fairways twice all year. And if it doesn’t rain anymore, we may not have to mow them again.”

While many courses on the plains share common challenges, there are outliers. Less than two hours south of Flagler, the Spreading Antlers Golf Course in Lamar plays lush and green. The public nine-hole configuration drinks from its automatic watering system at night, when it’s cooler and relatively calm, club manager Terry Turner says.

It’s a little oasis in the middle of nowhere…Even in drought years we still have water.

Terry Turner, manager of Spreading Antlers Golf Course in Lamar

“It’s a little oasis in the middle of nowhere,” he says. “You’d be surprised. Ours is probably greener than most courses in Denver or Colorado Springs. Even in drought years we still have water.”

Two reservoirs owned by the city atop a nearby hill supply non-potable water that keeps Spreading Antlers’ turfgrass growing — no native grass fairways here. Turner admits that “it’s kind of been a miracle” that a course like this thrives in this part of the state, but that rainfall has been better than normal and, as he scans the course, he sees not a brown spot in sight.

“It’s nasty water,” Turner says of the reservoirs, “but it sure is good for the course. There’s been a couple times over the last couple of years when they said it’s getting a little low up there, but other than the water having a little bit of a smell to it, it’s kept on coming.”

The course in Lamar, a town of 7,600, also has dodged the demographic issues that threaten smaller rural areas. Spreading Antlers actually got a significant bump in interest when COVID hit, and golf provided a reasonably safe activity with plenty of social distancing. Membership had dipped below 180 prior to the pandemic, but then surged to around 220, Turner notes — the largest the club has been in two decades.

“Twenty years ago, this was a lot different,” he says. “It seemed a lot of people died off, and there was no one to replace them. Now, we’re getting younger folks in. We had league last night and I had 28 players on a Thursday, which is unheard of down here, especially as hot as it gets. The course itself is beautiful right now.”

The foursome of Tom Richards, left, Gerald “J.P.” Mullins, Gail Crawford, and Marty Barnett don’t let a green’s winterkill stand in the way of a round at the Eads Golf Club on June 29, 2022. Winterkill is one of many challenges course managers like Richards deal with more frequently as drought and climate change impact the sport on the Eastern Plains. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Holding together tradition

Back in Eads, the foursome of regulars dodge the sprinklers on No. 2 that show faint signs of reviving the fairway’s buffalo grass. Any irrigation at all is a bonus in these parts, and the club counts itself lucky to tap into the town’s “backup” well and pays the cost of electricity to run the pump — an arrangement that Crawford says makes it “reasonable” to maintain the course.

Water rationing hasn’t come into the conversation, at least not yet. But he notes that the wind plays havoc with the sprinklers — so much so that during the early years  when he took care of the course he would start watering at 1 a.m. when the winds tended to die down. They still don’t cover everything, which means there’s usually some hand watering to be done.

“The worst thing we have is the wind and heat,” Crawford explains. “We’ll get a good rain and then the next day the temperature will be 100 degrees and the wind will be blowing 40 miles an hour and it dries out immediately.”

A few weeks earlier, a couple of decent rains blew through and quenched the fairways until they matched the greens. Then the heat and wind returned. Tom Richards, who succeeded Crawford as greenskeeper at the Eads course and plays with him daily, notes that the job doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. Plus, winterkill left the greens struggling to recover from irregular splotches of gray.  

“We’re in a drought all the time,” Richards says. “That’s a year-to-year thing. And you may have two or three weeks that you get rain, but drought’s drought.”

Drought or not, Eads joins other towns in the region in competing for what they call their Ryder Cup — borrowing on the name of the famed international golf competition. It’s one of many tournaments held across the plains that exemplify the spirit of friendly competition that serves as a rallying point for the communities. The tournament has its own traveling trophy — won this year by Cheyenne Wells.

For the previous four years, the hardware resided at the Eads clubhouse, a historic former  schoolhouse moved 14 miles to the course with much of its character intact. Snack prices and tournament results are posted on the same green chalkboards where kids once puzzled over math problems.

“You can come out and sit down and relax and have a beverage and watch the sun go down and that’s nice,” Richards says. “It’s kind of an oasis in a desert.”

Even on weekdays, locals occasionally show up for a quick nine holes over the lunch hour. And then there’s the regulars, blazing across a course so familiar they could probably play it in their sleep. As they prepare to tee off on the ninth hole, mist from a nearby sprinkler rides the breeze and Crawford raises his arms to catch the cool that momentarily cuts through the 90-degree heat.

“Ahhh,” he sighs. “Feels good.” 

Finishing the first nine, he and his buddies are just getting warmed up. They’ll play 18 on this day, but their love for the game is boundless. Crawford points out that on Richards’ birthday each October, the group plays the number of holes that corresponds to his age.

Last fall, he turned 68.

This story first appeared in Colorado Sunday, a premium magazine newsletter for members. Become a Basic+ Member to get Colorado Sunday in your inbox every week.

Gail Crawford will play up to 36 holes of golf per day at the Eads Golf Course. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)


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