Here is the thing about golf: It takes itself very seriously.
Dress codes. Arcane rules. Violations of arcane rules spotted by anal-retentive snitches watching on TV and phoned in to tournament officials.
Here is the other thing about golf: the Cow Pasture Open.
Stuffy as the game can be, it can be every bit as silly. And this is golf being laughed at, and laughing at itself. This is the smallest of small towns in search of a good time and the company of some good folks, and finding it while stepping lightly among the Angus landmines.
“A couple of years we caught hell from people because there weren’t enough cowpies,” said Daryll Jacobson.
Course superintendents get that complaint a lot.
Your attention today is called to the Cow Pasture Open because its 20th staging is Saturday, and because the 2012 champs will be making the 300-mile trek from Spokane to Wisdom, Mont., to defend their thrilling one-hole playoff victory.
This would be Wende Barker and Sharlene Schmauch – call her Gus – who hadn’t set their sights quite that high.
“Our goal was basically not to get the lowest score,” Gus reported, “because we heard last place got wrapped cowpies.”
So you could say the event is wide open, as is the setting.
Wisdom is a reduced-speed stretch on Highway 43 in Montana’s spectacular Big Hole Valley, home to a 100-some hard-working souls and two bars. In one of those, the venerable Antlers Saloon, the idea of a golf tournament was hatched by Jacobson and others, and the fact that the town had no course was no obstacle.
It has one now. One day a year.
Usually, it’s on a 300-acre parcel of Fred Hirschy’s spread, which back in the day was known as the Williams ranch. Gary Schmauch used to work there haying and calving while he was growing up down the road in Dillon, where Wisdom kids attend high school. Now a Spokane metallurgical consultant, he discovered the tournament on the Internet and cooked up the trip back home, taking his college roommate, Tom Barker, as his playing partner for the two-person scramble.
“And we actually did OK,” Schmauch said, “but we had to take all the crap because our wives won the big prize and we didn’t. We haven’t heard the end of it since.”
How does he think the guys the ladies beat felt?
The course is cut out of the stubble. Tour pros who incessantly whine about the rough at a U.S. Open would faint at the sight of the Wisdom Country Club. There is no Amen Corner, or even a Haymen Corner, but there is Steel Creek and a pond that Schmauch remembers being a favorite hideout of an ornery moose that always made roundup eventful.
Bring your driver and bring a wedge, because most of the greens turn into Western-style putt-putt challenges, including chipping into a toilet seat. And designate a spotter.
“We took a nine on the first hole,” Schmauch recalled, “before we figured out we had to send somebody ahead to find the ball.”
And bring your sense of humor.
Etiquette? Well, maybe not so much.
“We had a foursome,” Barker noted, “but the group ahead of us was 13. Eight were playing, and five were shagging balls and carrying the ice chests.”
Outlandish costumes are encouraged. So are outlandish carts. There have been pack horses, a 1926 Model T pickup and a tractor pulling a hay trailer equipped with a barbecue, sofa and multiple coolers. Barker has joined in that spirit by building his own cart, with horseshoe hooks to accommodate six bags of clubs, a cooler and even a recycling bin.
“Folds up in the trunk,” he said. “I can put it together in seven minutes.”
Just a guess: He’s an engineer?
“Yeah,” he confessed, “I am.”
For the record, the defending champs played lights-out on the playoff hole, but getting to it included an element of chance. The field is split in half, playing 10 holes each, but low score last year was pretty much irrelevant. Instead, a drawing determined the final competitors. That will probably preclude Wende and Gus from winning those snazzy silver belt buckles again.
“I think our husbands would have a few things to say if that happened,” Gus said.
What they say now is that this golf is a good walk and a better time, or pretty much what the organizers had in mind 20 years ago. Fifty-six players showed up for that first tournament. One year, Delta Air Lines’ in-flight magazine did a spread and the entry list swelled to 180. Now it’s settled in at about 100. The proceeds put up the holiday lights in Wisdom and nearby Jackson each year, and help some needy families have a merry Christmas.
“Nobody gets crazy and nobody gets serious,” Schmauch said.
“The people are great and it really is a hoot.”
And it really is golf. Sort of.