Putting golf out to pasture

Rico Gagliano Oct 6, 2006

PHOTO GALLERY: Farmer’s Golf — Cows, barbed-wire and beer

KAI RYSSDAL: Consider golf. It’s one of the rare sports you can play while actually doing business. The sport itself is a pretty big business, too. The biggest thing need is land to lay out a course on. In smaller countries, where golf’s popularity has sent demand for tee times sky-high, courses can make a pretty penny. The Dutch Open Championship’s this weekend over in The Netherlands. For a different kind of golf, though. We sent Marketplace’s Rico Gagliano over to play a couple of rounds.

RICO GAGLIANO: On a sunny fall day in northeast Holland, Ronald Diersen shows off the golf course he owns and operates.

RONALD DIERSEN: We are here right at Hole 9. And there should have been a flag on a post 2 meters above it. But the cows just wrecked the flagpost. They broke it!

Seriously. Cows broke it. Nearby, the turf is getting mowed. . . . Or, rather, eaten. By a cow. My friend Kenn points across the green at another one.

KENN: We got a water hazard, that would be in golf language.

RICO: The cow is peeing.

KENN: Yeah. A yellow water hazard.

Every year, tens of thousands of people in five European countries pay about eight bucks apiece to play golf on courses like this. Well, not exactly “golf.” But a new, very Dutch variant called Boerengolf. AKA Farmer’s Golf. Cheesemaker Peter Weenink invented the game seven years ago as a joke. He was fed up with the high cost of regular golf, and the exam you have to pass before most Dutch courses even let you on the fairway.

PETER WEENINK: And to pass that exam is, uh, well, you have to study for half a year and, well, they make it very complicated. So I just like to keep it simple.

Boerengolf is certainly simple. Two teams compete. Each hits a ball towards Hole 1. The team that’s behind keeps hitting ’til they’re ahead, so the teams stay together. The object: sink the ball using the fewest strokes. Repeat 10 times, with a break in the middle for beer. The end.

For Boerengolf pioneers, finding space for courses was simple. They were farmers. They had acres of the stuff. And the equipment’s simple too. On Peter’s course, the two female champs of last year’s Dutch Boerengolf Open demonstrate.

JULIETE: A ball.

RICO: It sort of looks like a miniature soccer ball. Football. A red one.

JULIETE: And how do I describe this one? A small wooden shoe on a stalk.

RICO: A stick.

JULIETE: Yeah, it look like a golf club, only the end of the golf club is like a wooden shoe.

RICO: It doesn’t really look like a golf club.

JULIETE: Yeah, it looks like a golf club.

No it doesn’t, it looks like a wooden shoe on a stick. It also looks like fun.

ASTRID: You can try one shot over there in the grass and you can feel what it’s like.

RICO: Alright, I’m happy to do so.

ASTRID: Did you play? Do you play golf?

RICO: Wait, can you tell me what we’re doing right now?

ASTRID: We’re going over the fence.

RICO: But it’s not just a fence — this is barbed wire.

ASTRID: Ja, ja, ja.

JULIETE: Well, we have to, because this is the beginning of the hole.

RICO: Is this barbed wire electrified?

ASTRID: Yeah. But not very much.

See, the course is the farm. If there’s electrified barbed wire, you play through it. If Hole 4 is mined with cow patties? Well, you shoulda worn boots. Speaking of cows, hitting one with a ball will cost you two strokes. So, question: If one blocks your shot, can you shoo it away?

WEENINK: It’s allowed. But not when you make a kind of movements and a lot of noise. So you can always ask a cow to go and step aside.

RICO: But you have to ask it nicely.

WEENIK: Yes, but that’s not only for cows — that’s for everybody.

Happy players sip beers at Hole 5 of Peter’s course. You’ll find similar scenes at 110 Farmer’s Golf courses around Europe. Weenink says by next year more Dutch will play Farmer’s Golf than regular golf. The game that began as a joke is making a serious financial mark.

WEENINK: The big advantage of Farmer’s Golf, you double-use your land. You can make a Farmer’s Golf course on the farm, and it also can bring you more than your farm brings you.

Weenink says that’s especially attractive to farmers in the E.U., where a quota system requires them to pay a kind of rent if they want to increase production. Farmer’s Golf gives them another way to grow their business — cheap.

But only if it’s not a flash-in-the-pan fad. Peter’s solution: Promote the game as a serious international sport. It’s easy to imagine Americans warming to this populist pasttime. But I’m not sure how long they could live without golf’s ultimate money shot.

RICO: Have you ever seen a hole-in-one?

WEENINK: Uh, no I have not seen it yet. But it will come. And we say that the first one who makes a hole-in-one gets a tractor.

In Lievelde, The Netherlands, I’m Rico Gagliano for Marketplace.

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