If You Build It, They Will Come: A Journey to Golf’s ‘Field of Dreams’

Bolton, Mississippi – The smell of chicken shit welcomed us.

As we turned off the highway and made our way up the dirt road separating the farm and a faded grey silo, the fertilizer stench smothered the car like a hot blanket of gas.

Here was the famed Halifax Holes I’d heard folk tales about. The holes didn’t so much appear as form fully and suddenly under us as we drove. But then, there are really only three of them.

The Halifax Holes — three greens, eleven tee boxes, and eighteen holes measuring 5,716 yards – sit on 17 acres of Gaddis Farms property in Bolton, Miss., a tiny town (pop. 567} in the northwest portion of Hinds County in central Mississippi. Bolton touches both edges of a socioeconomic gulf. Go east eighteen miles and you’re in the sterile suburbs of metropolis Jackson; about the same distance west starts the sprawl of the Mississippi delta.

It is a place of expansive agriculture and poverty. Bolton’s median household income is $28, 833. Around 21% of the population lives below the poverty line, just above the state average of 19 percent. American industry has rooted out Bolton’s vibrancy. According to U.S. Census data, Bolton’s size has dropped each decade since the 1960’s. The nearby Interstate 20 (built in 1957) absorbs most of the former traffic and life from the small highways running through the town that connect the capital city to the river. (The gas station just off the interstate is a main hub of activity, long on delicious fried food and short on craft beer.)

Commercial agriculture has suffered a similar fate. Gaddis Farms (est. 1895) is one of a dwindling number of major farming operations in Mississippi, with ?? employees, producing livestock, soybeans, cotton, corn…and, since 1970, golf. Up through the early 1960’s, Gaddis farm crops were still plowed by mules. The mules were kept in one of the many wood-and-tin barns and grazed in a grassy (?)-acre lot on the main part of the farm property.

Then two things happened that altered the Gaddis landscape for good. Technology drove out the mule. And Ted Kendall III played golf for the first time.

We eased up the gravel driveway and parked in the grass, among clusters of new pickup trucks and old farm machinery.

Open equipment sheds blended into a pasture where I could see fairways and tees and pins. A huge country-style home sat to our right at the crest of the property, framing the most prominent of the three greens in a yard of sprawling oaks and flower beds.

It felt like stepping into a golfer’s Rockwell sketch. I smoked a cigarette while I took in the property and surveyed the cart shed next to the house, not quite sure what to do.

Halifax is neither public or private, and entirely free. You just kind of show up – if you’re lucky enough to know someone who knows about it. We had gotten the invitation from my friend Tripp, who was running late from Zoom church. There is no clubhouse at Halifax. The course doesn’t even show up on Google Maps. Tripp had sent a marked location and advised us to bring our cooler and ditch the collared shirts.

My brother remarked that it had the distinct feel of entering a running country poker game.

I knew of Halifax through the stories of its Calcutta throwdowns: beer-filled golf and gambling fests, eight to a group of big-hitting guys who shoot 64-74 on the same Saturday through a case of Ultra and half as many double bogeys. Roy McAvoy’s field of dreams.

I cracked a beer and began my weighted Momentus warm-up, still untrusting of the carefree ethos. Tripp arrived a few minutes later. I peppered him with questions about the course while he prepared his cart and cooler.

“Just grab cart No.1,” he assured. “That’s the one he said to get.”

Soon the man Tripp announced was Mr. Kendall puttered up in his personal cart to greet us. He wore a True South Classic polo and a white Halifax hat. A calm drawl dripped from his lips. Slow and diligent as the delta.

Ted Kendall never knew much about golf. He claims he didn’t know much about farming, either. He grew up in the capital city of Jackson in the 1940’s, the son of a “depression-era banker.”

“My daddy thought golfers were evil people,” Kendall laughs.  

Kendall’s mother’s family ran Gaddis Farms and a hardware store in Bolton. He worked the farm on weekends growing up and then attended Mississippi State University where he earned a degree in agriculture. As the only boy in two generations, Kendall knew that his future was not in banking, but working for his great uncle J.L. Gaddis’s farm. He joined the farm full-time in 1958. The following spring, J.L. — ‘the real boss’ – died. Kendall had to forge his own way. Through the 1930’s, the farm had sustained mostly as a successful cotton gin. Kendall readily learned the cattle business, expanded row crop production, and planted more trees to diversify Gaddis with the changing agricultural times. 

With all the work, the young man still found a few minutes of fun. He met his wife Mary on Bourbon St. in New Orleans during a Mississippi State – Tulane football weekend. Mary was accompanying Kendall’s cousin, a sorority sister at Mississippi State, on the outing; she and Ted hugged upon being introduced.

 “I called my cousin six weeks later and asked her to get me a date with that girl that I hugged,” Kendall retells proudly,

The hug led to a marriage that set Halifax history on course. Mary was a golfer, born into a family of golfers and raised on a golf course in Anniston, Alabama. Kendall would soon be initiated, whether he thought so or not. 

“I was taking a Sunday afternoon nap here one time and she said, ‘You want to go with us to Raymond (Eagle Ridge C.C. in Raymond, Miss.) to play golf? I agreed to go but wasn’t going to play. Well, I went and I couldn’t stand just watching. I said, “Look, give me a ball.” I hit it and never found it…but I got the bug.”

Kendall welcomed us with warm authority. He and Tripp exchanged pleasantries, easy chuckles of insiders. I introduced myself with rare temerity.

“Thank you for having us out,” I managed.

There may not have been a greens fee at Halifax, but I could sense this brief meeting was far more ritual to our welcome.

From his cart, Kendall surveyed the course with the head turn of a man who knows already what he will see. He advised us that the last group was “on number 16,” and that we should just fall in behind them so we would have “room to play.” I had never heard it phrased that way, and had no idea how any of that was possible on a three green golf course. My uncertainty must have felt palpable.

“Y’all know the layout okay and where to go?” Kendall asked lightly.

I looked at Tripp with the deference and gratitude of a partner in his pocket.

(Tripp, a young Jackson lawyer and savvy golfer, had worn a faded gray t-shirt that offset his saddle white Foot Joys. Despite his advance text, I had come in the typical golf ensemble. I hadn’t thought he was serious. 

But standing in a clubhouse of pecan trees and equipment sheds, framed by dirt driveways and the sprawling sky, waiting to play a three-green course on a farm, I understood. Sure, you could wear golf clothes, but the insistence of the industry was absent. I untucked my shirt with the fresh exhale of freedom, Andy Dufrain from the shit river.)

We got in our carts and looped around the main shed – a “comfort station” of a few white fold-up tables below a boom box, a microwave and a box of scorecards. Various announcement signs and laminated course diagrams clung to the faded wood.

We rode past the back deck of the house and down the hill to what I learned was the 15th tee. The hole aimed back up towards the green by the house: fortunately a par-three, nine-iron start. I wanted at least the hope of hitting my first shot pure.

Necessity was the mother of invention. Close family and friends say once Kendall got “the golf bug,” he soon tired of the travel and time it took to play the game he newly loved. Kendall maintains that once the farm no longer needed the mules, they simply needed to do something with their former grazing lot.

“First we planted pecan trees. Then we got to looking at it and, with the urging of my real golfer kin across the road (a cousin and golf partner), we said, ‘Let’s just build a couple of greens here.’ We were having to mow it anyway.’

The Halifax wheels were in motion. Kendall and his crew already knew how to work the land. They consulted Mississippi State University on course maintenance and upkeep, and assembled green mowers and other equipment used, bought, borrowed and converted. Golf course routing was another story. Kendall and close family members insist there wasn’t much of a plan with the layout — just “slapped down some tee boxes.” They built two greens and immediately ran into a problem.

“We knew we needed a third green, because it just wasn’t long enough. You couldn’t hit a long ball. So we looked over across the road where (my cousin) lived and that looked like a perfect hole without any work, because we were mowing it anyway. We went over there and had some pretty good grass in the yard. We just made a green over there and played going across the road ”

The original Halifax Holes opened for play in 1970. Once again, the twin engines of industry and progress would alter the landscape. Traffic continued to increase on the road running through the course to the interstate a few miles away. So did the distance of the golf ball — though Kendall still claims the longest shot ever hit at Halifax, a wayward ball that landed in a dump truck and likely never hit ground until the Mississippi delta.

“Golf got better and the traffic got worse,” Kendall sums up.

But the son of the depression-era banker was not about to leave it at that. In 2000, Gaddis Farms purchased seven more acres of land adjacent to the main property — on the same side of the road — and built a new third green. They rerouted the course, then had to account for the pecan trees that had grown too large, and in the wrong spots, for the new layout.

“We got (that) big old digger and moved them to an orchard back on the other side of the road. We left some for the golf course, but moved most of them out of the fairways.”

Kendall and his advisors had ruled out bunkers immediately – too much maintenance. With the updated layout, he seriously considered adding water along the fence line, but rightly decided that the briars on the other side were hazardous enough.

“We made this to fit what we had available and it worked,” he says.

The Halifax layout proved a paradox: ordinary and ingenious, probing and repetitive. A single pasture contained the full course, nearly 6,000 yards over 17 acres that sloped down in the middle into a grove of trees and rose again to the horizon.

Two smallish, well-manicured push-up greens sat atop each end of the property. The third green tucked into the strand of trees in the middle divided the course into four or five closely mowed hitting areas. I wasn’t ready to call them fairways.

Small, raised tee boxes flanked the greens on all sides, many just a few paces off the putting surface, easy grafts of sod and space. Each tee box bore multiple hole markers written on paper and attached to wire fixtures.

Many seemed out of place or missing. Tripp and his partner Beau, despite knowing the layout already, were thrown off a few times. I suspected it was the accumulating Ultra’s. A laminated, faded routing diagram was affixed on most carts, just not ours. This truly was a place you just had to know: which tee to go to next, which green to hit to, what area to aim for.

After a solid opening iron shot, I struggled to hit the farm. Most tee shots called for a full-send into a wide expanse, a few were tight and awkward. But for the first time I could remember, dismal tee shots didn’t dim the outlook. We played a heavy share of par threes; some were short, just as many required a hard four or five iron. None were flat. More than enough were uphill. Two par fives somehow developed. Both spanned the full length of the pasture and required a second shot over or around the trees in the middle.

I learned on these holes that you could pretty much play to any area of the property you liked, provided you didn’t hit into anyone and thought you could manage the next shot from there.

It all felt like a puzzle I couldn’t quite put together, especially since we started on the “fifteenth” hole. The course was in impressive shape — nicer conditions than your standard muni, but a less exciting layout than I had imagined.

It takes a farm to nurture a golf course. The Halifax Holes are part of the Gaddis Farms operating budget. Farm employees handle most of the routine maintenance on the course; a single worker mows the greens three times a week, the fairways once. Occasionally, heavy rain or more important farm duties keep the fairways from being mowed at all. They spray the greens when they should – and can.

“The farm collides a lot with the golf course,” says Whit Kendall, grandson to Ted and caretaker-in-waiting at Halifax. “We like to run the big spray rig on the greens, but when it gets close to planting time, (Ted) doesn’t want to mess with my dad (Ted Kendall IV, current president of Gaddis Farms) and get the sprayer. So we have to let the poanna die on its own.”

Kendall III still tends to the greens himself at times with a homemade sprayer he attaches to an old John Deere mower. At 84 years old, he’s still plenty healthy — six years removed from hip replacement surgery but parted very little from the youthful vigor that birthed Halifax.

“Mechanic-ing” is the main thing. The assortment of used and ancient machinery is only as reliable as the hands that keep it running. Golf management holds true to the old farming adage: there is always something to do or fix. Both Kendalls credit farm mechanic Dennis Mason as the person who makes Halifax possible.

“I told Whit to get him some good help. He’s got to have somebody who can fix these mowers and things,” Ted says.

Yet Halifax has a way of nurturing itself. Last year the green closest to the Kendall manor was infected with a fungus as stubborn as the mules who formerly called the course home. The tried-and-true solution was to simply move healthy sod from the “practice” green across the road and replace the infected surface.

“The story of how that green was fixed kind of sums up the whole golf course to me,” Whit reflects. “When places die or whatever, we just get sod from across the road. But we needed help digging and moving it. Now, sod work is terrible. Awful. So it’s like, “If y’all can help, we need it, but you don’t have to come.” But every single time, 15, 20 people show up to help. We rely on other people. I thought it was going to take weeks to fix them and we did it in a day and a half.”

Whit points out three golf tees holding together the spacers and wiring on the gang mower, hitched to the back of a rusted green tractor with more than 4,000 miles of mowing logged.

“We make it work,” he grins.

As we loped along, knocking a ball around Mr. Kendall’s field, the thought revealed itself like the course had done hours earlier, suddenly and fully formed: Halifax was a true links in America, if ever there was one. It had been formed from the same simple circumstance as the inventors of the game.

Rural Mississippi and the pastoral lands of Scotland and Ireland remain close kin: hilly pastures separated by rudimentary fences, grass grazed to the root in some areas and readily lush in others, isolated country homes every half mile or so, housing livestock farmers long on land and work and wit.

Centuries ago, those farmers realized a game could be played on that landscape by sticking targets in certain areas and hitting a small ball at them. The terrain dictated the target and the shot; the fewer shots, the better.

In the ever-present context of industry design,  I considered the obvious parallel. At Halifax, the land was the course. The tees were only steps from the green, because that’s all there was room for and needed. Why wouldn’t  you put the tee right next to the green?

There were no bunkers at Halifax, but then, there were no preexisting dunes. The putting surfaces themselves were severely sloped, not with artificial tiers but simply with the hill they sat on. The hard, yellowish hitting areas ran wide and exposed in the sun and wind, until reaching the barbed wire fence and farm crops, where they stopped. There was no real rough. Not because of some contrived faux-links homage or inspired call for playability. Halifax was because it was.

I could see visages of ancient men in tattered hats hitting a ball around for a bit of fun and ingenuity. I could feel Mr. Kendall’s presence. It may have been the escalating heat and beers. But if Pebble Beach was a pilgrimage, this felt like a humble offering.

Kendall never did get good at golf. He kept clubs in his pickup truck and would “sneak around” taking lessons, but assures like a proverb that “if you’re no good early and young, you’re really no good when you get old.”

Now he hits around 10 balls a year. But the Halifax Holes have become his dominion. He greets most every group that shows up to play, acting as host, head pro, and starter at once. He records all of the action in a tattered blue-lined notebook, from player records to tournament scores to maintenance notes. New guests are asked to sign the notebook to be officially in the system.

They have come from all over: farm employees, country club regulars, even PGA pros, to tee it up at Halifax. The course holds 24 players at a time — “three groups of eight,” Kendall says. There’s no formal organization, just 19 “members” who have purchased carts that stay on the property and can play anytime. The owners are responsible for cart maintenance. Guest play works exclusively on the invite system. 

“They can all have guests and anybody that plays needs to have permission from somebody who’s a member,” Kendall explains. “I encourage if you’re not playing with the member, sign the book. We have some people take advantage of it a little bit, but it works out pretty good.”

Play runs hot and cold depending on the season and the day of the week. One aspect remains constant. 

“If you have more than three groups it doesn’t work,” Kendall says. “We have trouble getting people to understand that sometimes. And sometimes they want to go the wrong way. But it’s an easy deal. If a group is playing, you start right behind them. If they’re on four, you start on three and when they finish, you do your other holes.”

Halifax is open seven days a week for play. But the calendar highlights are the The Bolton Open and The Halifax Invitational, weekend Calcutta tournaments where Kendall famously sits by the scoreboard and drives up the betting. Each culminate in a steak dinner party at a nearby lakehouse. The course held its 50th Halifax Invitational just last year.

Early on, Kendall realized that a shotgun start was the only possible way to hold big tournaments – and not just in reference to the starting tees. Each tournament literally begins with a ceremonial blast from a .410 shotgun he has owned since he was a teenager.

“If you get 24 people on the course, three eights, it’s pretty full and fairly slow. But we did discover 20 years ago or so that by having a shotgun start, we could make it happen. I’ve got shotgun starts instructions on the cart…a lot of people won’t read them and won’t do what they’re supposed to do, but it works.”

We played a wolf game that stayed surprisingly close. Tripp and his buddy hit the piercing shots of pros. My bogey-golfing brother made two birdies in a row early on. I hit a couple toe hooks that snapped like Randy Johnson sliders and found the bramble weed across the fence. I didn’t bother a look.

Halifax seemed most aptly characterized by what it wasn’t: namely, complicated. The layout encouraged the democracy of the game. It was hard to lose a ball over the open farm area (my sliders aside). The tiny greens, perched on open expanses with no hazards and huge run-up areas, neutralized advantages. My weak chunks ran a mile. Their towering iron shots often missed. Mostly we each ended up with a chip and a chance. We pushed nearly every hole.

The Halifax experience wasn’t without fail. As we looped around I wondered how many holes we had played. I only knew that we had played a version of the next one already. Some golf purists dislike the term ‘track,’ as in ‘it’s a nice track’ (“it’s a golf course, not a race event!”). But Halifax was a track in the literal sense, taking us around and around the same sequence of holes.

The golf cart could have been a go-cart as we circled around in the blistering sun. I realized how a person could drink 12 cans of light beer in two hours and not feel out of order.

Kendall seriously considered expanding the course into a development when the casino boom hit nearby Vicksburg in the 1970’s. He figured the gamblers would want a quality golf course to play, and then correctly concluded that gamblers wanted to gamble, not golf.

“I’m so thankful I didn’t. This has been a lot more fun, a lot easier. We don’t have to worry about the cost as much as we would have with something like that,” he says.

Courses do cost. The Halifax Holes are part of the Gaddis Farms operating budget that includes Snake Creek Farms and smaller incorporations. The course stages a number of fundraiser tournaments each year that benefit a number of local school and youth organizations (a fact the Kendall’s are quick to point out), and some that benefit the course itself.

Kendall, chairman of the board at Gaddis Farms, is a bit coy on the exact costs to operate and the board’s feelings about it. Halifax remains entirely free.

“I still think about (charging) – ‘Well, we’ll let the members pay a low monthly fee to help us keep it up.’ But we always find the resources to cover it. And we always have somebody that is willing to buy a cart when somebody either gets out, or passes,” he says. 

Subtler changes happened over time. Kendall jokes they used to simply have a sign in the trees denoting the bathrooms – men under this tree, women over there. He did add forward tees for “ladies and us old folks.” A ‘comfort station’ was built that later burned down, now simply the guts of comfort under an open shed. A Gaddis granddaughter once showed prize sheep – their old home has become a shed for defunct machinery.

Farm Week has called Halifax ‘the best kept secret in golf.’ But what would happen if the secret got out? Could Halifax ever be something bigger? Something more?

“It’s funny because I talk about that with my friends and family, not all the time, but fairly often, especially with the (Continental Tire) plant coming in, what if somebody had plans for a 300 acre lake and building a subdivision and putting a golf course in there? Should we incorporate what we have now?,” Whit Kendall wonders. “And it always winds up that we’re leaving the course exactly how it is. We’re not touching the course. If there were ever another course, we would never touch Halifax.”

At 84 years old, the patriarchal Kendall demurs on the bigger subjects surrounding Halifax. He doesn’t think much about its place in the golf industry. He doesn’t think Halifax can handle any more people. But he reckons with the past and the future playing out on his three-green golf course, all the same.

“I’ve enjoyed being around it these many years…just the people you get to meet. It’s been a lot of fun. Every once in a while it gets a little hectic because I can’t do nearly what I used to. But with Witt coming on, I’m looking forward to seeing it continue. A lot of people had a lot of fun out here, a lot of interesting stories to tell.”

My heart sank like the short tug of a fishing line as we reached the final stretch of holes. I still didn’t know where we were going. I remember thinking I would never play Halifax alone. But I wouldn’t bring just anyone, either.

This was a place for a group of folks that know the best and hardest earned secrets in life. I understood what Mr. Kendall had alluded to hours earlier. The course wasn’t to be played as much as shared.

There is no playing through at Halifax. It was as removed from the regiment and judgement of the industry as a mini-golf course. And yet I found myself respecting the humble patch of Bolton farm land as though I were playing Pine Valley: no strewn cigarette butts, fixed divots in a mule lot.

I had been of the distinct mind that Halifax’s freedom would inspire the free swing of pure contact. Roy McAvoy’s “strike of character.” But that too would not have been Halifax. The infections of the golf industry may not have reached there. Status culture was blissfully absent. Over these three humpback greens in a farmer’s backyard was the raw essence of the game: simple and engaging and difficult as could be.

I wished it wouldn’t end. My shaky putting and the Halifax ethos obliged. I missed a sloping six-footer on the final hole to keep the bet tied and the match alive. We played on.

 

 

 

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