A Journey to Golf’s ‘Field of Dreams’

Bolton, Mississippi –  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 blanket of gas.

The foul aroma was unmistakable: Chicken shit.

Here was the famed Halifax Holes I’d heard folk tales about. The holes didn’t so much appear as they did form, fully and suddenly as we drove up. 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; 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%.

American industry has rooted out Bolton’s vibrancy. Nearby Interstate 20 (built in 1957) absorbs most of the former life from the small highways that run through the town, connecting the capital city to the river. (The gas station just off the interstate is a hub of activity, long on delicious fried food and short on craft beer.) According to U.S. Census data, Bolton’s population has dropped in each decade since the 1960’s.

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.

Through the early 1960’s, Gaddis farm crops were still plowed by mules. They were housed in a wooden, tin-roof barn and grazed in a sloping ten acre lot on the main part of the property. But as America steamrolled into the modern age, 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.

Ted Kendall III, now 84 years old and chairman of Gaddis Farms, grew up in the capital city of Jackson in the 1940’s, the son of a ‘Depression-era banker.’  He never knew much about golf.

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

Kendall’s mother’s family ran Gaddis Farms and a hardware store in Bolton. As a kid, he worked the farm on weekends, and then earned a degree in agriculture from Mississippi State University. 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 the fall of 1958. The following spring, J.L. – ‘the real boss’ — died of (?). Kendall suddenly had to forge his own way.

He saw the need to diversify Gaddis with the changing agricultural times. 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 timber to position Gaddis as a successful operation for decades to come. 

He met his future wife Mary on Bourbon St. in New Orleans during a Mississippi State – Tulane football weekend. It was a meeting 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 wanted 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 I wasn’t going to play. Well, I couldn’t stand just watching. I said, “Look, give me a ball.” I hit it so poor and never found it…but I got the bug.”

Necessity became the mother of Halifax’s invention. Close family and friends say once Kendall got “the 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 mules, they simply needed to do something with their former grazing lot: WATCH KENDALL TELL THE STORY (1:12)

The original Halifax Holes opened in 1970. Kendall and his crew already knew how to work the land. They consulted Mississippi State University’s turf management team on course maintenance, and assembled green mowers and other machines used, bought, borrowed and converted.

But the twin engines of industry and progress would again alter the landscape. Car traffic continued to increase on the road running through the course. So did the distance of the modern golf ball — though Kendall still claims the longest shot ever hit at Halifax, a wayward ball that landed in a traveling 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 old mule lot — this time on the same side of the road — and built a new third green. They rerouted the course, then had to account for those pecan trees that had grown too large 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. We just made this to fit what we had available, and it worked,” he says.

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

An old home sat to our right at the crest of the property, framing a small green in a yard of sprawling oaks and flower beds. Open equipment sheds blended into a pasture where I could see fairways, tees and pins. I had stepped into a golfer’s Rockwell sketch. I smoked a cigarette while I surveyed the cart shed next to the house, not quite sure what to do.

There is no clubhouse at Halifax. The course doesn’t even show up on Google Maps. It seemed to me neither public or private. You just kind of showed up – if you were lucky enough to know someone who knows about it. We had gotten the invitation plus a marked location from my friend Tripp, who was running late from church. (He had advised us to bring a stocked cooler and ditch the collared shirts.)

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

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

I cracked a beer and began my weighted Momentus warm-up — I didn’t yet trust the carefree ethos. Tripp arrived a few minutes later.

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

(Tripp, a young Jackson lawyer and savvy golfer, had worn shorts and a faded gray t-shirt that offset his white saddle 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 old trees and equipment sheds, framed by dirt driveways and a sprawling sky, I understood. I untucked my shirt at least with the fresh exhale of freedom, Andy Dufrain from the shit river.)

Soon the man Tripp announced as Mr. Kendall, or “Ko” as he’s known around the farm, 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.

Ko welcomed us with warm authority, exchanging with Tripp the easy chuckles of insiders. I introduced myself with unusual temerity. There may not have been a greens fee at Halifax, but I sensed this brief meeting was integral to our welcome.

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

From his cart, Kendall surveyed the course with the deliberate head turn of a man who already knows 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 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 of a partner in his pocket.

The Halifax ‘comfort station’

We climbed in our carts and looped around the main shed – a “comfort station” of a few white fold-up tables, a microwave, and a box of scorecards. Various 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.

If you build it, they will come. Halifax is open seven days a week for play. The course holds 24 players at a time — “three groups of eight,” Kendall says.

There are no greens fees, dues or formal organization, just 19 “members” who have purchased carts that stay on the property in and who can play anytime. The owners are responsible for cart maintenance. Guest play works exclusively on the invite system. New guests are asked to sign a notebook.

They have come from all over: farm employees, country club regulars, even PGA pros, to tee it up at Halifax. Play runs hot and cold depending on the season, while one aspect remains constant: there is no charge.

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 fundraising tournaments each year that benefit local school and youth organizations, and some that raise money for the course itself. Kendall, chairman of the board at Gaddis, is a bit coy on the exact costs to operate the course, and the board’s feelings about it. He only offers the familiar mantra that they make it work.

“Anybody that plays needs to have permission from someone 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.”

Courses do cost. 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.

“The farm collides a lot with the golf course,” says Whit Kendall, grandson to Ted and caretaker-in-waiting at Halifax. “We try to spray the greens with our big spray rig (used for farm crops), but when it gets close to planting time, Ko 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.”

“Mechanic-ing” is the main thing. At Halifax, the assortment of used and ancient machinery is only as reliable as the hands that keep them running. Both Kendalls credit farm mechanic Dennis Mason as the person who makes Halifax possible.

Yet the place has a way of nurturing itself. Last year, the green closest to the Kendall house was infected with a fungus as stubborn as the mules that used to call the pasture home.

“The story of how that green was fixed kind of sums up the whole golf course to me,” Whit reflects. “When places die, we just get sod from (the practice green) across the road. But we needed help digging and moving it. Now listen, sod work is terrible. Just awful work. But 15, 20 people showed up to help. I thought it was going to take weeks to fix and we did it in a day and a half.”

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

“We make it work,” he grins.

The Halifax Holes

The Halifax layout proved a bit of a paradox: ordinary and ingenious, probing yet repetitive. The single pasture contained the full course, that sloped down in the middle into a grove of pecan trees and rose again toward the horizon.

Two well-manicured push-up greens sat atop each end. A third green, tucked into the strand of trees in what farmers call ‘the bottom,’  divided the course into four or five closely mowed hitting areas. Small tee boxes flanked the greens on all sides, most of them just a few paces off of the putting area. Each of the eleven tee boxes bore multiple markers to denote their different holes, written on paper and attached to wire fixtures.

Many seemed out of place or missing. A laminated routing diagram was supposedly affixed on most carts, but neither of ours. This was a place you inevitably just had to know: what tee to go to, which green to play.

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. I hit a couple of toe hooks that snapped like Randy Johnson sliders and shot into the bramble weed beyond the fence. I didn’t bother a look. For the first time that I could remember, bad shots weren’t dimming my outlook. Tripp and his buddy hit the piercing shots of pros. My bogey-golfing brother made two birdies in a row early on, keeping our “wolf” game pleasantly close.

The par-62 featured a heavy share of par threes; some were short, but just as many required a hard four or five iron. None were flat. Two par fives materialized. Both spanned the full pasture, requiring a second shot over or around the trees in the middle towards the green atop the other end. (I learned on these holes that you could play to any area of the property you liked, so long as you didn’t hit into anyone and could manage the next shot from there. There is no playing through at Halifax.)

Halifax seemed most aptly characterized by what it wasn’t: namely, complicated. The design encouraged the democracy of the game. It was hard to lose a ball over the open pasture. The small, unguarded greens and lack of rough neutralized advantages. My mishits ran a mile. Their towering iron shots often missed. We would all end up with a chip and a chance.

The Halifax layout

 

 

 

A ‘Shotgun Starter’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Now he hits around 10 balls a year. But the Halifax Holes have become his dominion.

He 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 vigor that created Halifax.

He greets most every group that shows up to play, acting as host, head pro, and starter at once. He records all of the happenings in a tattered blue-lined notebook, from player information to tournament scores to maintenance notes.

The course’s calendar highlights are The Bolton Open and The Halifax Invitational, weekend Calcutta tournaments where Ko famously sits by the scoreboard and drives up the betting. They culminate in a steak dinner party at the family’s nearby lake house.

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— quite literally. He still begins each tournament with a ceremonial blast from the .410 shotgun he has owned since he was a teenager.)

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.” The comfort station was built that later burned down — it’s now simply an open shed with the guts of comfort. A Gaddis granddaughter once showed prize sheep – their former barn has become a home for defunct machinery.

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 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.

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?

Whit, charged with its future, says no.

“It’s funny because I talk about that with my friends and family, especially with the (Continental Tire) plant coming in, what if somebody had plans for a 300 acre lake and a subdivision and putting a golf course in there? Should we incorporate what we have now? And it always winds up that we’re leaving the course exactly how it is. If there were ever another course, we would never touch Halifax.”

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

“I’ve enjoyed being around it these many years…just the people you get to meet. 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.”

Halifax was America’s truest links. As we loped along, the thought revealed itself like the course had done hours earlier, suddenly and fully formed.

Rural Mississippi and the pastoral lands of Scotland are close kin: hilly fields separated by simple fences, grass grazed to the root in some areas and lush in others. Country homes every half mile or so, housing livestock farmers long on land and ingenuity.

Centuries ago, those farmers invented a game by using their land to stick targets in certain areas and then hit a small ball at them. The land dictated the target and the shot (the fewer shots, the better).

If Pebble Beach was a pilgrimage, this felt like a humble offering.

In the pressing context of the golf industry, I considered the obvious parallel. Here the land was the course. The tees were only steps from the green, all there was room for and needed. (Why wouldn’t you put the tee next to the green?) The fairways ran yellow and hard in the exposed sun and wind, stopping at the road. Sure, there were no bunkers, but there were no dunes to provide any sand. The greens were sloped by the hill they sat on. And no rough? Not because of some faux-links homage or inspired call for playability: Halifax just was what it was.

It may have been the escalating heat and number of beers. But if Pebble Beach was a pilgrimage, this felt like a humble offering.

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

This was a place for 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. I found myself respecting the humble patch of Bolton farm land as though I were playing Pine Valley, fixing divots in a mule lot.

The wolf game had remained close but my play hadn’t improved. I had been of the mind that Halifax’s spirit would inspire a free swing and pure contact. Roy McAvoy’s “strike of character.” But that too would not have been Halifax. This was the raw essence of the game, over three humpback greens in a farmer’s backyard: simple and fun and difficult as could be.

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

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