Halifax 12.20 with Josh changes

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

The foul aroma was unmistakable: chicken shit.

Here was the famed Halifax Holes course I’d heard folk tales about. As we approached, the holes didn’t so much appear as form, fully and suddenly. But there are seemingly 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, a tiny town (pop. 567} in west central Mississippi. Bolton touches the edges of a socioeconomic gulf. Go east eighteen miles and you’re in the suburbs of metropolis Jackson; the same distance west puts one at the southern end of the sprawling 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 Mississippi’s nation-high average of 19%. A short drive through its backroads is an ambling tour of pastures, crop fields and cows set apart by sedate homes and barbed-wire fences.

American industry has rooted out Bolton’s vibrancy. Nearby Interstate 20 (built in 1957) absorbs most of the former life from the small rural highways that run through the town, connecting the capital city to the Mississippi River. According to U.S. Census data, Bolton’s population has dropped in each decade since the 1960’s. The gas station just off the interstate is a hub of activity, long on 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 34 employees, producing livestock, soybeans, cotton, corn, and since 1970, golf.

As late as the 1960’s, Gaddis farm crops were still plowed by mules. The mules were housed in a 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 on the family farm. Kendall joined the farm full-time in the fall of 1958. The following spring, J.L. — “the real boss” — died of heart failure. Kendall suddenly had a big hole to fill. 

Kendall saw the opportunity to diversify Gaddis given the changing agricultural times. Through the 1930’s, the farm operated mostly as a successful cotton gin. He readily learned and developed a cattle business, expanded row crop production, and planted more timber in order to position Gaddis for decades of success to come. 

Amidst the farm work, he still managed to find a few moments of fun. 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 the course of Halifax history. 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.”

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. Necessity became the mother of Halifax’s invention. Kendall maintains that once the farm no longer needed mules, they simply needed to do something with their former grazing lot. 

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

The Halifax gears were in motion. Kendall and his crew already knew how to work the land, having farmed the area for generations. They consulted Mississippi State University’s turf management team on course maintenance, and assembled green mowers and other machines used, borrowed and converted. The routing of the course was more foreign. 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 initially on each side of the property and immediately ran into a problem.

“We knew we needed a third green, because (the course) 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. We were mowing it anyway. We had some pretty good grass in the yard. So we just made a green over there and would play going over the road.” 

The original Halifax Holes opened in 1970. But the twin engines of industry and progress would again alter the landscape. Car traffic grew on the road running through the course. So did the distance of the modern golf ball — although Kendall says he still claims the longest shot ever hit at Halifax, a ball that landed in a passing dump truck and likely never hit ground until the Mississippi Delta. 

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

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, built a new third green, and rerouted the course. They then had to account for the 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.

My brother Henry and I eased up a dirt driveway that marked the entrance to the course and parked in the grass, amidst clusters of new pickup trucks and old farm machinery.

Open equipment sheds blended into a pasture where you could see fairways, tees and pins. A huge old home sat to our right at the crest of the property, framing a small golf green in a yard of sprawling oaks and flower beds. 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 or where to go.

There is no clubhouse at Halifax. The course doesn’t even show up on Google Maps. It seemed 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.

Henry remarked that it all felt like entering a running country poker game.

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

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. The golf belt – logo shirt – brand hat combination felt as requisite of the game for me as drivers and putters. But standing and chatting by a clubhouse of old trees and equipment sheds, framed by dirt driveways and a wide open sky, I began to understand. The insistence of the industry felt absent. I untucked my shirt with the fresh exhale of freedom, Andy Dufrain from the shit river.

Soon, the man Tripp announced was Mr. Kendall, or “Ko” as he’s known around the farm, rolled up in his personal cart to greet us. He wore a True South Classic polo and a white Halifax hat. A calm drawl dripped out, slow and diligent as the delta.

Kendall 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 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 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 no idea how either of those things was possible on a three green golf course. My uncertainty must have been 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.

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 purely.

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 and who can play anytime. Guest play works exclusively on the invite system. New guests are asked to sign a notebook.

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

“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. 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.

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, 32 years old, 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 real 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 we put the word out and 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 wooden golf tees wedged as spacers into the wiring of 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 layout proved a bit of a paradox: ordinary and ingenious, probing yet repetitive. The single pasture contained the full course, sloping down in the middle into a grove of pecan trees and rising again toward the horizon.

Two well-manicured turtleback 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 fairways. 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.

Many of them seemed out of place or missing. Some were written on paper and attached to wire fixtures. A laminated routing diagram is affixed on many of the carts at Halifax, 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 incorporating the pecan trees were tight and awkward. I hit drives that snapped like Randy Johnson sliders and shot into the weeds beyond the barbed-wire fence, but for the first time that I could remember, bad shots weren’t dimming my outlook.

We played a heavy share of par threes over the par 62 course; some were short, but just as many required a hard four or five iron. None were flat. I marveled as Tripp and his friend hit the piercing shots of pros. My bogey-golfing brother made two birdies in a row early on, keeping our “wolf” game close. Two par fives eagerly 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.

The course was in impressive shape, with nicer conditions than your standard municipal, but a less involved layout than I had imagined. 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. My playing partners’ towering iron shots often missed. It seemed we would all end up with a chip and a chance.

Kendall 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 84 years old, 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 attached to an old John Deere mower. 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 all 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 Kendall famously sits by the scoreboard and drives up the betting. The tournaments culminate in a steak dinner party for all involved, at the family’s nearby lake house.

The course held its 50th Halifax Invitational last year. Early on, Kendall realized that a shotgun start, quite literally, was the only possible way to hold big tournaments. He still begins each tournament with a ceremonial blast from the .410 shotgun he has owned since he was a teenager.

Subtler additions 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 added forward tees for “ladies and us old folks.” A comfort station was built that later burned down. When a Gaddis granddaughter grew out of showing prize sheep, Kendall converted the old barn into a shed for backup 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, but then wisely 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 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. 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.”

 

As we came to the final stretch of holes, the thought revealed itself as the course had done hours earlier, suddenly and fully formed: Halifax was America’s truest links.

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

Long before artificial waterfalls and trucked sand, those same Scottish farmers created the first golf courses by using different parts of their land as target areas, for a game involving a small ball hit with a piece of iron fixed to a hickory shaft. The land dictated the shot; the fewer shots, the better. I considered the obvious parallels. At Halifax, the land was the course. The greens were sloped by the hills they sat on. Tees were only steps from the green, all there was room for and needed. There were no bunkers, because there are no dunes. The fairways ran hard, exposed and undefined. And no rough? Not on account of some faux-links homage or inspired call for playability: Halifax literally 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 an offering to the first golfing gods.

My heart sank like the short tug of a fishing line as we reached the final hole.. 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 had found myself respecting the humble patch of Bolton farm land as though I were playing Pine Valley. Fixing divots in a mule lot.

Our wolf game had remained close to the last hole, but my play hadn’t improved. I had been of the mind that Halifax’s free spirit would inspire a free swing and pure contact: Roy McAvoy’s “strike of character.” But that 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 shaky putting obliged. I missed a six-footer to keep the bet tied and the game alive. We played on.

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