On Ben's Farm

Robin Hood Would Have Liked This Game
A UNH professor started an arrow golf fad in Durham

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As any avid golfer will tell you, it never rains on a golf course. But in 1919, Walter C. O'Kane, an entomology professor at New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts, modified the game in such a way that not even a blizzard could deter the most devoted players.

It all started as an attempt to provide some entertainment for his four children. Equipped with a simple bow and a couple of arrows, O'Kane and his kids headed to the field across from their house on a summer day to play a game he called "arrow golf."

Targets could be anything from a fallen log, an old hay bale or the door of an abandoned house. The person with the lowest number of shots was the winner. O'Kane soon introduced his friends English professor Harold Scudder and zoology professor Floyd Jackson to the game; they were immediately hooked.

Before long, the professors had turned some fields near the college into a nine "hole" course. Fences, brooks, knolls and trees became hazards, and targets--burlap bags filled with straw--were tied to 3-foot-long stakes. The bags were set to clear the ground by five or six inches. (Too high and a miss could send the arrow sailing off into space, which called for severe penalties.)

The distances between the targets varied from 200 to 600 yards. Given that the average player could easily make a "drive" of 200 yards, there was the possibility--although not much probability --of achieving a hole-in-one. The total distance around the Durham course was about 2,200 yards, or roughly one and a third miles. Twice around the course was a typical game, but the professors liked to go four times around.

So popular was the game in Durham that O'Kane wrote an article for the February 1920 issue of Country Life magazine, describing in detail how to lay out a course and play the game. (Because the magazine's subscribers were primarily landowners and other wealthy country dwellers, he credited the creation of the game to "a modest little country club in a village in New Hampshire.")

"In the deep snows of a New Hampshire winter they kept at it on snowshoes," O'Kane wrote. "Even a howling blizzard seemed only to add zest. Through thaws and spring rains they played in boots and rubber coats. Of evenings they compute season totals and re-tell the extraordinarily long hit or the equally unbelievable miss. It is a sport worth trying."

Not long afterward, O'Kane heard of arrow golf courses being built in Cleveland, San Diego and several southern resorts. As the sport caught on, some country clubs began adding arrow targets near their courses as an alternative to traditional golf.

It was at one of these golf courses in 1927 that John D. Rockefeller observed a group of arrow golfers; he later tried the sport himself. After reading an article about Rockefeller's interest in the sport, O'Kane sent him several pictures of the game and the original regulations for playing. (Howard Hill, who was unofficially referred to as the "World's Greatest Archer," won seven national archery golf tournaments, and wrote the first official rule book for arrow golf in 1928.)

Durham's little country club eventually disbanded, but the game continued to be played abroad, and at UNH, professor Evelyn Browne revived the game for her girls' archery class in the mid-'60s. Today, archery golf outings can still be found around the country.

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