Rez Golf: A Course in the Navajo Nation


Most golf courses look the same: large, bright-green stretches of closely cropped lawns, flanked by lush vegetation and peppered with ponds and sand-filled bunkers. Golfers drive around the courses in golf carts. They pay their annual dues—often multiple thousands of dollars—to golf clubs, which foster an aristocratic playing experience, lending the sport its presidential connotation. Across the United States, golf is widely considered a rich man’s sport.

Not so with rez golf. The term refers to courses developed on Native American reservations, which often incorporate rugged terrain into their design and employ an open-door policy to anyone who wants to try the sport. The short documentary Rez Golf, directed by Charles Frank and produced by VICE and the KIMBA Group for Callaway, takes us deep into the heart of the Navajo Nation to meet the founders of Wagon Trail to Lonesome Pine, a par-five rez-golf course and the first of its kind.

“What was most compelling about the golf course is really the fact that it shouldn’t exist,” the film’s producer, Mark Infante, told me. “The reservation does not have the resources to upkeep a golf course, like commercial machinery, irrigation systems, or a lot of manpower. Its founders maintain the course themselves with the tools that they have and spend hours upon hours keeping the course in playing shape for others.”

The course’s founders built Lonesome Pine on a volunteer basis, spending their nights and weekends clearing the land by hand. The lack of recreational facilities on the reservation—especially for children—inspired the project, but its popularity within the community at large has given it staying power.

“Water is scarce in the area, so maintaining grass is not an option,” Infante said. “Instead, [rez golfers] play in the dirt. Not only is it more challenging for the players, but with the high winds in the area, the greens—or browns, as they call them—are constantly eroding.” Although the founders have invented methods of compacting the dirt so that it’s smooth enough to putt on but soft enough for the ball to land, they are constantly tasked with repacking the dirt, which inevitably dries up and blows away thanks to harsh conditions in the region.

In addition to the value it adds to the Navajo community, Rez golf’s emphasis on openness has challenged golf’s elitist reputation. “There’s a lot of antiquated etiquette surrounding the game,” Frank told me. “Oftentimes there are pricey barriers to entry, like greens fees, proper attire, clubs, and balls. At Wagon Trail to Lonesome Pine, there are no barriers to entry. As long as you clean up after yourself, it’s free to play.”

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