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In the sparsely vegetated backyard of his University City apartment complex, Nick Cronin keeps one eye on the four sweet-corn ears slow-roasting on the portable grill. He trains the other on the yellow lab and African mutt roaming the fenced perimeter, then focuses his complete attention on the three wooden rungs before him in the center of the yard. He bends his knees, eases his right arm back and tosses two golf balls, tethered by a length of rope, in a perfect underhand arch. The "bolo" catches the uppermost of the three rungs, its momentum wrapping it around the wooden bar several times. Cronin smiles. Three points!
"I only found out about this game last month," he says, swatting away a dog that's decided a bolo would be a pleasant object to fetch. "But I've played it every weekend since."
Croquet? Frisbee golf? Nails? They're all past their prime. The latest outdoor gaming sensation is hillbilly golf, a variation on both horseshoes and washers. It's increasingly becoming the rage throughout the Midwest at family reunions, group picnics, camp-outs and backyard barbecues. The game itself boasts as many alternate names as there are people who claim to have created it: cowboy golf, redneck golf, monkey-bars golf, ladder golf, ladder jacks, hillbilly horseshoes, bolo toss, flingy ball and ball dangle.
"It's different, and it's family-friendly," says Pevely resident Steve King. "It's not biased toward any gender or age. It is easy to store, break down and to travel with." The moderator of online community Laddergolfgame.com, King says he, his wife and their ten-year-old son bust the game out at least once a week during the summer "and every time I go camping."
King says hillbilly golf has been around for more than a decade, but only in the past two years has it has caught fire. The origins of the game are as murky as the Mississippi, though some say it can be traced to Mexico, where caballeros caught live snakes and threw them on lengths of barbed wire under the noms de fling Snake Toss and Snakes 'n' Ladders. Whatever the origins, differing names, equipment dimensions and scoring methods make defining a standard of play nearly impossible.
According to the U.S. Patent Office, at least four patents have been granted to games bearing similar descriptions. Different variations of the game include a year-old version with rotating rungs called Spin-It; an indoor kids' game that utilizes soft, Nerf-like rubber or tennis-ball bolos; and a floating iteration for use in swimming pools.
Countless online stores now offer complete sets one base, two sets of three bolos and a carrying case for anywhere from $40 to $70. As Ladder Golf, the game sells nationally in Scheels Sports, Dick's Sporting Goods and Golf Galaxy stores (the latter's Brentwood and Chesterfield locations sold out their entire stock of $70 sets over the Christmas season). Laddergolf.com also sponsored a double-elimination tournament last April in San Diego, during which thirty-two teams faced off for six rounds over frames made of wood and brass.
But thanks to online communities such as King's, enthusiasts can easily bypass retail outlets and build their own set for around $7 to $20 from materials found at any local hardware store.
"That's what most people are looking for on the Internet instructions that take you step-by-step through the bolos and the ladders," says King, who recommends creating bolos by drilling a quarter-inch hole in the golf balls and knotting a thirteen- to eighteen-inch length of rope between the two.
Widely circulated online plans suggest using a ten-foot length of three-quarter-inch PVC piping, a ten-foot length of half-inch PVC piping, and multiple PVC fittings to create a ten-by-twenty-inch stand, with a thirty-five-by-twenty-inch base (for detailed plans, visit Hillbillygolfgame.com). Many enjoy the experience of customizing sets for their specific tastes, whether in terms of dimensions or by painting a stand in the colors of a national flag or a favorite team.
After construction comes the game play. One of the more common scoring methods resembles that of horseshoes, in which players in teams of two take alternating turns, each tossing the bolos underhand toward the base, which is positioned anywhere from 15 to 40 feet away. The first team to 21 wins.
"Everyone's got their own rules," confirms King, who recently invented a scoring system that utilizes an unobtrusive, rotating O-ring placed on the edge of the top and bottom rungs. "We play that it's three for the top rung, then two, and the bottom is worth one, and if you get one on each level, instead of adding those up to six, you get ten points." Also, according to his rules, opposing teams cancel out the others' points if their bolos land on the same rung.
Once again, there are variations.
"[The] top rail is one point, second rail is two points, third rail is three points," counters Jefferson City resident Frank Heet, a former horseshoes and washers enthusiast whose cousin got him hooked on hillbilly golf three years ago. "The first person or team to score 21 is the winner, but there is a catch. Say you have 18 points and you throw 4 points, you have to deduct 4 off of 18. You now have 14 points. The game continues until a team hits 21 exactly."
Owing to the game's DIY nature, it's impossible to keep exact stats on the number of people participating across the nation. Locally, King reports a surge in the number of games he's seen this year in Montauk State Park and on the banks of the Current River. And back in U. City, Nick Cronin has finally worked a bolo out of a dog's mouth.
The corn's starting to burn, but Cronin's just a middle rung away from scoring the three-rung, ten-point bonus. He winds back and tosses, the bolo striking the target length of PVC but dropping to the ground with a dusty thump. He hurries to the grill, undaunted. After all, he's got a whole summer's worth of practice time ahead.