If you should ignore this cautionary tale and fly to Helsinki
anyway, and from there clatter eight hours north by train, and
from there drive 1,251 miles, deep into the Arctic Circle, in
search of the northernmost golf course in the world, 3 a.m. tee
times, caddying reindeer, tee boxes built atop saunas, the
Swedish Loch Ness Monster, Santa Claus (jolly old St. Nicklaus)
and an effective mosquito repellent, then at least promise me
this: On the odd chance that you make it home alive, confirm to
your friends that this story is true. Every word of it. Even the
part about the Spice Girls. Tell them that there really is a
place where a man can snap-hook his tee shot into another
country--and play it from where it lays. Verify that one can
indeed banana-slice a ball so badly that it not only travels
backward but also travels back in time. There is no need to
corroborate my claim that the yeti exists, for I have
unimpeachable evidence on that count: scorecards full of
But the rest of these facts you must take on faith, and you have
been burned before. In 1994, for instance, this very magazine
pronounced the Akureyri Golf Club in Akureyri, Iceland, "the
most northerly 18-hole course in the world." Poppycock. The
whole of Iceland lies south of the Arctic Circle--Akureyi itself
is 60 miles below it--and I have chili-dipped my lob wedge in
far chillier latitudes than that.
Take Tornio (rhymes with, and has more mosquitoes than, Borneo).
This Finnish town is only 45 miles south of the Arctic Circle,
and its 18-hole course was the southernmost stop on my June golf
tour of Scandinavia. From Finland to Sweden to the Norwegian
border, photographer Bob Martin and I spent seven glorious days
and zero fabulous nights beneath a never-setting sun, in a
rented Opel Vectra, running down the world's hardiest golfers,
occasionally playing with them and urging these good people,
whenever possible, to seek immediate psychiatric counseling.
"SPORTS ILLUSTRATED?" asked the desk clerk at the Strand Hotel
in Helsinki, examining the address on my bill as I checked out
on my first morning in Finland. "Don't tell me you have come for
"I've come for the golf," I said.
"Then you must come back in the winter, when we play golf in the
snow, in freezing temperatures, with balls that are purple."
"Yes...well...I imagine they must be," I stammered before
bidding him good day.
So began this strange and epic expedition in the Land of the
As recently as 1991 the Green Zone Golf Course in Tornio, a
day's train ride from Helsinki, was "said to be the northernmost
course in the world," according to the shameless hyperbolists at
The New York Times. The Green Zone is not the world's
northernmost course--never has been--but it is the only course
on earth where you must cross an international border four times
during a single round. And that's assuming you keep the ball in
The Green Zone clubhouse is in Finland, as are holes 1, 2, 7, 8
and 9. Across the narrow Tornio River lies Haparanda, Sweden,
and holes 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17. The remaining
three holes--6, 10 and 18--straddle the border, as does the
driving range: The stalls are in Finland, the 200-yard marker in
Every time you cross the border during a round, bomb-sniffing
dogs snuffle your bag for exploding golf balls, while stern
customs officials ask how long you plan to stay on the 9th
green. Or so I assumed would be the case when I saw the course's
border-patrol house, with its imposing gate. But alas, the house
was empty, the gate raised. In these days of European union, a
passport isn't required at the Green Zone. "Golfers are allowed
to go freely in and out of Sweden on the course," said an
11-handicap Finn named Seppo Rantamaula when Bob and I joined
his foursome as spectators. "Your greens fee is like your
Nevertheless, if you want to smuggle a controlled substance into
or out of Finland and call it divot mix, the Green Zone is the
place to do it. "Oh, we've never had any problems," said
Marja-Leena Laitinen, president of the club. Golfers, she
pointed out, are an honorable lot.
"Why isn't there a flagstick on the 6th green?" I inquired
"Somebody stole it last night," she said.
Fair enough. After all, the 6th hole is the Green Zone's most
famous. The tee box on this 126-yard par-3 is in Sweden, as is
the front of the green. The back of the green is in Finland, and
it is there that the greenkeeper usually places the pin, when
there is a pin. "You can putt for one hour and three seconds'
time on this green," Seppo told me.
"I can do that on any green," I told him.
"But not with one putt," countered Seppo, who had a point.
Because Sweden is one time zone west of Finland, a successful
six-footer that leaves your putter at precisely midnight in
Sweden drops into the cup shortly after 1 a.m. in Finland. In
fact, if you tee off on the 6th hole between 11:00 and 11:59 on
Saturday night, you can drive the ball into next week.
Similarly, if you tee off shortly after midnight Sunday on the
10th hole, which runs west from Finland into Sweden, you can
drive the ball into last week. But expect a slow-play warning.
Actually, it's impossible to play too slowly in the Green Zone.
Twelve holes were flooded when we arrived--melting snow from an
unusually heavy winter in northern Sweden and Norway had
overwhelmed the Tornio River--so a round consisted of playing
the six dry holes three times each. Green Zoners thus "made the
turn" twice in a round, dutifully popping into the clubhouse
every six holes to shoot the breeze over bottles of Lapin Kulta
(The Golden Beer of Lapland). As a result, rounds required six
hours to complete--which is not a problem in a place where it
doesn't get dark for two months, where sunlight is oppressive
and inescapable, where you feel (after two nights in a hotel
whose curtains cover only half the window) as if you've
undergone an eyelidectomy.
As midnight tolled in the Green Zone, the sun hit the horizon
and bounced back up, like an orange Titleist off a cart path.
The club was hosting an overnight scramble that wouldn't
conclude until 5 a.m., and I didn't wonder why. At the second
turn, Seppo and Matti Rantamaula (no relation) repaired to the
clubhouse for a full sit-down meal of salmon soup and Lapin
Kultas. I asked Matti if he played golf in the winter.
"Ice golf," he said, nodding in the affirmative. A course is
laid out on the frozen Tornio River, he explained, and for one
full month before play begins a "snow scooter" rides across the
layout several times a day, packing down the snow on the ice
until it is as hard as tarmac. This enables tee shots to roll
for miles. "The longest club you will ever hit in ice golf is a
five-iron," said Matti, a fortysomething corporate chairman in
plaid pants. "We use red and orange balls. The holes are dug
into the ice, and we call the greens 'whites.'"
I remarked that one must have to apply a great deal of Tour
sauce to get an approach shot to stick on a green made of ice.
"It is hard to get the backspin to make the ball stop on the
whites," said Matti. "That is true."
Ice golf, it seemed to me, has precisely what the grass game so
desperately needs: an element of danger, the possibility that
you might plunge through the fairway to a watery demise. Or
better yet, that your playing partner will go crashing through
the green after spending 10 minutes plumb-bobbing his two-foot
putt for bogey.
To be sure, grass golf has its hazards in the Green Zone. When
he spoke, as when he played, Matti remained oblivious to the
mosquitoes that wreathed his head. They looked like a ring of
aircraft circling the tower at O'Hare, yet he exuded a maddening
Zen calm--in sharp contrast to Bob, a Brit who looks alarmingly
like Colin Montgomerie. As Bob stood stock-still taking
photographs, he resembled a man wearing a mosquito sport coat
and slacks. He whimpered repeatedly at the "bloody mozzies,"
which were treating him like a full English breakfast, but he
was powerless to shake them off. It was torturous to behold, and
wildly entertaining. Bob had received 63 bee stings on a recent
assignment in Brunei, and he was experiencing a posttraumatic
stress disorder that would keep him in painful--or at least very
itchy--memories for a lifetime.
"Never run when chased by bees," he would nervously splutter
days later, apropos of nothing, a faraway look in his eyes, as
we inched ever closer to madness in a remote Arctic village in
Sweden. "If you lie down, they'll fly right over you."
But the heart of darkness was still to come. Before I began to
question Bob's sanity, before I questioned my own sanity, I was
duty-bound to question the sanity of the Green Zone golf nuts.
They told me that they were the picture of normality in Tornio
and Haparanda. "Everyone plays here," said Marja-Leena. "We have
400 members in the club. Twenty members are older than 65, and
50 members are younger than 21. We have workers, leaders,
politicians, juniors. Around here they say it is a--what is the
word?--a golf mafia."
When the Green Zone opened in 1991, Erkki Mommo played
exclusively with purple Putt-Putt balls, and Matti (Rubber Boat)
Simila retrieved all his own water shots in an inflatable raft.
Golf balls were scarce and precious in Tornio at the time, but
since then Finland has contracted golf fever, a disease that is
Finland had fewer than a dozen 18-hole courses in 1980. Since
then, another 70 have opened, of which the Green Zone is, for
the moment, the most northerly. Finland has 50,000 golfers in a
population of five million, and golf balls have become
plentiful, raining down on Tornio like hail.
The players have improved commensurately. "I only know a few
Finnish words," said the Green Zone's pro, an American named
Bobby Mitchell, who spends two months in Tornio every summer.
"Knee is polvi, and hip is lonkka. When I first got here, I had
to tell these people to unlock their polvis and turn their
Mitchell first came to Tornio in 1991 from Danville, Va., where
he had heard about the Green Zone vacancy from a golf coach at
Averett College. I was told this story before I met the
much-talked-about Bobby, who I assumed to be in his late 20s. I
arranged, by phone, to meet him on a Saturday--his first full
day in Finland for the summer. He showed up an hour late. His
face was crosshatched with age lines. He told me he was 54, but
he looked older. "I never would have imagined I'd end up here,"
Mitchell said when I asked about his life. "Nobody spoke English
the first year, and the Finns are shy until you get to know
them. The TV didn't have many channels. There were no newspapers
that I could read. It was like losing track of time and the
world." He paused, then said: "The first few weeks I wondered,
What the hell am I doing here?"
This was by far the longest soliloquy that Mitchell delivered.
When I asked about his background, he gave staccato answers:
Danville native. Caddied as a kid. Assistant pro at the Danville
Golf Club. Married to Dorothy, who spends summers at home in the
After 10 minutes of this I had run out of questions, Mitchell
had run out of answers, and we both sat staring idly out the
clubhouse window. Awkward silence filled the room. In the
distance a solitary cricket began to chirr.
Then, in a spontaneous exhalation, Mitchell said, "I finished
second to Jack Nicklaus in the '72 Masters." My jaw hit the
table with an anvillike clang.
"The 12th hole at Augusta is a par-3," he went on, as Bob Martin
closed my mouth manually. "I was six over for the tournament on
that hole. Jack was two under on 12. So he beat me by eight
shots on one hole, and I lost the tournament by three strokes."
Mitchell sipped his coffee dramatically and then continued to
unburden himself. "I was on the Tour from '66 to '76," he said.
"I won the Cleveland Open in '71 and the Tournament of Champions
in '72. Beat Jack in a playoff in that one." I nodded dumbly,
like a bobble-head doll.
"You probably didn't know," Mitchell added, "that I was tied
with Arnold Palmer going into the final round of the '69 U.S.
Open." I spat a spume of coffee across the table.
"Yes," Mitchell said, happily cleaning his glasses. "It was at
the Champions Golf Club in Houston. I shot 66 in the third
round. But in the final round I shot 77. Palmer shot 72 [and
tied for sixth]. And I ended up"--Mitchell gestured grandly
toward his immediate surroundings--"I ended up down the road."
He wore the bemused smile of a badly sliced balata. It was a
grin that said, Isn't life just too preposterous for words?
Indeed, after another moment's silence, Mitchell said precisely
that. "Sixty-nine," he noted, "was the last year they gave a
lifetime exemption for winning the U.S. Open. So winning that
tournament or, of course, winning the Masters"--Mitchell paused
dolefully as a mosquito alighted on his nose--"would have made a
big difference in my life." Instead, at age 30, fresh from his
second-to-Jack finish at Augusta, Mitchell saw his game implode
in epic style. Picture a very tall building, dynamited by
demolition experts, disappearing into dust. "I lost my
confidence," he said.
He now spends his winter Mondays in the States playing Senior
tour qualifying rounds (in which more than 100 men compete for
four spots in that week's event), searching for the
self-assurance he once had, ever so briefly, on the PGA Tour.
"Golf is a game of confidence," he said again and again. But of
course he had some words out of order. Golf is not a game of
confidence. Rather, golf is a confidence game: It wins your
affection, filches your money, then dumps your body down the road.
Way, way down the road. Which is how, a quarter century after
narrowly losing two majors, Mitchell found himself giving
lessons to a white-haired, red-nosed, free-swinging fat man on
the Arctic Circle. "John Daly?" I ventured charitably, summoning
the most exalted name that description would allow.
"Santa Claus," sighed Mitchell.
Yes, Virginian, there is a Santa Claus. In 1993, Mitchell
coached Pere Noel, Father Christmas, Babbo Natale, Kris Kringle,
Joulupukki: Santa Claus answers to all of these names, often on
his red Nokia phone. (Finns are the highest per-capita users of
cell phones in the world; it is not uncommon to hear a golf bag
bleating during your backswing.)
As a golfer, Claus was no Ernie Elves. He knows when you are
sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been
bad or good, but he swings a club like a bunker rake. "He's a
big guy," Mitchell said. "If he had any kind of swing at all, he
could hit the ball far."
I thanked Mitchell for this frank violation of pro-pupil
confidentiality and then set out to find Claus for myself. His
workshop is in Rovaniemi, 45 miles north of Tornio--latitude
66[degrees]33'07" N, to be precise, literally on the Arctic
Circle. (There really is a dotted line across the pavement, as
on your globe at home.) By the way: Lest you think this is all a
Sidd Finch-like fabrication, I assure you that every Finn who
spoke to me about Santa Claus did so with absolute credulity.
"Santa's workshop is in Rovaniemi," Marja-Leena told me
matter-of-factly. "He has a big white beard. You can go see him
for yourself. Why are you smiling? You be nice to him."
Claus is huge, in every sense of the word: a giant celebrity,
second only to the Pope in worldwide recognition. Some 680,000
letters from around the world were posted to Claus in Rovaniemi
in 1996, and if that number sounds trifling, it does not include
the countless more visitors to his Web site
(www.santaclausoffice.fi) or the thousands of petitioners who
visit him each December.
An audience with Claus, even in June, would not come easily. Bob
Martin and I approached his people about an interview and photo
shoot. They said, and I quote: "You'll have to talk to Santa."
We did. The genial Claus proffered his business card and agreed
to sit for us.
"What should I call you?" Bob asked.
"Call me Santa," he said wearily.
Well, you can hardly visit Lapland without landing on his lap.
"Last Christmas," Santa told me in a stage whisper, "the Spice
Girls were here." Sure enough, the British birds were posed
seductively around Santa, in his workshop, in a photograph dated
12/5/96, at which time the pop group had the No. 1 hit in 100
We made more small talk: Bob casually remarked that Santa could
have gotten several thousand quid had he flogged the Spice Girls
photo to a London tabloid. Santa arched a white eyebrow and then
told me, "Charlie"--Gibson, of Good Morning America, on which
the Jolly One had recently appeared--"was a nice guy." After a
few more minutes of niceties, the conversation veered to golf.
A frustrated Santa said he had given up the game. "I still open
some tournaments here and there," he said. "Years ago I took
lessons from a pro. But when he went back to America, I didn't
continue." Santa peered at me over his reading glasses. "That,"
he said, "is off the record."
I could see why Santa, like the president of the U.S., would
want to conceal his athletic allegiance. But I could not
retroactively render his comments off the record, no matter how
badly that might screw me next Christmas. Anyway, he made no
secret of his other sporting passions. On the walls of his
workshop--a place the size of a two-bedroom apartment, located
in a Santa-themed shopping complex--hung photos of Santa with
numerous Olympic skiers and ski jumpers who have trained near
Rovaniemi. Indeed, the town's soccer team in the Finnish
professional league is called FC Santa Claus. "They're Second
Division right now," Santa said, "but they have a very good
youth program, so they might get to First."
But by far the biggest sports buzz in Rovaniemi centered on the
grand opening of the city's new golf course. Nine holes of the
Arctic Golf Club were inaugurated just two days before our
visit, and the remaining nine were expected to open in
September, at which time the AGC, on the Arctic Circle itself,
would become the northernmost 18-hole course in Finland. And, I
dared believe, the northernmost 18-hole course in the world.
We asked Santa if we might see reindeer roaming the fairways at
the AGC. He couldn't promise anything, but Marja-Leena had
thought we would. "There are many reindeer in Rovaniemi," she
said. "Maybe you see them on the course, yes?"
I desperately hoped so. I had just procured a talismanic
publication from the Swedish Tourist Board that publicized
Bjorkliden Golf Club, a nine-hole course some 150 miles north of
the Arctic Circle. It was an entire day's drive from Rovaniemi
but appeared to be well worth the pilgrimage: A photo showed a
Laplander golfing in a golden twilight while a reindeer looked
on in silhouette, a bag of clubs evidently slung across its
back. "Welcome," purred the pamphlet, "to the world's most
northerly green." Bjorkliden was, by every objective estimation,
the earth's northernmost golf course of any size.
Bob told Santa that we were off to shoot some reindeer. (I
reminded the nonplussed Santa that Martin was a photographer.)
Then suddenly, upon stepping outside Santa's workshop, we saw
our first such creature: a stuffed, burglar-proof reindeer wired
to steel stakes in the ground. We repaired for lunch to the
five-star Strindberg Brasserie, next door to the workshop, and
saw still more of the cuddly creatures. The menu offered
slightly salted smoked reindeer, sauteed reindeer Lappish-style
and--sigh--porotournedos (tournedos of reindeer). I declined
such Blitzen blintzes and set out instead in search of a live
one: a reindeer that would carry my clubs, a reindeer that would
replace all my divots, a reindeer that would wear a white
jumpsuit with my name stitched across the back.
At 7 a.m. on the longest day of the year, on an otherwise empty
course, I faintly heard bells jingle, and they seemed to play
Jingle Bells. Through the pines of the Arctic Golf Club I espied
a large bearded figure in a flowing red cloak, a belled red
nightcap and fur-fringed boots: Santa was putting out on the
dewy 9th green, a fact confirmed by Bob's dramatic photographs.
Only the day before, Santa had claimed to have given up the
game. But that was, thank goodness, a happy deception--what a
golfer might call a "good lie." Santa was, in fact, a regular
Andy North, a veritable David Frost, a virtual Don January.
That afternoon, in the parking lot of the Arctic Golf Club, I
met Ville Vehvilainen, a 21-year-old in a Seattle Mariners cap;
Mika Pekkala, a 22-year-old in a Chicago Bulls cap; and Jani
Merilainen, a 23-year-old in a red-and-white replica jersey of
London's Arsenal soccer club. Lovingly preserved on Jani's golf
bag was a British Airways destination tag, LHR, for London
Heathrow. "Jani bought his clubs in London from a man who said
he sold clubs to [Arsenal star] Dennis Bergkamp," Ville said
skeptically. Ville served as interpreter for the threesome. Jani
spoke only four words of English to me, possibly the only four
words of English he knew. "I like Nick Faldo," he said, grinning
"Tiger's all right," Ville said when I asked the guys what they
thought of Woods. "He's O.K. He can play a little bit. He's
pretty good." The others laughed at this sacrilege. "Everyone
talks about him too much," Ville said. "He is all you hear
about." (Memo to IMG: You have overexposed Tiger even in the
Before the Arctic Golf Club opened, Ville and his buddies played
on a nine-hole goat track along the river in Rovaniemi. "The old
course here sucked," Ville said.
"But did you ever see a reindeer there?" I asked, and at the
word reindeer, all three golfers snickered, amused by my crude
cultural stereotype. "Yeah, I saw a reindeer there once," Ville
said, sucking sardonically on a cigarette. "Well, now it is time
for a few beers." And off they went.
That night was the Midsummer holiday, a celebration of the
summer solstice. At midnight I descended to a bank of the river,
where Bob photographed the sun "setting." The orange tie-dyed
sky was also captured on camcorder by 13 chain-smoking Japanese
golf tourists in blue blazers and rep ties, who then turned
their cameras on Bob and took pictures of him taking pictures of
But lord, it was picturesque, and I couldn't help but wonder
what Rovaniemi is like at the winter solstice, when the sun has
not appeared for a full month and won't show its face for
another month to come. Quite magical, to hear the locals tell
it. At about 3 p.m. on mid-December days, a fissure of
antifreeze-colored light appears across the horizon. "Around
here," Santa told me wistfully, "people call it 'the moment of
The number 1 tee box on the golf course in Katinkulta, Finland,
was built on top of a rustic sauna. I had a sudden impulse to go
there and have a shvitz. When somebody hit his tee shot fat, I
would pop out of the sauna, towel around my waist, and shout at
him to keep it down up there. But, alas, "The sauna is no longer
working," an official at the course said over the phone. "And we
haven't used that tee box for two years." Well, what an absolute
So Bob and I drove instead to Sweden, where one in 20 citizens
plays golf. Annika Sorenstam, Jesper Parnevik, Liselotte
Neumann, Per-Ulrik Johansson, Helen Alfredsson and Anders
Forsband have replaced Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander
and the rest of the nation's tennis players as the stars in the
sports firmament. There are 400 courses in Sweden, but I was
interested in only one: little nine-hole Bjorkliden Golf Club.
So we drove and drove and drove, past tidy red cottages on
idyllic glass lakes. We drove north for hours and hours and
still remained light-years from Bjorkliden. In the town of
Gallivare-Malmberget, we finally admitted we were hopelessly
lost. Then, up ahead on the shimmering roadside in this
impossibly lonely locale, we saw a man walking along peacefully.
In a sweatshirt that read PEBBLE BEACH. With a golf bag slung
over his shoulder.
"Excuse me," I said, hoping he spoke English. "Is there a golf
"Yes, up this road," he said, and I yanked him into the car as
if with a vaudeville hook. The victim of this golfnapping
identified himself as Christer Andersson, an 11 handicap from
Halmstad, in southern Sweden. I asked him if he had ever played
"I have been two times to Pebble Beach," he said, "but I have
never played there." His brow furrowed. "I should have played,"
he said, suddenly fretful. "I don't know why I didn't. It is a
dream of mine to do so."
At Christer's direction we drove 200 yards up the road and then
turned off into a dense pine forest. Around a bend appeared a
twee red clubhouse with green shutters and white-framed windows.
It looked out on an 18-hole championship course fringed in snow.
VALKOMMEN TILL GALLIVARE-MALMBERGETS GOLFKLUBB read a sign. We
were 40 miles north of the Arctic Circle. I was introduced to
Marith Mattsson, a club member whose son is the club pro and
whose husband is the greenkeeper. "Yes," she said triumphantly.
"This is the northernmost 18."
Her son, Peter, stood at her side, unconcerned that his white
Ping cap was black with bloody mozzies. This was a common sight
in Scandinavia. Nobody seemed to mind them. The course was full
at 4:30 on a Sunday afternoon, when the temperature was in the
I asked Christer why Swedes are such good and avid golfers. "It
is our parents," he said. "They keep us out of doors when we are
young. First, everyone played tennis--Borg started by hitting
balls against a wall. Then, when people turned 30, they started
moving to the golf course. Now everyone is playing golf."
"In Sweden," said Marith, "golf is not for the rich people, but
for all the people. Here, miners and doctors play together."
"Miners come from Kiruna, 130 miles north of here," said
Christer. "They finish work on Friday and play until four in the
morning. Imagine that."
I didn't have to. That evening, on the way north to Bjorkliden,
Bob and I drove through Kiruna, the northernmost city of any
size in Sweden, built atop a terraced layer of coal. We repaired
for dinner to a restaurant decorated entirely in Borje Salming
memorabilia. (Salming, the former Toronto Maple Leafs star, grew
up in Kiruna.) "They dug a new shaft at the coal mine that goes
one mile down," a high school English and Swedish teacher told
me over dinner. "For the miners, it is a 20-minute trip straight
down every day." Makes sense, doesn't it? A man spends his days
being chased down a hole, he naturally does the same to a small
white ball on the weekends.
After dinner we drove north, endlessly, the odometer spinning
like fruit in a slot machine. We drove literally to the end of
the earth. In the distance, reindeer grazed in the middle of the
road. Mountains sprang up, fjords appeared, waterfalls plunged
down steep cliffs. AVALANCHE ZONE, warned a sign on the highway.
MAINTAIN AT LEAST 60 KM PER HOUR. Evidently you can outrun an
avalanche, I remarked. Which is when Bob said, somewhat
vacantly, that you cannot outrun a swarm of bees.
He was losing it. Clouds of mozzies filled the car. He had been
driving all day, all week. Indeed, we had driven a greater
distance than from London to Rome. The license plate on our
Vectra was illegible beneath a paste of mosquitoes. Then we
pulled into Bjorkliden, with its leafless trees, its
pipe-cleaner pines, its brilliant sun and its low clouds, like
the cotton in an aspirin bottle.
Speaking of bottles, we went immediately to a subterranean bar,
where we drank Spendrup's beer with the manic energy ordinarily
associated with pie-eating contests. For the first time in six
days we had escaped the relentless sun, still blazing at 2 a.m.
I arose at the crack of 4 p.m. and headed for the Bjorkliden
Golf Club. Marja-Leena once visited Bjorkliden at this time of
year, the final week of June, and found the course snowed under
and closed. "They said to come back in a month," she said. "Even
then, when the course is open, all shots must be hit off of tees
That prospect actually excited me. A caddie on the Old Course at
St. Andrews once told me that he had carried the bag of a Texan
tourist in the weeks leading up to the 1995 British Open. Then,
too, all shots had to be hit from mats, to protect the Royal &
Ancient's fairways. "How did you like hitting from the mats?" a
local television reporter asked the Texan.
"They're real helpful," he replied, "when you're hittin' out of
As it happened, we didn't have to hit off mats or tees when
playing Bjorkliden, though some modifications in our games were
required. Marit Andersson, the marketing director at the club,
handed me a leaflet upon our arrival. "Because Bjorkliden is
situated so far to the north," the notice began, "we've found it
necessary to add a few extra rules to the book."
The first such supplement to the age-old Rules of Golf read, "If
a reindeer moves your ball on fairway, it can be replaced
without penalty." Why anyone would want to replace a reindeer
without penalty, Marit could not say, but the point was: This
course seemed to promise plenty of them. "If a reindeer eats
your ball," began the next rule, "drop a new one where the
incident occurred." In other words, do not wait for the reindeer
to "take a drop." (Given its metabolism, that could take days.)
Finally: "If your ball lands in the snow, play it from where it
lands." This rule, it quickly emerged, was the most critical.
With July a week away, the 9th green was still guarded by
eight-foot snowdrifts, and the 2nd fairway lay entirely beneath
a blanket of white, into which plows had cut a series of
wedding-cake terraces. "This is so the snow melts faster,"
explained Marit, but the plowing also gave the fairway an
otherworldly aesthetic appeal.
"It looks exactly like the Church Pews at Oakmont," Bob
remarked. "Only white."
There were other rules that didn't make Marit's leaflet. For
instance, never mind Softspikes at Bjorkliden. Or hard spikes,
for that matter. Wear crampons.
The course was still closed to the masses. "Last year, we opened
six holes on July 7," Marit said. "But this winter we had six
meters of snow. Fortunately, it melts quickly, and the grass
grows fast during 24 hours of sunlight." We climbed ever higher,
corkscrewing our way up the mountain and onto the course, seeing
no reindeer, or reindeer caddies. (You got me good, Swedish
Tourist Board.) A greenkeeper drilled a hole in the 6th green,
which was free of snow, and allowed me to plant a flagstick and
practice chipping. She likewise planted markers at the cliffside
7th tee box and let me drive balls into the ether.
It was a breathtaking hole: A 132-yard par-3 with a 100-yard
drop from mountaintop tee to snow-covered green. I could see all
the way to Norway: jagged mountains jutting from the marbled
fjords. Out of the water rose a serpentine line of stones that
resembled a dinosaur's tail. "Sweden's Loch Ness Monster," I
"No," said Marit. "Sweden's Loch Ness Monster is called
Storsjoodjuret. It lives 1,000 kilometers from here. They say it
is a relative of Scotland's Loch Ness Monster."
But there were only grainy photographs of Nessie, I
remarked--whereas Bob and I had not only discovered the
northernmost golf course on earth but also had sharp photographs
to prove it, including one of me beneath the holy grail, the
sign on the 1st tee that read, "Bjorkliden Arctic Golf Club, the
most northerly in the world."
Marit softly cleared her throat. "There is a new course opening
a little north of here," she said meekly, and I felt my heart
drop 100 meters. "In Harstad. That is in Norway."
"How far from here?" I stammered.
"Three hundred kilometers to drive."
"And that is the northernmost course in the world?" I asked
"Nine holes are open now," she said. "The rest will be open in
autumn. Then, yes, it will be the northernmost 18-hole course in
the world." She wore a look of indescribable melancholy. "Yes,"
she said, sighing deeply. "I'm afraid so."
I stepped to the brink of the 7th tee box, peered into the void
And decided that my quest had concluded, that closure had come.
Planting the flagstick in the 6th green at Bjorkliden, I had
felt like Admiral Peary, claiming the course for all of
golfkind. Now I stood, seven-iron in hand, surveying the whole
of Scandinavia. I was, in every conceivable sense, on top of the
world. What more could I want?
I swung, and I held my follow-through for ages. From a
snowcapped mountaintop atop the Arctic Circle, the earth
resembled a dimpled white orb, a Top-Flite XL. I had spent a
week slicing smiles into the face of that sphere, little
realizing that, all along, it was doing the same to me.