The Caddie Was a Reindeer
And Other Tales of Extreme Recreationby Steve Rushin
A joy ride through the wild world of sports from “the best sportswriter in the country” (St. Paul Pioneer Press)
A joy ride through the wild world of sports from “the best sportswriter in the country” (St. Paul Pioneer Press)
Steve Rushin has been called “the best sportswriter in America” by the St. Paul Pioneer Press and “certainly the most fun to read” by the Hartford Courant. A four-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, Rushin is the author of Road Swing, ranked among the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time by Sports Illustrated, for which he writes the enormously popular “Air and Space” column.
In The Caddie Was a Reindeer Rushin circumnavigates the globe with his golf clubs–less pole-to-pole than flagstick-to-flagstick–in pursuit of extreme recreation. In the Arctic Circle, he meets ice golfers, one of whom explains: “We play on snow, in freezing temperatures, with balls that are purple.” To which Rushin can only reply: “Yes, well, I imagine they must be.”
On Bali, in the Indian Ocean, he forsakes his lob wedge for a lava wedge on a gold course laid out in the crater of a volcano. (‘sure the volcano is long inactive, but so are Tony Orlando and Dawn. Should I not fear a return to activity?”)
In Minnesota, he watches the National Amputee Golf Tournament, where one participant tells him, “I literally have one foot in the grave.”
Along the way, Rushin meets fellow travelers like Joe Cahn, a professional tailgater who confesses aboard the RV in which he lives: “It’s wonderful to see America from your bathroom.” And even he has logged fewer miles in pursuit of extreme recreation than Rich Rodriguez, a marathon roller-coaster rider who makes endless loops for entire summers on coasters around the world. “His face resembled a peeled tomato, rubbed raw by the Irish Sea,” writes Rushin. “Imagine driving from Miami to Juneau and back at sixty-five mph with your head out the window and you only begin to comprehend the man’s 11,362-mile ride to nowhere.”
The Caddie Was a Reindeer is a ride to everywhere: to south London (where Rushin downs pints with the King of Darts) and the Champs-Elys’es (where the author indulges in “excessive nightclubbing” with World Cup soccer stars); to Japan (where Rushin eats soba noodles with the world champion of competitive eating) and Germany (where he drives James Bond’s convertible on the world’s most dangerous Formula One racetrack). Enlightening, hilarious, and unexpectedly heartwarming, this collection is not a body of work: it’s a body of play.
“You don’t have to be a sports enthusiast to enjoy Rushin’s funny, outrageous collections of essays, columns and musings. . . . Rushin has crafted a winning book . . . a rousing, laugh-out-loud hoot. I’d call it extreme fun.” –Laurence Washington, Rocky Mountain News
“Rushin’s writing appeals to both big-time sports fans and those who don’t know a lineman from a goalie, because he sees his subjects as part of the larger world and loads his tales with wit, pop-culture references and thoughtful observations. . . . No matter where he goes, he gives his readers a strong sense of place and people–in a wiseacre way, of course.” –Kristin Tillotson, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“If you don’t end up dropping . . . The Caddie Was a Reindeer during fits of uncontrollable merriment, it is likely you need immediate medical attention. Rushin . . . has mad skills with a pen. He can cull a chortle from a cat.
” –Jason Blevins, Denver Post
“Rushin is reminiscent of such other tart commentators on American leisure as Carl Hiaasen and Padgett Powell; his skillfulness enables him to wring entertainment even out of such chestnuts as the epic Yankees–Red Sox fan rivalry. Engaging, entertaining, and more laid-back than many sports books.” –Kirkus Reviews
‘steve Rushin does with words what Minnesota Fats did with cue balls. There’s never been anything remotely like him.” –Rick Reilly
‘steve Rushin is not one of the most gifted sportswriters in the country; he is one of its most gifted writers, period. In a fit of poor judgment, I once picked up one of his stories while suffering from badly bruised ribs. It hurt so good. Be prepared, all ye who peruse this collection, to turn the heads of passersby with your snorts, your guffaws, your torso-wracking laughter. Rushin is profound, hilarious, profoundly hilarious.” –Austin Murphy
“A couple of years ago Sports Illustrated editor Rob Fleder, my good buddy, said to me, “Rushin is a genius.” I believe I replied, ‘duh.”” –Rick Telander, author of Heaven is a Playground and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times
Praise for Road Swing:
“Rushin has a keen eye for the quirky and idiosyncratic and makes no attempt to read the cosmic tea leaves of sports. . . . There’s little sacred or too serious. . . . Rushin knows how to turn a phrase, tickle funny bones, and make telling comments.” –The Christian Science Monitor
“Rushin, as regular readers of Sports Illustrated know, is one of the most nimble-minded magazine journalists working today. His weekly column, “Air and Space,” is irreverent and almost always funny. His first book, Road Swing, harked back to the days when sportswriting was about real people rather than overpaid underachievers. Millions of readers know him on sight.” –The Hartford Courant
‘mr. Rushin [takes] full advantage of his true talents–an unmatched eye for absurdity and an uncanny ability to convey it in a way that brings tears of laughter and sorrow. The result is not quite gonzo journalism, but it’s not much like mainstream, either.” –Ottawa Citizen
“These are places that many sports fans have heard about. But to visit them with Rushin riding shotgun, pointing out the odd detail with a nudge of the elbow, is a real delight.” –USA Today
A semi-finalist for the 2005 Thurber Prize for American Humor
Named the 2005 Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association
THE CADDIE WAS A REINDEER
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 then 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 abominable snowmen.
The rest of these facts you must take on faith, and you have been burned before. In 1994, for instance, Sports Illustrated 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 sixty 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 forty-five miles south of the Arctic Circle, and its eighteen-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 the swimsuits.”
“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 Midnight Sun. 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 fairway.
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 Sweden.
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 ninth 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 passport here.”
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 sixth green?” I inquired casually.
‘somebody stole it last night,” she said.
Fair enough. After all, the sixth 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 sixth 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 tenth 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 forty-something 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 ten 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 sixty-three bee stings on a recent assignment in Brunei, and he was experiencing a post-traumatic 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 four hundred members in the club. Twenty members are older than sixty-five, and fifty members are younger than twenty-one. 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 presumably mosquito-borne.
Finland had fewer than a dozen eighteen-hole courses in 1980. Since then, another seventy have opened, of which the Green Zone is, for the moment, the most northerly. Finland has fifty thousand 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 lonkkas.“
Mitchell first came to Tornio in 1991 from Danville, Virgina, 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 twenties. 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 fifty-four 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 States.
After ten 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 anvil-like clang.
“The twelfth hole at Augusta is a par three,” 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 twelve. 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 seventy-seven. Palmer shot seventy-two [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 thirty, 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 a hundred 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, forty-five miles north of Tornio–latitude 66″ 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 December 5, 1996, at which time the pop group had the number one hit in one hundred nations.
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 United States, 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.”
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 eighteen-hole course in Finland. And, I dared believe, the northernmost eighteen-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 hundred and fifty 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, saut”ed 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 ninth green, a fact confirmed by Bob’s dramatic photographs. Only the day before, Santa had claimed to have given up the game. 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 twenty-one-year-old in a Seattle Mariners cap; Mika Pekkala, a twenty-two-year-old in a Chicago Bulls cap; and Jani Merilainen, a twenty-three-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 broadly.
“Tiger’s all right,” Ville said when I asked the guys what they thought of Woods. “He’s okay. 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 Arctic Circle.)
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 thirteen 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 them.
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 had told me wistfully, “people call it “the moment of mystical blue.””
The number-one 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 gyp.
So instead Bob and I drove to Sweden, where one in twenty 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 four hundred 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 course nearby?”
“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 Pebble.
“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 two hundred 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 eighteen-hole championship course fringed in snow. valkommen till gallivare-malmbergets golfklubb read a sign. We were forty 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 eighteen.”
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 fifties.
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 thirty, 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, one hundred thirty 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 twenty-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 that 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 or mats.”
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 sand traps.”
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 ninth green was still guarded by eight-foot snowdrifts, and the second 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 seventh,” Marit said. “But this winter we had six meters of snow. Fortunately, it melts quickly, and the grass grows fast during twenty-four 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 sixth green, which was free of snow, and allowed me to plant a flagstick and practice chipping. She likewise planted markers at the cliffside seventh tee box and let me drive balls into the ether.
It was a breathtaking hole: A 132-yard par 3 with a hundred-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 muttered.
“No,” said Marit. ‘sweden’s Loch Ness monster is called Storsjoodjuret. It lives a thousand kilometers from here. They say it is a relative of Scotland’s Loch Ness monster.”
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 first 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 one hundred 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 numbly.
“Nine holes are open now,” she said. “The rest will be open in autumn. Then, yes, it will be the northernmost eighteen-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 seventh tee box, peered into the void, and decided that my quest had concluded, that closure had come. Planting the flagstick in the sixth 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.
(August 4, 1997)
Copyright ” 2004 by Steve Rushin. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.