Extreme golf: The drives of a lifetime
You don't have to dodge bullets to play 'extreme' golf. James Corrigan profiles the world's eight most awesome courses. Additional reporting by Simon Usborne
Friday 09 November 2007
Mankind has left almost no stone unturned in his exploration of the planet, and neither has the modern golfer (whose ball can occasionally, of course, end up under a stone). Courses can now be found in every civilised country, most of the uncivilised ones, and – as the previous pages show – in plenty of war zones, too.
Among the stranger places where golfers have connected iron with balata are the Moon and the top of the Empire State Building. Of course, neither of these venues actually possesses a golf course at present, but given the sport's track record, it may well be only a matter of time before they do.
In every geographical extreme, from the heat of the Sahara to the ice of Alaska, odd-looking human beings (many of them wearing diamond-patterned knitwear) can be found, often chattering on the general subject of birdies and bogeys, pars and eagles.
Urban Golf, where fairways are crafted out of tarmac streets and pavements, and tee shots are played off patches of Astroturf matting, has even taken the sport to the concrete heart of some of the world's great cities.
With this in mind, two golf-obsessed London business-men, Robin Sieger and Neil Laughton, decided five years ago that it was time to record the most extreme golfing benchmarks. They set out to play what they called the " Awesome Eight" – courses which they considered to be (in no particular order) the Highest, the Lowest, the Most Northerly, the Most Southerly, the Hottest, the Coldest, the Toughest and the Greatest in the world.
The venues they chose in the first six categories cannot really be argued with, while the last two are, of course, subjective. But then, this is golf and one player's corker is another player's duff. Here, then, is The Independent's take on their "Awesome Eight"...
Hottest: Alice Springs
Jimmy Tarbuck-style diamond sweaters are a major no-no at the world's hottest golf course. Set in the foothills of the majestic MacDonnell Ranges, in Australia's arid heartland, it regularly cooks in temperatures above 50C as the sun pounds on the greens and hot winds sweep across the fairways.
Alice Springs is also considered to be one of the world's toughest courses, challenging already perspiring players with menacing rocky outcrops that prevent an easy route to the 18 holes. The course's extreme conditions haven't stopped it becoming a major player on the world circuit, where it regularly plays host to PGA events.
We agree with Sieger and Laughton's assessment. But if it all sounds a bit too sweaty, try the lesser known (and significantly cooler) Alice Springs Golf Course, in the Usk Valley, Wales.
Greatest: St Andrews
Our two protagonists were bang on: St Andrews stands head, shoulders and halo above the rest. Pity that the course is, in many people's eyes, struggling to hang on to this billing. Actually, that is unfair: although the Old Course is rapidly turning into an anachronism in this turbo-drivered era, its subtleties still make it a test for anyone but the biggest of hitters. In fact, Tiger Woods has declared it his favourite place on earth and that has little to do with the two Claret Jugs he has won there. Woods has become enchanted by the place and the manner in which the fairways seem to link up with the Auld Grey Toon's narrow streets and alleyways.
Walk on its turf, golfer or not, and it is impossible not feel all that history running up your trouser leg. Except if you're a heathen, of course. They designed PlayStations for the likes of you.
Highest: Tuctu, Peru
Among the select band of golfers who pursue the most extreme courses, like big game hunters tracking prey in the Savannah, controversy reigns about which course is the most elevated. For decades, the Guinness World Records – along with Sieger and Laughton – listed the Tuctu Golf Club in Peru as the world's highest, but today the 14,335ft high course lies abandoned. The highest playable course (if you don't include the Moon, where Neil Armstrong took a swing) is in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. At 10,650ft, the air is thin, so balls fly considerably further. Visitors are advised to arrive at the course a few days before tramping the fairways and to drink plenty of water to avoid altitude sickness.
Coldest: North Star, Alaska
The northernmost golf course in America can also claim to be the coldest. But its sub-zero playing conditions during much of the Alaskan winter, when temperatures plummet to -30C, do not stop local fauna from taking an interest in playing conditions there.
In fact, so prevalent is the wildlife at North Star that the scorecards issued to players include a checklist of creatures, and a course rule states: "When a raven or fox steals a ball, a replacement may be dropped without penalty at the scene of the crime."
Despite looking green and lush during the summer, North Star is affected by permafrost, which over time warps and distorts. The once flat number eight green is now a fiendishly difficult undulating surface. Only the hardiest golfers venture on to the snowbound fairways in winter, clearing patches of snow to take swings.
Most southerly: Ushuaia, Patagonia
Barely a 200-yard drive from the glaciers that tumble into the Beagle Canal off the island of Tierra del Fuego lies the world's most southerly golf course, in the most southerly city. At a latitude of 54 degrees south, the nine-hole layout is near Cape Horn and a 12,500 miles from the most northerly course at North Cape, Norway. As there isn't much more than a supercharged tee-shot between the golfer and Antarctica, it is a universally accepted member of the Awesome Eight. Surrounded by the foothills of the Andes, a round here is a feather in the cap of any golfer. But not everyone is impressed; Ushuaia has an average of 160 rainy days a year, and snow in winter, and the course is often shrouded in cloud and mist.
Lowest: Furnace Creek, California
At 214ft below sea level, the 18-hole course at the luxury Furnace Creek resort in California's notoriously arid Death Valley is universally recognised as the world's lowest links.
Standing in glorious (if non-environmentally friendly) contrast to the desolate desert landscape, the lush green course probably also stakes a claim as the world's most irrigated. Even so, it closes for much of the summer, when the mercury regularly hits 52C.
During the rest of the year, the resort, which also boasts four restaurants, a cocktail lounge, swimming pools and 3,000ft airstrip for upwardly mobile players, provides a stunning backdrop for a round or two of low-level golf.
Toughest: Koolau, Hawaii
Sieger and Laughton decided that the Koolau course in Hawaii deserved this much sought-after accolade. While bowing to their undoubted masochistic expertise, I would argue that 18 holes rather closer to home qualify as the "toughest" golfing test in the world. Naturally, any course's brutality depends on the weather, but if the wind is blowing at its damnedest, if the rain is freezing to hail, and if the greenkeeper had a bad night on the malt, then Carnoustie is as demanding as anywhere. Just ask any of the participants in the 1999 Open on the Angus links, who compared the experience to "a bit like torture, without the get-out of confession". Saying that, Oakmont can be pretty horrid, too – as is proven by the carnage at this year's US Open. After designing the course at the start of the 20th century, HC Fownes declared: "Let the clumsy, the spineless and alibi-makers stand aside." Nice guy, old Henry. Unless, that is, you happened to be a clumsy, spineless alibi-maker looking for a round of golf in Pittsburgh.
Most Northerly: North Cape, Norway
The northernmost point in Europe is also home to what is undisputably the world's most northerly golf course. Located at more than 70 degrees north, only 1,300 miles from the North Pole, it is also officially within the Arctic Circle. The six-hole course provides no challenge for above-par golfers, but playing there from mid-May to the end of August is an unforgettable experience, as the sun never sets on the seaside fairways.
During the twilight winter months, when the horizon seems to burn as the sun disappears, players are treated to views of the Northern Lights, snowbound mountains and cliffs bathed in moonlight. Displaying a traditionally Norwegian laissez-faire attitude, the club has a rule that allows players who hit their balls into one of the unfenced gardens that surround the course to leave the fairway to pitch them back into play.
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