On Thin Ice: Golf in Greenland

Greenland Landscape

Ice Golf in Greenland requires a lot of faith, a lot of skill, and a whole lot of fleece.

 

Our driver steers the Toyota pickup through a maze of grounded fishing boats near the tiny island town of Uummannaq (pop. 1,700), just off the west coast of the world’s largest and probably coldest island: Greenland. The boats sit frozen in the harbor where they were moored at the onset of winter. The group’s somewhat stunned reaction at learning we’re actually driving a truck through a harbor is not lost on its driver.

The Greenland native looks back at us with a toothy grin, and punches the accelerator – hurtling us across sea ice at speeds usually reserved for California highways. Soon this oceanic expanse 600 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, and its temporary roadway, will completely thaw and be reachable only by boat.

But how soon?

“Next week, no more driving,” our man says.

But somehow a week seems a bit broad for this sort of estimate. How does one know exactly when the fragile sea ice is unsafe for driving?

“Not safe when first truck falls in,” he deadpans.

Despite the sub-zero chill penetrating the thin walls of this truck, I begin to sweat. I pull it together – well, sort of – and console myself with the fact that if we go down, geological researchers will exhume my frozen carcass in tact within a few short centuries. If I can just manage to stay on this side of the ice for the next three-and-a half days, I tell myself, they will also be able to pry from my cold, hard fingers this, my diary account of one of the world’s foremost alternative sporting events: the Drambuie World Ice Golf Championships.

“These dogs are not man’s best friend in your typical Americana, fetch-the-newspaper kind of sense. They are wild beasts that savor the taste of fresh fingers….”

 

That’s right. Golf in Greenland. And not during the summer months. This annual event put on by the liquor company is essentially the Open Championship for golfers with ice in their veins– yes, a somewhat absurd partnering, but one I deemed worth risking life and frostbitten limb to give a shot. Hell, I’d leapt from airplanes, dangled from bridges via giant rubber bands and even milked a rattlesnake before.

Now I’m here, I’m ready and I’m not about to be denied by a few paltry patches of thinning ice. Fortunately, the driver stays true to his wry smile, navigating us safely from Hotel Uummannaq to the adjacent “golf course” – the frozen white expanse where our adventure will unravel in the coming days.

Here we will embrace one of golf’s long-since faded fads: the day-glow orange ball. Here we will learn to swing a golf club while wearing insanely thick layers of winter gear. Here we will discover the culinary delights of whale blubber.

 green1_proj

 Day 1: You’ve Been Warned

I am one of 40 golfers and various media types from seven countries to arrive in this strange land after a few weary days of air travel. We come together for dinner and a rules meeting with drinks in hand, introducing ourselves between bites of whale steak and potatoes. Outside the dining room, a nearly full Arctic moon causes the town’s 6,000 sled dogs to bay wildly in unison.

After we’ve all acquired a mild buzz, tournament director Henrik Bergqvist, who I call “Ice Berg,” interrupts to give us the lay of the land and a rundown of local rules. The official tournament will comprise a practice round the next day followed by two official nine-hole rounds (par-36) each of the days after that.

For obvious reasons, the balls are retro pink and orange, and for even more obvious reasons, the greens are better known as “whites.” Winter rules (lift, clean and place) are in full effect. Well, duh. There is one major addition, though: Players who hit to within 10 meters of an iceberg are allowed a free drop. (As if icebergs are somehow equal to the flowerbeds at Augusta or something.) The objective here is to protect players from falling through the thinner, less stable ice surrounding these huge, blocky protrusions.

Even the USGA couldn’t argue with that one, right? I’m not sure if I feel better or worse with this knowledge, but before there’s time to figure it out, Ice Berg adds a few more caveats for the week: 1) we should regularly check our fellow competitors’ faces for frostbite; 2) we should wear high UV-rated sunglasses to keep our retinas from frying; and 3) we should dress “properly” to prevent various other forms of hypothermia, all of which have complex names I’ve never heard before.

On a final note, we’re warned never, ever to pet any of the town’s dogs, even to coax your ball from one’s jaws. These dogs are not man’s best friend in your typical Americana, fetch-the-newspaper kind of sense. They are wild beasts that savor the taste of fresh fingers – even when hidden beneath thick gloves.

After dinner, many of us venture out into the cold, ignoring our bodies’ bellowing request for sleep and our minds’ compelling case that we’ve got ourselves into something we maybe shouldn’t have. At least we can drink it off. We climb the small hill to the town’s only bar, a little dive called Parabolen. A Bulgarian guitar player named D’Mo, representing the ninth country in this bar, carries us through the entire night with precise covers from the Eagles and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Ever so briefly my head hits the pillow feeling just a bit closer to home.

 

Greenland Swinger

 

 

Day 2: Practice Makes Popsicles

Early on the first full day in Uummannaq, with most of us having logged only an hour or less of sleep, hotel trucks and vans transport groups of still-drunk golfers to the course on the sea ice for a morning practice round. While somewhat bearable for brief periods during our arrival yesterday, the weather has decided to show us its muscle today.

The severe cold, which we later learn reached 58-below with wind chill, needles at my skin despite what amounts to four or more layers of wicking thermals, fleece, and Gore-Tex outer shells. Clearly this is a place in which golfing will be much less about getting my ball to bite than protecting my balls from frostbite.

At the clubhouse (a small tent), I bundle up like South Park’s Kenny with only a sliver of my cheeks showing inside a frame of no less than two hats, sunglasses, and a neck scarf I pull up over my nose. Despite the cold, everybody’s spirits around the clubhouse are bright. Surprising warmth comes from the energy we’re deriving from our excitement about the novelty of it all. This will last for a few holes until it dawns on us that we have at least two or three more hours of this ahead. And then two more days.

But here we are, so what are you going to do? Ice Berg assigns threesomes, hands us each a scorecard and a small bottle of Drambuie, and sets us loose for a “walk” – or, in my group’s case, a decent hike to our far-off starting hole.

This is where the realities of what we’re doing out here set in. Ice golf ain’t easy.

I’d prepped for this thing for weeks, working on my short game at a nearby ice rink, chipping on icy roads in Lake Tahoe, acclimatizing for temperatures that could reach 80-below by logging quality time in a freezer at the local meat-packing plant.

But unlike at the rink, the ice here is inconsistent at best. My ball sits either on bare, rock-hard ice, or six inches deep in crystal powder. The only two consistencies to emerge are A) I unload decent tee shots when I can dig in and find good footing, or at least properly finish my swing from underneath clothing that required an entire suitcase to carry; and B) I can never seem to get my approach shots to the whites, even by using two or three more clubs than “normal” conditions demand.

After nine holes I feel as if I’ve learned nothing. I card a whopping 59 and take solace only that this, after all, is a practice round.  It was only our warm-up to glacier golf, and Greenland’s piercing, arctic wind had already turned us all into stiff little Otter Pops, straight legging about a vast backdrop of glaring white sea ice, stout glaciers, and snow-covered mountains.

Weather one, golfers nil.

 

otter-Pops2

Day 3: Beginning of the End

The official tournament starts with considerably less asperity than the practice round. Yesterday’s winds have fallen asleep and more civil temperatures approaching 10 degrees above zero “warm” the course. I am able to shed layers for a hole or two without physical penalty. For some reason, though, it’s nearly impossible to tee a ball without a sledgehammer and a nine-inch nail.

When I need it the most – in front of international film crews, for instance – I have the ability to cast flawless arcing drives far down the middle of the “glareway.” I learn to strategically aim for glaciers that cut doglegs in half, knowing that if I hit one, I’ll get a free drop. (And maybe if I hit one hard enough, it’ll blow apart like the Death Star.)  I still, however, can’t reach the whites in regulation and wind up wasting stroke after stroke with wedges I consider trading to locals for Narwhal tusks.

Still, my score improves considerably. I card a 50 and I’m pleased because I don’t yet know the early leader – last year’s winner Annika Ostberg of Denmark – has already carded a 2-over 38.

I’m “lucky” enough to play the second nine with Annika, but realize I could’ve just stayed in bed. The rumors prove true. Her swing is so fluid, so consistent. I look like a squid in shock therapy by comparison.

I consider the possibilities for sabotage, everything from marching out front of Annika to “accidentally” stomp her ball into the snow (“I know it must be around here somewhere”) to tying her up with rope and blowtorching the ice beneath her. But if I am a snake, she is a spellbinding snake charmer. I can’t help but be mesmerized, and thus I’m simply too helpless to do anything but mark down her long string of pars and hiss.

After nine holes of continued carnage around the whites, the number’s are official: Electric Squid Boy 51, the Great Dane another 38.

Over dinner, my perceived drowning at the hands of the reigning champ takes on new perspective. We learn that earlier in the day event coordinator Laila Rasmussen saved the life of a local woman who slipped through a seal’s breathing hole on the right side of the eighth fairway. (Note to self: Aim left on No. 8 tomorrow.) Seal holes are prominent among the Uummannaq course’s various “hazards.” Two competitors, we learn, also had more minor “ice incidents” during their rounds.

Maybe I should’ve packed those arm floaties after all.

 

greenlandsled

Day 4 – Home So Soon?

I approach the last day of the tournament with increasing trepidation about my well-being, but no illusions of grandeur. The competitive side of the tournament is a yawner only halfway through. Annika already holds a 10-shot lead going into the final 18 and will eventually – and modestly – raise the victory trophy. I, on the other hand, sit dead last in the so-called “praemiegruppe” (why I didn’t sandbag – icepack? – my handicap to drop to a lower division, I’m not sure), and still can’t get my approach shots pin high from the 100-yard stake without a 9-wood.

The wind remains calm, the weather mild, and golfers move about the fairways in gloomy silence. With the tournament out of hand, I relieve myself of performance pressure and instead spend time between shots in the morning round taking in the magnificence of my surroundings.

Wispy clouds have backed off the monumental mountains creating views that stretch endlessly toward the North Pole. I witness for the first time the various shades of blue that emit from the glacier ice. Looking back toward the town, which seems a long way from here, the heart-shaped mountain for which the town is named, appears to beat as if just ripped from the cold, lifeless body surrounding it.

A discernable melancholy permeates our regular mid-round lunch – only magnified by the whale-blubber cubes no one has quite found a way to stomach. This somber mood carries over onto the course during the afternoon nine. We golfers are only just becoming familiar with this idyllic land, a place where the local Inuit people, mostly hunters and fisherman, have endured harsh conditions for centuries without ever losing their lust for life. And soon our brief glimpse into this place and its people, this odd impetus for an entirely new cultural awareness, will be over.

 

final shot

 

Yes, we still have a full day of activities scheduled for tomorrow that will see us mush dog sleds toward the official residence of Santa Claus himself, and learn to ice fish through holes where we’ll pull halibut from schools 400 meters deep and eat them raw within minutes. But our days of golf on this frozen wasteland, which in less than a month’s time will become a vast, watery golf ball graveyard, are nearly through.

I tee up one final ball, as if sending a modest warning to the glacial gods. “I will be back,” is my pledge to nobody in particular as I watch a spec of bright orange surlyn disappear into the late afternoon sun.

 

Editor’s Note: The previous “encore story” repeatedly emerges as a site favorite, despite having been written more than a decade ago. We’re happy you like it–it’s a great story. It’s important to note, however, that the tournament reported as “annual” has long since concluded operation. Climate changes over the years have prevented the ocean from freezing to levels considered safe.

 

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Sean T. Kelly

Owner/Director at LinkedGolfers
Sean T. Kelly is a writer, editor, and content director who has nearly 25 years' experience developing material in print, online, and over the air. His work has appeared on the New York Times "Best Seller List," international magazine covers, and the Today Show, among others. Sean is currently focusing on the intersection of travel, lifestyle, and mobile technologies. He is the owner/director LinkedGolfers.
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