Ice Golfing in Greenland

The treacheries of the world ice golf championships, held on the frozen waters of western Greenland.

new-icegolf7.jpgF-F-Fore Play

Four of us stand at the tee box, bundled up like members of Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition. No balmy 18 holes in Pebble Beach—this is the practice day of the Drambuie World Ice Golf Championships. Here on the west coast of Greenland, 600 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, it’s a brisk minus 50 Centigrade, including wind chill. A golfer tees off, and mutters, “It’s like hitting a bowling ball.” I trudge behind the trio and watch them spend the next 20 minutes hunting in the snow for their balls. Yesterday started in Copenhagen, and after a long journey via passenger jet, propeller plane, helicopter, and four-wheel drive truck, here’s pretty much all that I know: There are 24 of us, from eight countries, here to play ice golf atop a frozen harbor. The currency is Kroners. And there’s three ways we could die.

polarbear.jpgUnderneath our golf course are breathing holes built by seals. When dusted with a layer of fine snow, such holes make perfect invisible golf hazards. A human falling into the icy water can easily get hypothermia and drown, or at least suffer permanent neurologic damage. We are to stay clear of the seal holes. The ones that are invisible. We are also to avoid the sled dogs. These huskies are nasty animals, bred with wolves to strengthen the gene pool. We are told don’t pet them, don’t even approach them. They will attack children. And if we fall down on the ice, they will attack us. Okay, so—seal holes and huskies. Check. Oh, wait, we could also get mangled by a polar bear. One week ago a hunter shot a bear just outside the village. Every vehicle I see carries a rack of high-powered rifles.

I watch the golfers worrying over their little balls, colored orange to stand out against the snow, and wonder, it would actually be kind of cool if a golfer fell into a seal hole, was attacked by huskies, and then viciously torn apart by a bear. If there’s one sport that could use some actual bloodlust, some brutal violence to counteract the pink-fingered Mama’s boy pussiness, it’s got to be golf. But Mother of God, it’s Ice Station Zebra out here. It’s so cold my pen doesn’t even work. I trot after the tournament’s reigning champion, Denmark’s Annika Ostberg, and ask how it’s going so far. “It’s just survival at this point,” she exhales.

We hop in trucks and drive back to the only hotel in Uummannaq, a town of 2,700 people and 6,000 sled dogs. Greenland’s fjord settlements have been invaded for centuries by rogue sailors and Vikings, so an incursion of golf geeks is just another curiosity among the local Inuit population. After a vigorous dinner of caribou steaks and raw whale blubber, we end up at the town’s only bar, a dive called the Parabolen. Entertainment for the night is a Bulgarian musician named Don Dimo, who sports a fantastic mane of long black hair, and strolls through the crowd playing guitar solos with great fury. It occurs to me that I’m north of the Arctic Circle, talking to a golfer from South Africa, in an Inuit Eskimo bar in Denmark-owned Greenland, watching a Bulgarian speed-metal guitarist play Spanish flamenco. The dance floor fills up for “Hotel California.” A big teenager approaches me and literally shouts into my face: “My name is Hans! You come all this way to my town! I’m so happy you are here!” So am I!

The first day of the tournament opens with services at a beautiful stone church. The golfers seem to listen reverently to the prayers, even though it’s all in Greenlandic. Maybe because after such a rough practice day, they could use the help. We ride out to the course over a kidney-jarring “road,” and the first golfers tee off to start the competition. Despite struggling with 40 pounds of extra seal fur, everyone’s scores slowly improve around the course, surrounded by a dramatic quiet of mountains and glaciers. I climb onto one of the icebergs, where the view is incredible, beautifully barren, a nuclear winter at the edge of the world. Apart from an occasional “Good shot,” the only sounds are wolf-like yowls from the huskies, which give the game a creepy Hound of the Baskervilles soundtrack.

After golfing wraps for the day, several sign up for a dogsled ice fishing tour, 12 kilometers out into the snowy mist. A typical dog team numbers 10 to 15 huskies, all producing a perpetual flatulence. We come upon a fisherman at his hole, and watch him pull up the line with his bare hands. As each fish comes up, he steps on its head, removes the hook, and tosses it onto a pile. He casually pulls out a knife, carves himself a piece of cheek from a halibut, and offers us a bloody chunk. The tail is still flopping. A few golfers turn away and gag, unable to even watch. The flesh tastes cold and very strong, and a water bottle is quickly passed around.

Next morning I wake up early and check out the village. Walking around the brightly colored houses draped with dried fish and polar bear hides, it’s very easy to forget about stupid pop culture like Britney Spears. Life here is extremely uncomplicated. People still hunt and fish for their food. Homes have no flushing toilets. Clothing is made from the fur of sled dogs. The local grocery store sells basic goods like socks, porn videos, and rifle ammunition.

We suit up in sealskins and hit the course for the final rounds. The weather is slightly warmer, which means not only is it easier to drive and putt, the ice is growing softer. Two players step into seal holes up to the knees, and a local Inuit Eskimo woman falls in up to her waist. All are quickly yanked out and rushed back to the hotel. Frostbite, but no deaths. At least this year.

Annika Ostberg wins again, with a 157 total score, and is celebrated in traditional Greenland fashion—hoisted aloft on a dog sled. Awards are presented at a dinner, and it’s back to the Parabolen bar again. The bar’s owner, a jolly man named Fritz, graciously invites us to his home for more beers after closing, and as 20 golfers settle into his living room, who pulls out a guitar? The Bulgarian, of course. Camaraderie is in the air. We didn’t freeze to death, and we weren’t eaten by animals. A Scottish golfer stands up and sings the traditional “Loch Lomond” song. A British guy starts a singalong of “Mustang Sally.” I’m feeling restless. America is not being represented here musically. After a quick conference with a golfer from Colorado, the two of us are soon leading the room in a rousing rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama.” Amazingly, everyone knows the words.

(Versions of this appeared in Travelocity and Drill magazines)