INTO THIN HAIR A Personal Account of the Greenland Golf
Expedition, in Which Aging White People Braved Arctic Cold, Dog Hazards, Whale Jerky, Beer Famine, Clowns, Clinical Madness, Walrus Genitalia and a Moldavian Rock Band Singing Mustang's Alley--All in Pursuit of a Timeless Dream: To Ascend to the Top of the World and Break 90.
"I couldn't care less about Greenland," William C. Starrett II
said with disarming candor shortly after arriving in the
northernmost country on Earth. "I'm here for the golf."
Sixteen empty beer bottles were lined up in front of the retired
California bankruptcy lawyer, so he looked like a contestant in
a carnival midway game. It was the last week of March, and
Starrett, two photographers and I were passing a five-hour
layover inside the modest air terminal in Ilulissat, a southern
suburb of the North Pole, by systematically divesting the bar of
its biennial beer supply. We began by drinking all the Carlsberg
and then depleted the Tuborg reserves, and we were grimly
working our way through the supply of something called Faxe,
evidently named for the fax-machine toner with which it is
brewed, when Starrett began recounting his life's memorable
rounds. Rounds of golf, rounds of beer--the distinction was
scarcely worth making.
"Livingstone was an interesting course," he said. "It's in
Zambia, near Victoria Falls. The greens fee is 35 cents, and the
pro shop has one shirt. At Rotorua, in New Zealand, the hazards
are geysers. Sun City, in South Africa, has an alligator pit,
and you don't play your ball out of that." This summer, Starrett
said, he would rent a house in County Cork ("Walking distance to
the Jameson's distillery") and travel from Ireland to Iceland
for the Arctic Open, played in 24 hours of sunlight. He was, on
the other hand, unlikely ever to return to the Moscow Country
Club. It has gone to seed, don't you think, after expanding
hubristically from nine holes to 18?
I feigned a look that said You're telling me and shook my head
"It is said that once a traveler has seen the world, there is
always Greenland," says the Lonely Planet guidebook Iceland,
Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which only partly explains
Starrett's presence here, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle
in Ilulissat, at the exact point at which mankind's appetite for
golf exceeds the capabilities of fixed-wing aircraft.
Our profane party of golfers and journalists had flown five
hours to Greenland on its national airline, Gronlandsfly, after
first laying waste to the duty-free liquor shop in the
Copenhagen airport so that its ravaged shelves resembled those
of a 7-Eleven in the hours immediately following a hurricane
warning. After alighting on Greenland, the world's largest
island, we required two more northbound flights of an hour each
to reach Ilulissat. This was the end of the line for the
four-prop de Havilland DHC-7, and we now awaited the arrival of
a Vietnam-vintage Sikorsky military transport helicopter to take
us the last hour-and-20-minute leg north, to the frozen coastal
island of Uummannaq, for the first--and possibly last--World Ice
Golf Championship (hereafter known as the WIG).
The WIG was open to anyone with $2,000, a titanium liver and a
willingness to spend a week 310 miles north of the Arctic
Circle, in one of the northernmost communities in the world. Who
could resist such a powerful come-on? Every citizen of planet
Earth save 20, it turns out.
Still, though the tournament was a sponsored contrivance
designed to promote Greenland tourism—and a Scottish liqueur
company, Drambuie—winter golf on Greenland promised to have
singular benefits for the high handicapper. For starters, the
island's 840,000 square miles are virtually unblighted (from a
strictly golf-centric view of the ecosystem) by trees. Nor would
water come into play, as 85% of Greenland is covered by a
permanent icecap, which in places is two miles thick. Most
significant, the Greenlandic counting system goes only to
arqaneq marluk, or 12, after which there is simply passuit, or
"many"—an idiosyncrasy surely to be exploited to my advantage
on a scorecard.
The incoming Sikorsky at last set down in Ilulissat like a great
Mosquito of Death. The vehicle was so old, a Dane living in
Greenland told me with perverse pride, that its manufacturer
wants the relic returned for display in a museum when
Gronlandsfly retires it. At this news I signaled the bartendress
for a final round of Faxes, but she gestured to her
glass-fronted refrigerator, now empty, and said accusingly, "No
With growing dread, I returned to my companions in the waiting
area. In the lounge chair facing me was a London-based sports
photographer named Gary Prior. A janitor who moments earlier had
been cleaning the men's room approached Prior from behind and
began massaging his scalp, and a look of supreme serenity spread
across his--the janitor's--face. Prior prudently avoided any
sudden movement as he mouthed, "This bloke's gone mad."
So it was with a profound sense of foreboding that we boarded
the Sikorsky, its belly filled with golf clubs, and set out to
defy Robert Louis Stevenson, who wrote, "Ice and iron cannot be
welded." Would this prove to be a prophecy? With a terrible
shudder, the rotored beast rose above the icebergs, carrying us,
its human prey, deeper, ever deeper, into a golfing Heart of
I had first heard of ice golf two Summers earlier, while
traveling under the midnight sun in northern Scandinavia. "You
must return in the winter," implored the deskman at the Strand
Hotel in Helsinki, "when we play ice golf on frozen lakes and
snow, in freezing temperatures, with balls that are purple."
"Yes, well, I imagine they would be," I stammered, but truth be
told, the idea intrigued me. Greenland was among the last
outposts--on Earth or in its orbit--to resist golf's colonial
overtures. Man first walked on the moon in 1969, and within two
years he was golfing there. Greenland was first inhabited 5,000
years ago, yet it had only a nine-hole track near the main
airport, in Kangerlussuaq, to show for it. Until two months
before our arrival, the game had never been seen in Uummannaq,
and when the Sikorsky touched down outside the village, I had an
irresistible impulse to plant a numbered flagstick, as if
landing at Iwo Jima.
A week before our visit, 200 of Uummannaq's 1,400 residents had
turned out for a golf clinic conducted on a makeshift driving
range: the frozen fjord waters that surround the island. "I
think it is very difficult to hit this ball," said Jonas
Nielsen, a 58-year-old resident, after taking his hacks off a
rubber tee. "But the young kids, they are very interested and
would like to learn more about this game."
As well they should. Greenland's 56,000 residents, 80% of whom
are Inuits (the word Eskimo is best avoided), are said to be
temperamentally suited to golf. "One thing about Greenlanders,"
wrote Lawrence Millman in his Arctic travelogue Last Places,
"they tend to find misfortune amusing."
You have to, on Greenland or in golf. "When they contacted me
many months ago to attend this event," said Ronan Rafferty,
referring to the tournament's sponsors, "I thought it was a
joke." Rafferty, a 35-year-old native of Northern Ireland, was
the leading money winner on the European tour in 1989 and a
member of that year's Ryder Cup team. He was paid by sponsors to
attend the WIG, but a wrist injury would prevent him from
actually playing. Mercifully he had his own wines shipped to
Greenland, and he was toasted at dinner by the mayor of
Uummannaq as "Ronan Rafferty, the famous golfer which I never
Rafferty arrived the night before I did with another party of
golfers and journalists. All told, 20 competitors and 20
noncompetitors, representing six nations, attended the WIG. From
Holland came Lex Hiemstra, who won the trip in a contest and was
often asked if second prize was two tickets. Joining me from the
U.S. were Starrett and Mark Cannizzaro, a New York Post golf
columnist who turned up some instructive literature on local
custom. "The stomach of a reindeer is like a large balloon, and
the green substance in the stomach has a very particular smell,"
read the section headed Food and How We Eat It in a Greenland
publication. "It is neither delicious nor revolting, but
somewhere in between." This would prove useful, as our menus for
the tournament would include whale jerky, blackened musk ox and
Jane Westerman joined my table at the welcoming dinner in the
Hotel Uummannaq. Westerman, a widow from England with a newfound
love of golf ("I'm quite keen, really"), is a member of the
Roehampton Club in southwest London. "We have bridge, croquet
and golf," she said. "But hardly any ice golf a-tall."
Peter Masters, also English, asked Westerman where exactly the
club was located. "It's near The Priory," she replied. "Do you
know The Priory? The upmarket psychiatric hospital?"
Masters did not know The Priory, but soon enough, surely, we all
would. Outside the hotel, hundreds of Greenlandic sled
dogs—frightening creatures resembling wolves—wailed all night
at the moon. A message posted in the hotel said that alcohol was
forbidden in guest rooms. A man explained that a drunk once
wandered out and lay down among the dogs. In the morning all
that was found of him was a button. A single button.
"What's the saying?" Masters asked, with more portent than he
could possibly know. "Mad dogs and Englishmen...?"
It was 15 degrees below zero when I rose to play a practice
round with Starrett. On the course he stood up his stand-up bag,
and its plastic legs snapped in half. The bag collapsed to the
ice, legs dangling at odd angles, like Joe Theismann's.
My own legs buckled at the beauty of the layout. The course was
constructed entirely of ice and snow, nine holes laid out like a
bracelet of cubic zirconiums on the frozen fjord waters
surrounding Uummannaq. Fairways doglegged around icebergs 10
stories tall. This is what Krypton Country Club must look like.
My disbelieving eyes popped cartoonishly, and I had half a mind
to pluck them from my face, plop them in a ball washer and screw
them back into their sockets to see if the scene was real.
The fairways were snow-packed and groomed and set off by stakes
from the icy rough. The greens, called whites, were smooth ice,
like the surface of a skating rink. No amount of Tour Sauce
could get a ball to bite on these whites; bump-and-run, I could
see, was the only way to play.
The hole itself was twice the diameter of a standard golf hole,
and players were allowed to sweep their putting lines clean with
a broom. Other winter rules were in effect: All balls in the
fairway could be played off a rubber tee, while balls in the
rough could be lifted and placed within four inches of where
they landed, on a line no closer to the hole. My own balls,
alas, were not purple, but rather optic-yellow low-compression
Titleists, replete with the WIG logo.
I discovered many things during my practice round of ice golf: I
discovered that any given golf shot is 30% shorter in sub-zero
temperatures than it is at 72 degrees. (The course was
appropriately abbreviated, at 4,247 yards for 18 holes.) I
discovered that it's difficult to make a Vardon grip in ski
gloves, to take a proper stance without crampons and to find a
ball that had landed in fresh powder. But mainly I discovered
this: That with suitable clothes, no spouse and no desire for
country club indulgences—caddies, shoeshines, combs adrift in a
sea of blue Barbicide—there is nothing to prevent you from
playing golf anywhere on Earth, in any season, any day of the
That alone seemed a more worthwhile discovery than anything
Admiral Peary stumbled on in the Arctic.
The WIG had a shotgun start. Except that a cannon was used
instead of a shotgun, and the cannoneer reportedly suffered
powder burns on his face and had to be treated in the village
hospital. The next shotgun start employed an actual shotgun.
I was playing with Masters, an editor at the British magazine
Golf World and a seven handicapper. On the 2nd hole, a 284-yard
par-4 with an iceberg dominating the right rough, Masters
uncoiled a majestic drive. As he did so, a team of speeding dogs
pulling a sled abruptly appeared to our left, 200 yards from the
tee box. The ball was hurtling up the fairway at speed x, the
dogs were sprinting toward the fairway at speed y, and suddenly,
as the two vectors approached each other, we were witnesses to a
complicated math problem sprung horribly to life.
With what can only be described as a plaintive wail, one of the
dogs collapsed. The rest of the team kept sprinting, dragging
their fallen comrade behind the sled so that he resembled a tin
can tied to the bumper of a newlywed couple's car. The driver
glanced back at the dog and, with barely a shrug, continued to
mush. Greenlandic sled drivers, in sealskin jackets and pants
made of polar bear pelt, are not given to great displays of
emotion, and the entire hallucinatory vision quickly disappeared
into the white glare of an Arctic horizon.
Masters couldn't have anticipated this ludicrously improbable
event, but a Danish woman following our foursome—she composed
our entire gallery—repeatedly accused him of huskycide. "How
could you?" she kept saying. "We are guests here." What the sled
driver made of this act of god—a single optic-yellow hailstone
falling from the sky and smiting his dog—is lost to history.
The very next hole was a righthand dogleg—a word our foursome
now studiously avoided using in Masters's presence—around an
iceberg. I sliced consecutive tee shots on top of the berg and
never recovered, especially as I had exhausted my one sleeve of
optic-yellow Titleists and was now playing with the most garish
range balls in my bag. Masters, shaken, carded a 40 on the front
nine but recovered his composure to post a three-over-par 75 for
At day's end Englishman Robert Bevan-Jones, whose record 31 on
the back nine gave him a first-round 70, held a one-stroke lead
over Scotsman Graeme Bissett. My first-round 99 left me in 18th
place and in a powerful melancholia, especially considering that
the tournament lasted but two days. We had come all this way,
and it was already half over. Long after the round ended, I
remained on the fjord, seasonal affective disorder setting in,
and lost myself in the endless white.
I was wallowing in a profound silence, two miles from Uummannaq
on the frozen fjord, when my driver, a Dane raised in Greenland,
broke the spell. "Uummannaq means 'heart,'" said Christian
Dyrlov while tracing a valentine in the air with his index
finger. "Because the island is shaped like a heart, or like the
back of a woman."
Hours later, back in my room, I unfolded a map and concluded
that it would take the entire imaginative arsenal of a
powerfully lonely man, in a frigid climate, at a far remove from
the rest of the world, to see Uummannaq as even vaguely
resembling a valentine. Or the tapering back of a beautiful woman.
It was beginning to look like both to me.
Saturday night in Uummannaq began uneventfully enough: The
dinner was verbally hijacked, as usual, by the speechifying
representative of Drambuie, who kept urging us, somewhat
salaciously, to nose his product. Two clowns performed. Then a
few of us walked through the restaurant's kitchen. Which is to
say, through the looking glass.
Behind the kitchen in the Hotel Uummannaq, should you ever find
yourself there, is a disco. Greenland, I kid you not, is a
hotbed of something called Arctic Reggae. Alas, the headliners
on this night were not Bob Marley & the Whalers. Rather, two
aspiring rock stars from Moldavia took the stage, and they
introduced themselves as Andy and Andreas. One played keyboards,
the other guitar. "Our band is called Tandem," said Andy, or
possibly Andreas. "You know, the bicycle with two seats?"
Andy and Andreas, singing from a notebook filled with
handwritten lyrics to Western pop songs, performed phonetic
covers of such unforgettable standards as Unforgeteble ("Like a
song of love that clins to me/How a follow you that stins to
me") and Country Roads ("Almost heaven, Vest Virginia/Blue Ridge
Mountain, Shenandoah River"). A toothless woman forced me, at
beerpoint, to dance with her, while leathery Inuit fishermen
watched our group of golfing toffs and scrawny scribes pogo to
the music and decided—for reasons known only to them—not to
kill us with their bare hands.
"Why do you laugh during Mustang's Alley?" Andreas (or maybe it
was Andy) asked as I flipped through his notebook at a set break.
"It's Mustang Sally," I replied, and a lightbulb buzzed to life
above his head.
"Ahh," he said, as if his world had finally begun to make sense.
Forget love and Esperanto: The only two international languages
are music and sports. While Greenland has a home-rule
government, it remains a province of Denmark, and just 14 hours
had elapsed since Denmark played Italy in a qualifying match for
soccer's European Championships. The match had been broadcast
live on Greenland's lone television network. This qualified as
event programming; the fare on another day consisted principally
of a travel agent riffling through brochures for tropical resorts.
I now understood why our gallery had been infinitesimal earlier
in the day. Oblivious to golf, Greenlanders are soccer
obsessives. The only permanent athletic facility visible in
Uummannaq is a soccer pitch. Every fifth child wore a Manchester
United ski cap. Man United's goalkeeper is Peter Schmeichel, who
is also captain of the Danish national team. Additionally,
England had played Poland that afternoon, and Man United star
Paul Scholes scored all three goals for England.
So wired Uummannaqans were not ready to retire when the disco
closed at 3 a.m., and we all repaired to a house party, which is
when things began to get surreal. Just inside the door was a
pair of size-20 clown shoes. Fair enough. On a shelf were
several impressive ivory souvenirs—swords, perhaps, or walking
sticks—that are difficult to describe. An English photographer
was twirling one like Mary Poppins's umbrella when the Faroese
hostess materialized to say, "I see you found my collection of
walrus penis bones."
The clown shoes belonged to a 31-year-old American named Joel
Cole, who was visiting Uummannaq from his native Shakopee,
Minn.—a town nearly adjacent to the one I grew up in. The odds
against us meeting near the North Pole were roughly 6 billion to
1, but by this time I had come to expect anything in Uummannaq.
Cole was once the national track and field coach for the Faroe
Islands and led them to a respectable showing at the 1989 World
Island Games, a kind of Olympics among Greenland, Iceland, the
Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, the Faroes, Shetlands,
Gilligan's and so forth. Cole now clowns—he used the word as a
verb—in the world's underprivileged places for the real-life
Patch Adams, whom Robin Williams portrayed in the film of that
name. Indeed, Cole was the man who had clowned us at dinner just
before we nosed our Drambuie. Said Cole, memorably, "I've
clowned in Bosnia."
By 6:30 a.m. the evening was running out of steam, and I made my
way back to the hotel with four journalists turned English
soccer hooligans. As all 29,000 of northeastern Greenland's sled
dogs howled in unison, we strolled the streets—or, rather,
street—of Uummannaq and sang (to the tune of Kumbaya, My Lord):
He scores goals galore, he scores goals.
He scores goals galore, he scores goals.
He scores goals galore, he scores goals.
Paul Scho-oles, he scores goals.
I was due to tee off in two hours.
I neglected to answer my wake-up call. I neglected to request a
wake-up call. And I certainly neglected to "spring ahead" one
hour in observance of daylight saving time. So I missed my tee
time. Which is why in the final WIG results, listed in several
international newspapers the next day—from the New York Post to
The Times of London—my name would be followed by the
ignominious notation WD. Which stands, I gather, for Was Drinking.
Having officially withdrawn from the WIG, I was free to follow
the leaders. The gallery pursuing the final foursome on this
soccer-free Sunday numbered several hundred townsfolk, whose
mittened applause sounded like a million moth wings flapping.
Ronan Rafferty emerged from the hotel to watch the tournament
play out. "You can cut the tension with a knife," someone said
to him when three strokes separated the top three players with
three holes to play. "Not really," said Rafferty. "You could
maybe chip away at it a bit...."
The improbable leader, by a single stroke, was Peter Masters,
who had put his game and life back together after dropping a dog
in the first round. When he finally holed a short putt to win
the first WIG with a final round of 67, two under on the
tournament, he was rushed by a jubilant gallery. An old woman
thrust a napkin at him, and Masters, brand-new to Greenlandic
fame, didn't know whether to blow his nose or sign his name. He
signed with a felt-tip pen. "Being on the other side of that,"
said the journalist, more accustomed to interviewing golf
champions than being one, "was surreal." There was that word
"What does Peter win?" asked Graeme Bissett, the Scotsman, who
finished third, two strokes behind Masters.
"A 10-year exemption," I speculated.
Bissett chewed on this and said, "From coming back?"
On the contrary, returning is almost compulsory. Masters won an
all-expenses-paid trip to defend his WIG title next year.
Organizers were quite keen, really, to make this an annual
event. Said a representative from Royal Greenland, the
prawn-and-halibut concern that co-sponsored the affair:
"Bringing golf here shows we are not a static society." Imagine
that. For the first time in recorded history, golf was a symbol
of unstodginess: of forward-thinking, bridge-building
Life is too often like the stomach of the reindeer, I reflected
at dinner: neither delicious nor revolting, but somewhere in
between. We had all come to the end of the Earth to be delighted
or revolted--to be anywhere but in the everlasting in-between of
daily life. In that regard Greenland—without sunlight in
winter, without moonlight in summer—succeeded on a grand scale.
"There are many difficulties here," said the mayor of Uummannaq.
"The difficulties are darkness and harsh weather." He paused and
added, "But there are also many beautiful times. The beautiful
times are days like this."
The men, women and children of the Uummannaq village choir
appeared from nowhere and began to sing a cappella in their
native tongue. One didn't have to speak Greenlandic to recognize
the hymn. It was Amazing Grace.
In that instant it occurred to me: Uummannaq is a Rorschach
test. It really does resemble a human heart, for those willing
to look long enough.