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A Friend in the Rocks

Everybody knows Icelanders are beautiful Norse gods and goddesses and that Reykjavík is the new "Capital of Cool." But here's a less-known fact: Iceland has more than fifty golf courses. Not bad for a country that's smaller than Ohio and has only 290,000 people. That's more courses per capita than any state in the U.S.

Best of all, one can play them all night. During the summer, the sun shines virtually twenty-four hours a day and the courses are open, though often unattended. (One simply leaves the greens fee in an envelope.)

"We laugh at the concept of weekend golfers," says Gestur Jónsson, the chairman of the Reykjavík Golf Club. "In Iceland you golf on the weeknights and leave your weekends free."

My wife and I spent a three-day weekend in Reykjavík last spring, on an itinerary that was to include revelry in the capital, relaxation at the world-famous Blue Lagoon spa, and golf, thanks to the Gulf Stream, which purportedly provides Iceland with mild winters and cool summers. I was skeptical of the last item—being able to golf in Iceland in March. As it turned out, I was right.

I did check out two local championship courses: the Reykjavík Golf Club and the Keilir Golf Club. Though it's right in town, the Reykjavík club has two eighteen-hole courses. Grafarholt is the better of the two. It's quite hilly and offers outstanding views of the harbor and distant snowy peaks. At 6,626 yards, it seems reasonably easy—if you can keep it in the fairways.

Which is a big if. The rough is hell, with acres of diabolical rock, keeping the course faithful to the native topography. Lava fields cover 12 percent of Iceland and have a melanistic effect on the landscape. Iceland is all about scenery. Everywhere you look you're treated to prodigious vistas: blue glaciers, snowy mountains, roiling seas.

Thankfully, Grafarholt's fairways are adequately padded with Kentucky bluegrass, and the greens are durable. Furthermore, it was explained to me that wayward shots aren't always a disaster: There's so much rock in the rough that a pulled drive stands a good chance of ricocheting back into play, oftentimes advancing the shot. Icelanders call this phenomenon vinur i hrauninu ("a friend in the rocks"). Apparently, many people here believe in fairies. When planning a highway, for example, engineers have been known to choose routes that avoid elf lairs—the elves are very friendly, but you don't want to make them mad.

The Keilir Golf Club, ten minutes out of town, is outstanding, if schizophrenic. The front nine is pure target golf, with landing-pad fairways interspersed throughout lava fields. The back nine, though, is a linksy design reminiscent of great courses in Scotland and Ireland. Both sides are tough: Retief Goosen played the course in 2001 and called it as difficult as any he'd played in Europe.

Alas, it was too cold to play either Keilir or Grafarholt. The temperature was in the fifties, but the howling wind made it feel below freezing. (I wasn't surprised to hear that an old building off the ninth at Keiler was once used to train killer whales.)

Nevertheless, as I drank a hot toddy and contentedly stared out the picture windows of the clubhouse—which have impressive views of the water and the majestic Snaefellsjokull glacier—a hearty middle-aged man and his wife, in goose-down parkas and red wool hats, strode up to the first tee, trailing their carts. Taking their drivers in their bare, fleshy paws, they brazenly teed off.

No sooner had they putted out on the first green than a dazzling blizzard touched down—a complete whiteout, coating everything. In five minutes it was over. In the distance, I could see a trail of footprints leading to the Icelandic couple, headed for the second hole like Heathcliff and Catherine across the moors.

Such is the nature of the Gulf Stream—yes, it makes some northern countries a hundred times more habitable than they might be, but they're far from toasty. Ireland has palm trees, for example, but that doesn't make it Palm Springs.

And take it from me: Reykjavík is cool—but it ain't South Beach.

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