Just north of the Chilean city of Iquique, a giant wall of sand rises up like a petrified tidal wave. On its far side lies the Atacama, the world's driest desert, a 40,000-square-mile wasteland not unlike the surface of the moon. No plant life grows here, not even cactus. In fact, in parts of it there is no record of rainfall—ever.
Thankfully, the desire to golf knows neither bounds nor reason, which explains the existence of the Club de Golf Playa Blanca, located roughly forty bone-rattling minutes by car into the desert. Although a marginal golfer, I am a connoisseur of the exotic. So when I heard about Playa Blanca while traveling in northern Chile, I was drawn to it like Darwin to the Galápagos Islands.
The rough road to Playa Blanca is lined by animitas, shrines to highway tragedies in the form of wooden crosses. When it comes to intimidation, it has Magnolia Lane beat by a mile. I steered my rental car past a gate to the brick-and-stone clubhouse, where I found Hector Ruiz, a grizzled local, manning the desk.
In Spanish, Ruiz recited the golf course's history: European mining executives from the saltpeter boom of the 1910s brought the game to this unlikely spot, sketching out a course for fun. "They wore white overalls and rode horses between holes," said Ruiz, who caddied at Playa Blanca during the Second World War. "Originally the holes were peach cans buried in the sand. Now we are certified and official, just like a normal course."
Ruiz then warned me that a day of golf at Playa Blanca is an abbreviated affair that typically ends by noon, when daily windstorms, especially in summer, send dust devils ripping through the area like mini tornadoes.
Just like a normal course.
Luckily, I had arrived at 8:30, in time to squeeze in a full eighteen. After I paid my $15 greens fee and borrowed a set of clubs, Ruiz handed me my "grass," a piece of truck tire perforated with bushy plastic spikes. This improvised Astroturf, he said, would be both tee box and fairway.
I joined a threesome on the first tee: a local marine officer, an electrical engineer and a Taiwanese businessman whom the others (speaking English) called "Playboy." I shook their hands, dropped my mat on the sand, placed my ball on it and swung away.
The first thing I noticed is that Playa Blanca is, essentially, a work of fiction, as neither water nor vegetation exist. "Water" is outlined by blue-painted rocks laid out in lagoon-shaped pods. Bunches of green rocks serve as trees. The greens, far from green, are a mixture of seashells, sand and motor oil spread around the hole.
I had played my share of desert golf, but this was something else. Case in point: On the eleventh, a simple 132-yard par three, my seven-iron clipped a corner of the carpet, scurrying the ball low and embedding it in a dune. I hacked into the buried lie and flew the ball over the green into a "bunker," a scooped-out hollow lined with ground seashells. Several unmitigated disasters ensued, and by the time I'd sunk my last putt, my partners were already on the next tee.
I wanted to hurry but . . . did I mention that at Playa Blanca scorpions are known to hide in the cups?