In May of 1596, a Dutch expedition under the command of Willem Barents set off across the Arctic Ocean, hoping to sail to China by the Northeast Passage, the hypothesized water route sweeping north of Russia and Siberia. By the end of August, Barents's ship was trapped in ice off the godforsaken shore of Novaya Zemlya. The men carried all their goods onto land, cobbled a hut out of driftwood and settled in to endure the first Arctic overwintering ever attempted by European explorers.
Remarkably, only two men died during the long, dark months, though virtually all the crew were afflicted by scurvy (Barents, in fact, would die of the malady in June 1597). Like all Renaissance sailors, these men believed that vigorous exercise was a proven antiscorbutic. Thus in early April, as soon as it was light enough, the men (in the words of the expedition chronicler) "made a staffe to plaie at colfe, thereby to stretch our Jointes." In subsequent weeks, the sailors regularly left their hut "to exercise their bodies with running, goeing, playing at colfe and other exercises, thereby to stirre their ioynts and make them nymble."
Exercise, it turns out, has no effect in preventing scurvy. But in whacking their homemade balls with homemade clubs about the ice at 76º N, those doughty Hollanders paid homage to the true and ancient quintessence of golf, which has more to do with rambling about the hinterlands than it does with crafting pars on the manicured greens and fairways of today's effetely circumscribed courses.
Colfe was all the rage in the Netherlands at the end of the sixteenth century. Contemporary etchings (one of them by Rembrandt) show spheroids the size of croquet balls and clubs that look more like field hockey sticks than three-woods. The game was often played in winter on the frozen canals. In the etchings, there is nary a pin or cup in sight: The point of the pastime self-evidently resides in the sheer joy of knocking the bejesus out of the ball. Some Dutch even believe it was they, not the Scots, who invented golf. In any event, all those early linksmen were kindred souls. One does not picture a Highland laird or shepherd in the fifteenth century kneeling over his twenty-foot putt, caddie whispering in his ear. One pictures him clad in a kilt, flailing his oblate pellet cross heather and gorse as he tours the nearby hills and lochs: not a good walk spoiled, but a cross-country frolic enhanced.
And when the urge to explore has taken adventurous souls far from familiar linksland, golf has traveled with them. First it was those Dutch seamen, then Alan Shepard on the moon and now, inevitably, an Everest climber who just this spring took ball and club with him to the highest point on earth. I myself, a mountaineer of a certain seriousness, have submitted to the desire to beat golf balls in uncivilized corners of the earth. I finally had to ask myself: Why?What is the connection between the impulse to explore and the urge to launch golf balls into orbit?Or, put another way: What's wrong with me?
Long before I played my first eighteen holes at the local country club, the fundamental spirit of golf was borne home to me one magical day at age ten, in the front yard of our house on Bluebell Avenue in Boulder, Colorado. There, of a summer afternoon, my brother Alan and I liked to hit fungoes to each other with our twenty-eight-inch Louisville Slugger and scuffed-up hardball. Our mightiest drives reached the front lawn of Mr. Hamilton's house, all the way across Nineteenth Street, a solid 120 feet from home plate.
That special day, I discovered a well-used golf ball in the gutter, the first I had ever seen. I bounced it on the sidewalk, gasping at the height of its recoil. Then I positioned Alan right in front of Mr. Hamilton's plate-glass window, a good thirty feet beyond our tape-measure baseball pokes, tossed up the golf ball and swung from my heels.
The tiny white missile sprang from the bat in a titanic arc, easily cleared Mr. Hamilton's whole house and, when last seen, was careening through the sunflowers in the prairie wasteland behind Mr. Davenport's house, well beyond Twentieth Street. "Geez!" I screamed. "Look at that!" Alan had turned to stare at my blast, hands on hips, as disconsolate as Andy Pafko in left field at the Polo Grounds that fateful day in 1951, watching Bobby Thomson's homer cost the Dodgers another pennant.
I went on, in my late teens and twenties, to become a mountaineer rather than a golfer, leading thirteen successive expeditions to Alaska and the Yukon, where I made many first ascents. Compared with a bivouac on a two-foot ledge in the middle of an all-out blizzard, the challenge of a nasty lie in the rough seemed a bit banal.
With the mellowing of middle age, however, I made my tentative reacquaintance with golf. It was clear to me by now that the game was best enjoyed not at the country club, but—as Barents's men well knew—on the fringes of the wilderness. So in 1994 I spent a halcyon week with an old crony in the Austrian Tirol, hiking and golfing. One day we would play a quaint mountain course, pitching approach shots over dilapidated hay sheds. The next, we would scramble up a daunting Klettersteig (a steep route abetted by cables and spikes) in the soaring Kaisergebirge mountain range. We perfected this fusion of pastimes, however, on a handsome peak called the Gamshag, up which I packed my rusty three-iron and a half-dozen golf balls. From the summit ridge, we took turns blasting these projectiles into the void, yelping with joy and astonishment just as I had at ten in my front yard. My buddy's best hit, I later calculated from the map, traveled 572 yards in the air.
After I celebrated this folly in an article for an adventure magazine, I got a call from a producer for the television show Extra. "This is amazing!" she gushed. "You've invented a new extreme sport!" (Evidently she was deaf to the tongue in the cheek of my prose.) Not one to pass up a chance for more adventure-golf fun, I agreed to the filming of a segment for the show.