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Golfing in Death Valley

© Misha Gravenor Scorecards from the Edge

Photo: Misha Gravenor

When we teed off at noon, we figured we had the course to ourselves. Who else would be out there in 120-degree heat?But as I walked off the tenth green, I saw we had gained a companion: a mangy coyote emerging from a grove of salt cedar trees, eyeing me a little too warily.

The folks at Furnace Creek had warned us of the dangers of heatstroke, but no one had mentioned coyotes. All I needed after my double bogey on ten was a heat-crazed carnivore looking for a baked-human lunch—on a golf course laid out at the foot of the Funeral Mountains, no less.

Turned out I didn’t have to worry. This beast wasn’t in a lean and hungry mood. He plopped himself down on the green, as exhausted as I was. “Don’t worry,” friends back East had said, “dry heat is different.” Dry heat?Don’t believe it. Heat is heat, and this was heat that made the blade of my putter too hot to touch. Heat that made grass crunch beneath my feet. Suffocating heat that made every stroll down the fairway feel like a walk into a fired-up pizza oven.

My buddies Joe and Bill, a couple of relatively sane Philadelphia lawyers, were riding in the cart. They said the breeze made their eyeballs hot. I wouldn’t have known. I was walking. Slowly. Very slowly.

As I shouldered my bag for the hike to the eleventh tee box, I turned back to see several birds coasting a few feet over the coyote’s head. The scrawny predator gave them a passing glance, then rested his head back on his front paws, tongue hanging out, panting.

That’s when it hit me: When it’s too hot for natives to walk, maybe hiking eighteen holes at Furnace Creek, carrying a bag, might not be the wisest way to spend a Saturday afternoon in mid-July.

What was it Noël Coward wrote, about mad dogs and Englishmen venturing out in the noonday sun?He forgot to include one species: middle-aged golf loons, and clearly mad ones at that.

Goodbye, Death Valley.” That’s what the pioneer wife legendarily said in 1849 as she turned her back on this desolate desert basin after her party was rescued from a monthlong exile in the hottest place in the hemisphere. They had taken a wrong turn en route to the goldfields. Miraculously, only one of the would-be prospectors had died.

More than a century and a half later, I found myself heading into the same valley. Why?Because it’s there. Because there’s nowhere I won’t go to play golf—and Furnace Creek is about as nowhere as you can get.

I’ve played in six inches of wet snow. I’ve played in wind strong enough to boomerang a nine-iron shot behind me. Eventually I started to get curious about where the limit lies: Is there a point at which golf stops being fun?If there is, I thought I might find it on a course that lies in one of the two hottest places on the planet (the other is in Libya). What if I played that course on July 15, forecast to be the hottest day of the year, teeing off at high noon in the worst of the heat?Would that beat a good day at work?

Which is how I came to be barreling down a heat-shimmering two-lane highway a couple of hours northwest of Vegas, headed to Death Valley National Park by way of Area 51 and the nuclear test site in Jackass Flats. I watched my rental car’s dashboard thermometer climb steadily as the road wound inexorably downward, surrounded by a landscape as lunar as you’ll find anywhere outside the moon itself. (Why they call it a park is beyond me. One guidebook swears Death Valley sports more than nine hundred species of plants, but during my ventures into the blighted landscape over three days—including a visit to the bizarre Devil’s Golf Course, a misnomer for more than fifty square miles of jagged rocks made of salt—I saw exactly two.)

When I passed below sea level, the thermometer hit 112.

I had begun my descent into golf madness.

The Furnace Creek Golf course, first laid out in 1931 next to two major date farms and extensively renovated and beautified by Perry Dye in 1997, is the world’s lowest course, sitting 214 feet below sea level. The oasis of choice here is the Furnace Creek Inn & Ranch Resort. Unfortunately, the storied Mission-style Inn is closed during the summer. Which leaves, for those warped enough to play Furnace Creek at that time, the more humble Ranch, a motel-like layout replete with a saloon, a coffee shop, a general store, a steak house and a pool. The pool is warm. In fact, all of the Ranch’s water is warm in the summertime—you couldn’t take a cold shower here if you wanted to. Don’t ask me why there are sunlamps in the bathrooms.

When we checked in, management enthusiastically proffered tourist literature, including a visitor’s guide to Death Valley with a cheery tale of the guy who recently hiked into the desert for fun. It was only 110 degrees. But that was in the shade. He died. And he wasn’t carrying golf clubs.

In the summer, of course, the first tee is wide open. No reservations are necessary. But certain preparations are required. Like liquid—as much as we could load into a couple of insulated bags provided by the resort. The desert sun is deceptively draining, we would discover: It doesn’t make you sweat. It just sucks you dry from the inside.

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