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Golfing in Death Valley

© Misha Gravenor Scorecards from the Edge

Photo: Misha Gravenor

“If you start feeling light-headed, nauseous or dizzy, come back in,” advised Phil Dickinson, the resort’s director of sales and marketing, as we headed out at noon. “Don’t let yourself get weird out there.” I didn’t tell him that my golf game is always weird.

Golf shop supervisor Kim Sleichter showed us his stash of ice at the back of the nineteenth hole. “You’ll need it,” said Sleichter, a man of few words. Then he wished us well, locked up the pro shop and went home, leaving us alone on the first tee—save a couple of ravens, which were standing in the shade with their beaks open, panting. I’d never seen a bird pant before. But then, these birds were wearing all black.

My friends hadn’t come along to test their mettle or flirt with disaster or consider philosophical questions. They were there for the golf. Bill, a ten handicap, was looking to pile up a handful of birdies on a course that on paper seemed easy. Joe, a hacker who had given up the game a month before, was coming out of retirement for one reason alone: “I want to shoot a score lower than the temperature for the first time in my life,” he announced.

Mostly, they’d just come along for the ride, in a well-stocked cart. They couldn’t for the life of them comprehend why I insisted on walking—or why I’d allowed myself no concessions. I’d be carrying a full bag. After contemplating various sartorial options (I’d considered donning full Bedouin attire), I decided to dress the way I would to play a regular round. I didn’t even discard any of the dozen-plus balls I usually carry as insurance against my wicked slice. I was going to play it like a man. Or die trying.

Furnace Creek, a short (6,236 yards) par seventy, is under normal conditions a pleasant test, suitable for golfers of all skill levels. The fairways, largely unbending, are wide and fair. The greens are sloping and tough—especially in July, when despite irrigation they’re deceptively slow: They can’t be cut down too low, or they’ll expire.

Because of underground springs, water actually comes into play on a few holes. And on the second hole, before the sun really began to settle into my brain, I cleared the pond that crowds the green of this 144-yard par three, planting my tee shot thirty feet above the cup (and then three-putting). On these first few holes, I even managed to take in some of the aesthetic surroundings. The towering, multicolored mountain ranges. The exotically shaped salt cedars. The dozens of species of birds, drawn to the only aboveground water for hundreds of miles.

But by the time we reached water again, after I had hiked the par-five dogleg-right fifth and faced the lake that fronts the sixth tee, the heat had taken hold. I planted my first two drives in the lake. And was sorely tempted to follow both of them. I could feel myself dehydrating from the inside, like a grape turning into a raisin. By the seventh hole, I was slugging liquids after every shot and taking detours to every spot of shade I could find as I weaved down the fairways.

Even riding in the cart, Bill and Joe kept feeling the need to soak their heads in the ice water that sloshed in our insulated beverage bag. At one point, Joe’s key-chain thermometer climbed past 140. Maybe it had been in the sun too long. Maybe it really was 140. More likely, the mercury had been hanging too close to the baking blade of Joe’s E-Club—or, as we dubbed it after he’d flubbed another wedge attempt, his F-Club.

In fact, none of us was scoring worth a darn; my par on the short par-four ninth was our first. Then again, it’s difficult to string together two decent shots when your main concern isn’t which club to grab but which bottle: water or Gatorade?On top of that, the elevation—214 feet below sea level, remember—shaves dozens of yards off drives.

But we finished the round on an up note, with Bill’s forty-foot putt dropping for par. We then headed for the pool, which was surprisingly crowded. Apparently, Death Valley is a destination for French, German and Italian vacationers drawn by the exotic landscape. (They are, of course, too sane to play golf.) Amid the splashing bevies of young European women frolicking at poolside, we deconstructed our round.

Joe, with a 106, was delighted to have beaten the temperature. “What a great day to give up golf!” he said, mixing drinks with the airline bottles of gin he’d procured from the resort’s general store. Bill, after only three pars and no birdies, sipped a bottle of Lobotomy Bock—appropriate, considering the brain cells we’d lost on our round—and complained under his breath. He was so bummed with his 94 that he failed to notice the Eurobabes in bikinis. My score: an even 100.

After dinner and a bottle of merlot, we decided to drive into the desert in Bill’s convertible, top down, air-conditioning blasting, to a spot called Zabriskie Point—the title of the 1970 film that the late Italian virtuoso Michelangelo Antonioni hoped would be his masterpiece. It was a box-office flop, arguably the worst movie Antonioni ever made.

In the daytime at Zabriskie Point, you can hike up a steep knoll to take in an astounding view of badlands rock formations and the salt flats in the valley. At midnight, of course, all you can see is inky blackness. So we splayed out on the hood of Bill’s car and waited for our Tony Soprano moment. (In one of the last episodes of The Sopranos, you may recall, Tony drove into the desert, tripped on peyote, watched the sun rise and shouted, “I get it!”)

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