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Golfing in Death Valley

© Misha Gravenor Scorecards from the Edge

Photo: Misha Gravenor

All we had for consciousness alteration was general-store tequila. But as I stared at a trillion stars, looking for cosmic inspiration, I realized that despite the overall weirdness of that day’s round, I hadn’t gotten it. I hadn’t pushed the envelope. I hadn’t glimpsed the other side. On some level I’d actually enjoyed much of the day.

After all, at Furnace Creek the air-conditioned bar is never more than several hundred yards from any of the greens. You can always dive into a pond if you feel heatstroke coming on. I had to face it: Midsummer golf at Furnace Creek had not threatened my life. Only my score. Which is why, the next morning, as Bill and Joe drove down to Vegas for their return flight to lawyer-land, I set out in the opposite direction, farther away from civilization.

I was in the desert. The real challenge, it stood to reason, had to be somewhere out there beyond this palmy, irrigated oasis—out where things get really weird.

It wasn’t easy to find a course more extreme than Furnace Creek. I tracked down another eighteen within a ninety-minute drive, but it was on the way back to Vegas, a well-watered layout in Pahrump, Nevada, a town with a main drag clotted by casinos, fast-food joints and the requisite Nevada twenty-four-hour gentlemen’s club. I didn’t want tacky. I wanted a test.

I called the motel in the nearest desert town to the west of Furnace Creek, two hours out of the valley. No dice, said the clerk. No golf there—or anywhere else he knew of. Calls to the park ranger came up empty, too. Finally, I called the county sheriff’s office. The guy on the phone connected me to a substation somewhere else.

“Well,” said the anonymous deputy, “I think there’s something down in Trona. I don’t know if it’s a real golf course.”

I found the town on the road map: a small spot on a small highway in a vast expanse of nothingness. And so I headed for Trona, California, a hundred-mile drive to the southwest, passing en route a cluster of buildings called Stovepipe Wells, where I stocked up on water and paused to read a sinister public-service poster outside the general store. Beneath huge, scary orange letters reading our savage summer sun! was a warning that caught my eye: The real danger in the summer desert, it said, isn’t from the sun above but from the sand beneath, which can reach temperatures of two hundred degrees.

The golf course I was looking for?All sand.

So I drove over a couple of mountain ranges, out of the park, and dropped into the Searles Valley. Just because it doesn’t sound as forbidding as Death Valley doesn’t mean I wasn’t entering the next level of the inferno.

Trona Golf Course is indicated by a small hand-painted sign on State Highway 178, just down the road from a junkyard of rusted automotive hulks, at least one dating to the 1930s. (The entrance to the course was up the road from a sign for Trona Airport, featuring a painted silhouette of a plane. A DC-3.)

No cars traveled the road in either direction. I drove down a long dirt driveway, parked in an empty lot and walked through the creaking gate in the cyclone fence that rings the course. In front of the weathered clubhouse, another warning read caution: rattlesnakes.

I began to feel as if I were in a golf movie directed by David Lynch.

“Yeah, we’re open,” said Klaus Funke, president of the Trona Golf and Social Club, laughing in disbelief at my appearance from out of nowhere—to play a round at noon?In July?On an all-sand course?Klaus and a couple of his friends were sipping beverages at the otherwise deserted counter (remember the hotel bar in The Shining?) as their swamp cooler strained to chill down the old structure. They hadn’t played golf; they’d just convened for a little Sunday refreshment. Klaus took my five dollars with a smile and told me he’d be locking the place up in a few minutes.

“Wait,” said one of his friends, sliding off a stool. “You’ll need this.” He handed me a worn square-foot patch of artificial turf. “Unless you want to hit your irons off the sand.”

I plucked a scorecard out of a rack and quickly surveyed the layout. I’d been expecting an executive course, maybe a bunch of par threes. At most, a series of short par fours.

No such luck. The second hole was a 513-yard par five. The fifth, another par five, measured 490. I had a long walk ahead of me. The thermometer on the weathered clubhouse wall read 120. But then, the dial only went up to 120.

Defiantly stupid, I was carrying a full bag again. Wearing a dark-blue shirt. And, as if I needed the added weight, I was also lugging one of Furnace Creek’s insulated bags, crammed with melted ice, bottled water and Gatorade. I knew I’d need it. Not only was there no water to drink on the course, there was virtually no shade.

As I faced the first fairway from the shelter of one of the few lonely trees, I scanned the terrain: white sand, three-foot-high desert shrubs, more white sand. I teed up a ball and off I went, alone into the void.

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