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Golfing in Death Valley

© Misha Gravenor Scorecards from the Edge

Photo: Misha Gravenor

Laid out in 1978 so the workers from the local borax and soda-ash processing plants could have something to do in their down time, Klaus’s course isn’t all sand. A few of the tee boxes, looking like ancient burial mounds rising from the desert, sport patches of scruffy, balding grass. The greens are actual greens. Well, sort of. They appear to be fertilized by jackrabbit scat. There are no man-made bunkers, however—the whole thing is a bunker.

The sand itself comes in all consistencies: hard, soft and everything in between. Some of my shots bounded an extra thirty yards. Some plugged. But every square inch of sand was hot. At one point, I reached down and placed my palm an inch above the ground. I could feel the heat pulsing up from below.

My shot of the day was a forty-foot putt on the fifth that traveled from sand to jackrabbit scat to rough grass to the green and to the pin, where it clanked so loudly it startled me, then dropped with a clunk into the hole. It was at that point that the overwhelming silence hit me. Other than the occasional whistle of a freight train six miles away in Trona, there were no sounds at all. At Furnace Creek, the absence of sound had been peaceful. At Trona, it was spooky and increasingly unsettling.

Soon, along with the silence, the huge, unrelenting sun (think Lawrence of Arabia) and the occasional “breeze” consisting of pure extra heat, came the sense of being truly, irrevocably alone. Back in the real world, I enjoy a solitary round now and then. Here, I would have welcomed even the mouthy guy you dread hooking up with on the random muni who has to tell you his life story. Hell, after a few holes, I would have welcomed a coyote or two. With the clubhouse now padlocked and empty, I was miles from any living thing. Even the rattlers had the sense to stay out of sight.

That I was able to string together bogeys on the first five holes was a testament to my ever-quickening pace. I wasn’t pausing to overthink my shots. I was hitting them as soon as I found them, instinctively, and they were flying straighter than usual.

There was, I thought at some point, a lesson there. But it quickly evaporated from my mind. Because it was also on the fifth that I took the final step down into madness—well, into a place where, clearly, some gray matter had been baked away and I was running on empty.

I’d nailed my drive, hefted my golf bag, grabbed the sloshing bag (now down to its last two pints of warm water), turned to continue trudging—and suddenly couldn’t remember where I’d hit the ball ten seconds earlier.

I had a vague memory of a golf shot. But was it on this hole or the last?I replayed my swing in my head. In my mental replay, it looked like a lot of my other swings. But I did have a fairly certain feeling that I’d hit the ball straight. So I hiked off the tee, zigzagging vaguely around the sand, and eventually was pleased to come across a purple golf ball (I forgot to mention that white balls are invisible in vast stretches of desert). I unshouldered my clubs, dropped the water bag and hacked the sucker another 150 yards. Toward my final bogey, my last respectable hole.

Of the par-three sixth hole, I have no memory whatsoever.

On the tee-hump of the seventh hole—a 371-yard par four that seemed to stretch for at least two or three miles ahead of me—I had enough sense remaining to realize I had to make a serious decision, even though I hardly felt capable of logical thought. Do I keep going for foolish pride’s sake, or do I give it up and hike back to my car, admitting that my quest was in fact a genuinely dangerous folly?

For by now, this round of golf was not comically insane, it was truly insane. If I were felled by heatstroke, when might someone find me?Next Sunday?Next December?I had visions of a skeleton sprawled with a golf bag on its back, rattlesnakes winding in and out of its rib cage. With a raven or two standing nearby. Panting.

I had reached the point of return.

But my golf brain was still operating. I figured that if I had to make the walk in anyhow, I might as well hit a few more shots on the way. In the end, the famous axiom was proving itself: Bad golf, like bad sex, is still good. And golf in the desert beats walking over sand with no purpose at all, other than living to talk about it.

So I poured the last pint of warm water over my head and finished my round. Made a triple bogey on nine to post a 52. The hundred yards from the last green to my car was the longest walk of my life. The drive to a general store in Trona for a gallon of Gatorade was the longest mile I’ve ever navigated.

The drive back to Furnace Creek was two hours of air-conditioned bliss. Immediately I went and dove into the pool—warm water had never felt so refreshing. On a lounge chair I sipped a Lobotomy Bock and toasted myself, smiling idiotically at the uncomprehending German couple in the deck chairs to my right, who smiled right back.

I had survived. I’d found the outer limit, and gone past it. I’d played the real Devil’s Golf Course: nine holes of match play pitting golf against sanity.

Not surprisingly, it had turned out to be no match at all.

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