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Playing Patagonia

As I leafed through the local paper one summer morning in Ushuaia, at the tip of Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, I came across a photo of a man executing an effortless golf swing, his left arm as high and straight as the mountains surrounding the town. His name was Alejandro Barrera, and he'd just made the first ace at Ushuaia Golf Club, the town's only course and the southernmost in the world. Naturally, I downed my coffee and set off to find it.

Dressed in jeans, hiking boots, T-shirt and Gore-Tex rain jacket—I was halfway through a six-month backpacking trip—I caught a municipal bus packed with adventure tourists heading for Tierra del Fuego National Park. The driver dropped me at the start of a dirt track and I walked in the dust for a mile, until I came across a corrugated iron shack that functioned as a clubhouse.

On the adjacent range, a portly thirty-something pro was teaching a handful of locals. He'd been hired for the season from a club in Buenos Aires. "How's the course?" I asked. "Muy ventoso," he replied. Very windy.

The pro handed me an ancient set of clubs in a canvas bag. Then he pulled out a course map, which he quickly redrew with a black pen, lengthening the first hole by sixty yards ("+60") and changing the order of the other eight, so that the eighth became the second, the fifth became the eighth and so on. Finally, he lent me five striped range balls and one orange one. I assured him they'd be returned. He flashed me a crooked smile and wished me luck.

On the first tee, I placed my ball on one of the rogue tees I always seem to find hidden in my pants pockets, pulled a three-wood, then took a step back and looked around. Steep, jagged, glacier-tipped mountains rose up on either side; to my right, the Pipo River rushed white water through the course's heart down to the famed Beagle Channel and the open sea.

Ahead lay a short, dead-straight par five where, due to the hole's elongation, three former greenside bunkers now pocked the fairway. But sand wasn't going to be my antagonist. The gales coming straight off the sea and up the valley nearly blew me over as I finished my practice swing.

A good drive followed by two scuffed shots left me with 100 yards. I reached for my pitching wedge. There was none, nor was there a sand wedge or a nine-iron. Just then I saw another golfer waving at me from down the fairway. He walked up and introduced himself. Jaime was a course regular. He had a full complement of Ping irons. "You can borrow my clubs," he offered, unsolicited. I would be honored, I said, to have him join me.

Mindful of the wind, I chose to bump my approach shot over the doormat-thick grass until it rolled onto the green. The putting surface was a short, cropped version of the fairway—a muni green with a five o'clock shadow—that demanded an old-fashioned punch stroke. I happily two putted for bogey.

Jaime said that this rough-and-ready course carved from parkland scrub was the dream of the aforementioned Mr. Barrera, a former pro golfer who had moved to Ushuaia only to find nowhere to play. He designed the layout with two friends, and such was the local interest—likely owing to a need to get outside in a place where the weather is palatable for perhaps three months of the year—that the club soon signed up more than eighty members.

The wicked thermals swirling like poltergeists sent my full-blooded swats to places that Jaime, with his compact swing, had surely never seen. After nine long holes, he bid me farewell. I was exhausted: Walking into this wind was like dragging a fifty-pound weight, and my shoulders ached from continually scything the thick rough. But I opted for a second loop anyway. How often do you get to play golf on the edge of Antarctica?

I only made it to eight—or maybe it was five—before I lost the last borrowed ball (the orange one, of course) and made the walk of shame up the ninth back to the clubhouse. I paid the pro for the lost ammo; he bought me a local beer by way of consolation.

It was nearly dusk and the clouds were rolling in, so I started the trek back to the bus. "See you next time," said the pro. I couldn't tell if he was kidding, but I laughed anyway.


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