Until they build a golf course on the moon, I'm convinced I've just played the wildest one in existence. The Himalayan Golf Course is set in an amphitheater of snowcapped mountains, including Mount Everest and seven more of the world's ten highest peaks. It's likely the only layout where you'll need a Sherpa as a caddie. Luckily, one is provided.
The course is in Pokhara, a sleepy lakeside resort forty minutes by air from Nepal's capital, Kathmandu. Pokhara is a strange mix of cosmopolitan and exotic backwater. Monks with shaved heads wear maroon robes and high-top sneakers. Restaurants show pirated versions of first-run movies—sometimes prior to their U.S. release—but to get to them your bicycle-rickshaw driver has to dodge the cows wandering the streets.
I check into the best hotel around, a gorgeous oasis appropriately named Shangri-La Village. The concierge raises an eyebrow when I tell her I want to try the golf course. Feeling compelled, I add, "Because it's there."
She shrugs and calls for a car. The course is only seven kilometers from the town center, but in anything less than a Hummer, figure on it taking over an hour. The "road" is really off-road, filled with rocks and pond-size puddles and still more cows.
As we approach the ramshackle clubhouse, we pass a motorcyclist on his way out. He turns back around to meet us. It's the pro, and he seems genuinely thrilled by our presence. When I look at the guest book, I can see why—the last visitor came in more than a month ago. I hand over the equivalent of thirty U.S. dollars to cover the rental clubs and nine-hole fee (the course has nine holes but also offers eighteen-hole rounds).
Accompanied by the pro and, because he has nothing better to do, my driver, I head over to the range armed with a set of vintage MacGregors. There are exactly seven range balls available; two are smiling back at me. But the pro has devised an efficient system, stationing a Sherpa 175 yards out to run down my shots and return them, seven at a time. The pro, who professes an eight-handicap, says he is impressed with my game but apparently not enough to pass up his lunch hour to join me for the loop. I'm introduced to my Sherpa, Pirim, a snaggletoothed man of indeterminable age wearing flip-flops. He carries the bag backward.
The first hole is a slight dogleg left with two interesting features: the rough, which is so rough it seems to have swallowed the fairway whole, and the green, which (like those on some Scottish courses) is ringed in barbed wire to keep out the cows. I hit a good drive. Pirim informs me I have thirty yards left. This seems unlikely, because I'm at least a seven-iron away. Maybe he's working in meters. My second shot is just short, leaving a ticklish pitch between the middle and top strands of barbed wire. I end up with a six-footer for par, but since the green is as thick as most fairways—maybe they should let the cows in to mow the grass—it's no wonder I Alice it a foot short.
The second hole is also flat, and the rugged putting surface once again stops short my jab for par. But the third tee box is jaw-dropping, the reason this course exists. It looks out on a monstrous gorge with a 250-foot drop-off. A monsoon-swollen river rushes through the middle of the valley below while over the opposite lip the Himalayas rise majestically above a bank of clouds. Circling high in the sky, cutting through the air like a curved blade, is a golden eagle.
I can just make out the flag, a pinprick of white on a far-off green that makes me wish I'd brought binoculars. (This is listed as only a 330-yard par four—I'm sensing a trend.) Juiced up, I take a mighty swing and the ball lands, well, somewhere far below. Pirim, who still has not figured out how to carry the bag, happily announces, "I find."
The slippery descent down the gorge is harrowing, but I somehow survive and Pirim somehow does find the ball and I somehow get it onto the green and I'm somehow able to power the ball into the hole for my first par. No one is happier than Pirim, who thinks he is caddying for a real professional, except maybe the driver, who thinks he's getting a good tip for acting as my gallery.
Number four is 495 yards long, along a snow-fed mountain stream, but the most memorable thing about it is the beautiful young Nepali woman beating clothes clean in the water. You don't see that on a lot of golf courses. You also don't see a Sherpa running down the side of a mountain to deliver umbrellas, as I do on the fifth hole when a drizzle starts, or a herd of bellowing cows, like the one I have to play through on six.
And you very rarely come upon my situation on the seventh, a par four where I nutted a drive and am vainly searching for the flag to aim my approach. "No pin," Pirim informs me sadly. "Where is it?" I ask, still plotting my first birdie. "Monkey broke stick and took flag," he replies.
But the absolute highlight of the day comes on the last hole. After a good drive and a sliced second, I pitch onto the green, where a young black cow has managed to get inside the barbed wire and apparently closed the door behind itself. I unhook the barbed wire and step through the green, ready for another long, slow par putt. The cow, startled, turns and lowers its head as if about to charge. I can only raise my putter, which otherwise hasn't done me much good.
It is Pirim's moment. He steps forward like a toreador, and suddenly his carrying the bag backward makes perfect sense. The cow, distracted from me, turns toward Pirim, but he's already at its side, crowding it through the hole in the fence. It is a masterful performance, and the driver and I applaud the Sherpa bullfighter. I miss the putt.
The climb back up to the clubhouse may not rival Hilary's assault on Everest, but I am just as glad to have a Sherpa by my side. I celebrate with a lukewarm local beer in the clubhouse and a last look at one of the true wonders of the golfing world.