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Alaskan Golf

Early on one of those Alaskan summer days that have no precise beginning or end, I was sitting at the right shoulder of a pilot who looked like a Klondike prospector. He was checking the instruments and listening through his headphones to aimless radio chatter while we waited to take off from Lake Hood, on the outskirts of Anchorage, Alaska, the busiest floatplane base in the world. Our destination was the Kenai Peninsula and a lake near Soldotna. My golf clubs were in the seat behind us.

We watched a Beaver (a plane, not a mammal) lumber down the lake and take off. Then my pilot ran up the r.p.m.'s, checked his mags, wiggled his flaps and fire-walled it. The plane built speed steadily across the water and, finally, the reluctant pontoons broke free and we were airborne.

In a Cessna 206, you feel small and pleasantly vulnerable, flying low enough to see the world beneath you and slow enough to study it. The pilot caught sight of a herd of caribou and made a wide circle around it. They fed indifferently, their antlers still in velvet. Mount Redoubt and the peaks surrounding it looked especially white and massive across Cook Inlet. From this piece of airspace, the scale of Alaska hits you with real force.

Flying out in a floatplane for a round of golf suddenly seemed like less of a stunt and more the sovereign way to go. Better, even, than a helicopter. I'd been here for a week and played more than I do in an average month, including a marathon fifty-four holes on three different courses the previous day. (It was the summer solstice, the day that really never ended.) So I might have been content to fly lazy patterns over Alaska all morning long, absorbing the vastness of the terrain. But the flight was inspiring me to tear up more tundra: There was golf to be played.

There are fewer than two dozen golf courses, including the nine-holers, in the entire state of Alaska. Meaning that there is less golf here—by far—per square mile than in any other state in the union. That there is golf at all in Alaska is a surprise. That it is so good, and seems to fit so well up here on the frontier, is a revelation.

"We have a real short season," Rich Sayers, head pro at the Anchorage Golf Course, told me on my first day in the state. "But we also have some real intense players. They've been storing it up for a long time. You can't put it off till next week when you live here. You have to play when the sun shines."

The course is on the southeastern edge of Anchorage, nestled in the shadow of O'Malley Peak, a strikingly angular formation in the Chugach Mountains. A long, sharp dogleg par four is part of a redesign on the front side, and as golf holes go, this one is undeniable. Steeply uphill through a narrow fairway lined with birch and spruce, it takes a hard left—almost ninety degrees—about two hundred yards out. From there, the hole runs downhill another two hundred yards to a green guarded on the left by water and on the right by . . . well, you could call it sand or you could call it well-sifted glacier gravel. The stuff is the color of charcoal ash.

"You just can't get good sand in Alaska," Sayers said.

But you can grow grass, and he is quick to point out what good condition, generally, the course is in. "But you really need to see it in late July, early August. With all the sun we get then, the grass will be really grown in." (And later, they'd locate some actual sand for the bunkers.) Right now, the evidence of a hard winter—the only kind of winter they have in Alaska—is still there. Boilerplate ice has scoured some of the greens and left dead patches in the fairways. The course, like the state, is raw. You either locate the appeal of that in your golfing soul or you go back to the lower forty-eight and bitch about a little brown grass on the fairways.

To me, it looked like a golf course in full glory. The players on every hole handled the carts as if they were snowmobiles, and about half of them wore jeans and running shoes—proper attire in any warm-weather Alaskan situation—but they were golfers, and this was righteous golf.

When you play Anchorage, you have a view of the city skyline and of a spectacular mountain called Sleeping Lady—the name describes its profile. When you play Palmer, forty minutes to the northeast, beyond the Denali turnoff, you have a breathtaking view of Pioneer Peak, the milt-colored Matanuska River and the Knik Glacier.

Quirks of climate and topography make the Matanuska Valley a good place for golf courses and gardens. (It's where they grow those mammoth vegetables Alaska is famous for, in topsoil that is fourteen feet deep in some places.) A little more than six months before I teed it up at Palmer, fifty golfers had played the course on December 23. The temperature was in the high forties.

"I have the longest season in Alaska," the club's pro, Jeff Barnhart, told me. "I can open in April, with the greens ready, and easily go until late October, early November."

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