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Alaskan Golf

But the elements are never entirely out of the picture in Alaska; not even in June. At Palmer, where the cold of the glacier collides with the warmth of the valley, you learn to play with a wind that could hold its own in Scotland. The course is more than seven thousand yards from the back tees and can seem even longer than that. You see a lot of knockdown shots at Palmer. And a lot of them fly the green.

You also see a lot of serious golf that is played, unmistakably, for money. (This is one of those mysteries of the game: You can almost always tell, just by the body language, when there is money riding.) People first came to Alaska to prospect for their fortunes, and they still like playing for high stakes. At Palmer's annual King Crab Classic in July, forty pros compete for a purse of $46,000, with first prize earning $6,000 in cash. They also eat more than two hundred pounds of crab legs.

"Alaskans live hard," Barnhart said. "There is a lot of the frontier spirit left around here. And a lot of the spirit of easy money left over from the pipeline days. We have some golfers who aren't exactly what you'd expect. Guys who work in gold mines. Bush pilots. Hunting guides."

Barnhart himself is probably the only working golf professional who is also a dog musher.

"Sprint races," he said. "Not like the Iditarod."

The dogsled spirit has been known to spill over into the world of golf in the form of something called the Iditagolf. "It's a competition to see how many holes you can play in twenty-four hours," Barnhart told me. "The record is 258 holes. When the guy finished, he could hardly stand up."

Do the math. I did and it made me tired.

That was fatigue of the imagination. I experienced the real thing a couple of days later, on the longest day of the year. My objective was to play three different courses, fifty-four holes, in twenty-four hours. Daylight would not be a problem, but traveling distances and my stamina certainly might be. I was eager to find out.

The day began at Elmendorf Air Force Base and the Eagleglen course, a Robert Trent Jones Jr. design built along the banks of Ship Creek. I was partnered with three Anchorage men—civilians are allowed to play the course—and we teed it up at 0600, military time for real damn early. The air was cool and there was still dew on the fairways. Only the rough gray sand in the bunkers gave the terrain away as Alaskan. That, and the eagle's nest (unoccupied when I saw it) on the eighteenth fairway.

The manners and the dress were what you might expect on a course where there is reserved parking in front of the pro shop for the commanding general. But the layout still had that wild feeling to it. Salmon spawn in the creek that runs along several fairways at Eagleglen, and moose spottings are common, though I never saw one—just a few droppings when I searched, forlornly, for a duck-hooked tee shot. They'd had to close the course one recent morning when a grizzly wandered through. To Eagleglen regulars, this is simply an additional hazard—water, bunkers, bear on course. Prudent thing, I suppose, would be to let it play through.

After I finished my round, I stopped for an espresso to go—size huge, which seems to be standard in Alaska—at a roadside joint. I sipped as I drove out onto the Glenn Highway toward my second round of the day, at the Settler's Bay course outside of Wasilla, about an hour from Anchorage.

The starter paired me with a retired halibut fisherman who hit it a ton and loved to talk. We played, for some reason, out of separate carts and rode down the fairways at full speed, like we were in adjacent lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard, with him telling me about some storm he'd survived or some bear that had trashed his home. Now and then he seemed to forget he was playing, and I wondered if he might not have spent the long winter in a cabin, alone, staring up at the northern lights.

He got a little more engaged on the back nine. It could have been the view of the fjord—or it could have been that I agreed when he suggested we make it interesting. That seemed to straighten out his tee shots. When I paid him what I'd lost, he suggested a beer, but I had to get back to Anchorage for my 6 p.m. tee time—a mere twelve hours after I'd started, and the time of day when I am usually approaching the clubhouse and thinking about a drink.

My third course of the day was Moose Run at the Fort Richardson Army Base, and it was much less formal than Eagleglen—infantry golf. Where Eagleglen was laid out in a flat valley, Moose Run made you feel as if you and your men had been ordered to take a hill and hold it. I was teamed up with a couple of old boys from down in the lower forty-eight who must have been in their seventies. They were touring Alaska together by RV with their salmon rods and their golf clubs.


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