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Alaskan Golf

They told me about the Kenai Peninsula, where they had played a couple of courses—and fished the Russian River—a few days earlier.

"Got a couple of nice kings, too," one of them said.

It sounded like something worth doing. Or maybe, in Alaska, you just get impulsive. Virtually everyone you meet in Alaska came there on impulse. Some people just can't help themselves: Mention a frontier and they'll head for it.

So on the spot I decided to fly out to the Kenai Peninsula the following day. I'd been playing golf for fourteen hours, and I had another two to go. But I'd never arrived for a round of golf by floatplane, and when you're in Alaska, you get an urge to rack up firsts.

"You'll like it," one of them said. "Lot flatter than this."

"More moose, though," his partner said. "Had one run across the fairway, right in front of me, when I was hitting my approach."

I asked him if he'd flubbed the shot.

"No worse than usual."

I called for a charter that night.

But that was when I was back at the motel and after I'd experienced what, in golf, must be the equivalent of hitting the wall when you're running a marathon. It had happened on the fifteenth at Moose Run.

Vertigo is the official term, I think, and it means you aren't sure which end is up. When it hit me, I took a deep breath, looked out at the horizon to orient myself, and saw the great looming profile of Denali, about 130 miles to the northwest, orange and formidable in the late evening light. It was a sight to make you feel infinitesimally puny.

But it wasn't the vista that had me reeling. Hell, I thought, I'd climbed mountains bigger than that one. I was being done in by golf. I had been playing since six that morning, and it was now closing in on midnight. For someone who had always tried to live by the simple credo "If you can't get too much of something, don't take any at all," it was a bitter defeat. I'd come here to play a golf marathon, and the game, in this land of extremes, had called my bluff. I was ready to quit.

I sighed and took out a seven-iron. It was just under 150 yards to the flag, but I was tired and needed all the club I could lift. Distracted, perhaps, by all this thinking, I hit it thin and flew the green.

Early the next morning I flew to the Kenai Peninsula, where my pilot made a couple of passes over Birch Ridge, and the course's owner, Pat Cowan, sent a car to the little lake where the floatplane docked. It was a short ride to the course, where I drank coffee and talked to Cowan before I teed off. (The coffee thing seems a little redundant in Alaska: No one seems to need much sleep there during the summer. Even so, they drink coffee by the gallon.) Cowan gets a lot of people who want to be able to say they've played golf in all fifty states. But he also gets plenty of serious local golfers, including a Kenai River fishing guide. One of the things that strikes you about Alaska golf—and Alaska in general—is the utter lack of snobbery. It can't survive the winters, I suppose.

I made it around Birch Ridge's nine holes before lunch (after my last few days, this was a mere warm-up), then made the short drive to Kenai Golf Course. There was weather coming, and I didn't especially relish flying back to Anchorage in a storm. Two abiding topics of conversation here are bear attacks and plane crashes. I didn't want to be a story for the locals to tell later.

By the turn, the men I'd partnered with and I were playing rapidly, keeping an eye on the sky and barely bothering to line up our putts. Which didn't really matter, since a cold, rowdy wind was blowing them all over the greens anyway.

The fourteenth at Kenai is a short par three to a green ringed tight with alders. You don't want to be long, and we watched and made admiring noises as a solid eight-iron flew a high arc against the dirty sky. The ball hit about eight feet from the pin and died. While the man who'd hit the shot was busy accepting high fives from the other two players in our group, I lined up my shot and looked down at the green one last time to check the range.

A cow moose came out of the alders and walked, with that absurdly awkward gait, onto the green. "Look!" I said.

And the four of us, accustomed to playing courses where you might see a few semidomesticated white-tailed deer, watched the moose amble across the dance floor.

"Walked right across my line," said the man who had hit the eight-iron.

We beat the rain to the clubhouse, and when the floatplane showed up there was still just enough ceiling and viz to fly. After twenty-seven holes, it seemed like a short day.

But I had a late flight home the next night, so I could probably get in another thirty-six. And, I thought, with any luck at all, I might even see a bear.

For more information on Alaskan golf, visit agagolf.org, kenaigolfcourse.com and birchridgegolf.com.

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