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The Loneliest Links

Ten thousand five hundred and ten miles from the blustery Scottish promontory where golf was born, a solitary duffer—yours truly—leans on a nine-iron under a towering palm, his forehead bathed in sweat, his mind racing with questions. What am I doing on this extravagantly remote volcanic knob in the vast Tasman Sea?More precisely, how did golf come to an island so small and isolated that it doesn't have a daily or even weekly newspaper, an ATM or a single Starbucks?Above all, will anyone notice if I take my miserable tee shot over again?

Pondering the big questions is only natural in a place as cut off from humanity as Lord Howe Island, home to the loneliest golf course on earth. Separated by nearly 500 miles of ocean from any significant landmass, this tiny bump of sand and stone between Australia and New Zealand is virtually unknown even to Aussies, whose government oversees the place. Direct telephone service wasn't available until 1987. Cable TV is impractical, leaving residents to rely on satellite dishes. The last time anything truly newsworthy happened here was when islander Rosemary Fenton was crowned Miss Australia, and that was in 1960.

All of which is fine by me. I have come to Lord Howe Island to be alone with golf; to let nothing come between me and my game but the thirty-seven-inch steel shaft in my bare hands. The modern game suffers from too many distractions—the pro-shop trinkets, the snack carts, the condo culture, the nineteenth-hole karaoke bars—and I want no part of it. Give me a ball and a club and some fetching out-of-the-way fairway and soon I will show you a man completely at peace.

I admit there are more convenient spots to whack a golf ball (say, the lunar surface, where astronaut Alan Shepard swung in 1971), but there are few courses as heartwarming to the golf purist as Lord Howe Island Golf Club, and even fewer as spectacularly scenic. Around here, not even history gets in the way of the essential "golfness" of golf. It's believed that Lord Howe's early settlers—a ragtag team of Tasmanians, New Zealanders, Australian aborigines and former American whalers with wives from Pacific islands—showed no interest whatever in the sport of golf. There are no weatherworn putters in the island museum, no colorful tales of visionary hackers washing up on wayward British vessels. As I take yet another mulligan off the maddening second tee, I am participating in an island tradition that goes back roughly, well, one generation.

The truth is, nobody's really sure how long the nine-holer (most golfers play it twice for a par-sixty-two total) on Lord Howe has been around. One tale has it that the course began as a patch of green in a cow paddock where a woman named Lea slapped battered golf balls around. What's certain is that fourteen years ago Geoff Hatton, a Sydney-based golf architect, revamped a scrappy old local links as part of a barter agreement. "Geoff said, 'You give my family and me a week's holiday on the island and I'll design you a course," says Island Golf Club president Tony Cameron. Using equipment borrowed from the Lord Howe Island Board, Hatton did the heavy work of shaping nine holes. Then Cameron and his golf buddies did the rest. The result was a tight 2,073-yard course that stretches along a swath of rugged South Pacific coastline rivaling anything you'll see at Big Sur. There's plenty of island charm, too. On the fourth and fifth holes, I found myself hitting over a dam that cut straight across the fairways to mounded greens that curved like upturned saucers. Number nine, the only par five, features dams, dips and distance. More baffling hazards abound as well. "If you hit a bad slice," says naturalist Ian Hutton, who leads bird walks through the course, "you might end up hitting a shorebird that's just flown in from Siberia."

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