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The Caddie was a Reindeer
August 04, 1997
OR WAS IT? THAT WAS ONE OF THE MYSTERIES THE AUTHOR PLUMBED AS HE DROVE INTO THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, PAST SANTA'S WORKSHOP, IN SEARCH OF THE NORTHERNMOST 18 HOLES ON EARTH
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August 04, 1997

The Caddie Was A Reindeer

OR WAS IT? THAT WAS ONE OF THE MYSTERIES THE AUTHOR PLUMBED AS HE DROVE INTO THE ARCTIC CIRCLE, PAST SANTA'S WORKSHOP, IN SEARCH OF THE NORTHERNMOST 18 HOLES ON EARTH

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I remarked that one must have to apply a great deal of Tour sauce to get an approach shot to stick on a green made of ice. "It is hard to get the backspin to make the ball stop on the whites," said Matti. "That is true."

Ice golf, it seemed to me, has precisely what the grass game so desperately needs: an element of danger, the possibility that you might plunge through the fairway to a watery demise. Or better yet, that your playing partner will go crashing through the green after spending 10 minutes plumb-bobbing his two-foot putt for bogey.

To be sure, grass golf has its hazards in the Green Zone. When he spoke, as when he played, Matti remained oblivious to the mosquitoes that wreathed his head. They looked like a ring of aircraft circling the tower at O'Hare, yet he exuded a maddening Zen calm—in sharp contrast to Bob, a Brit who looks alarmingly like Colin Montgomerie. As Bob stood stock-still taking photographs, he resembled a man wearing a mosquito sport coat and slacks. He whimpered repeatedly at the "bloody mozzies," which were treating him like a full English breakfast, but he was powerless to shake them off. It was torturous to behold, and wildly entertaining. Bob had received 63 bee stings on a recent assignment in Brunei, and he was experiencing a posttraumatic stress disorder that would keep him in painful—or at least very itchy—memories for a lifetime.

"Never run when chased by bees," he would nervously splutter days later, apropos of nothing, a faraway look in his eyes, as we inched ever closer to madness in a remote Arctic village in Sweden. "If you lie down, they'll fly right over you."

But the heart of darkness was still to come. Before I began to question Bob's sanity, before I questioned my own sanity, I was duty-bound to question the sanity of the Green Zone golf nuts. They told me that they were the picture of normality in Tornio and Haparanda. "Everyone plays here," said Marja-Leena. "We have 400 members in the club. Twenty members are older than 65, and 50 members are younger than 21. We have workers, leaders, politicians, juniors. Around here they say it is a—what is the word?—a golf mafia."

When the Green Zone opened in 1991, Erkki Mommo played exclusively with purple Putt-Putt balls, and Matti (Rubber Boat) Similä retrieved all his own water shots in an inflatable raft. Golf balls were scarce and precious in Tornio at the time, but since then Finland has contracted golf fever, a disease that is presumably mosquito-borne.

Finland had fewer than a dozen 18-hole courses in 1980. Since then, another 70 have opened, of which the Green Zone is, for the moment, the most northerly. Finland has 50,000 golfers in a population of five million, and golf balls have become plentiful, raining down on Tornio like hail.

The players have improved commensurately. "I only know a few Finnish words," said the Green Zone's pro, an American named Bobby Mitchell, who spends two months in Tornio every summer. "Knee is polvi, and hip is lonkka. When I first got here, I had to tell these people to unlock their polvis and turn their lonkkas."

Mitchell first came to Tornio in 1991 from Danville, Va., where he had heard about the Green Zone vacancy from a golf coach at Averett College. I was told this story before I met the much-talked-about Bobby, who I assumed to be in his late 20s. I arranged, by phone, to meet him on a Saturday—his first full day in Finland for the summer. He showed up an hour late. His face was crosshatched with age lines. He told me he was 54, but he looked older. "I never would have imagined I'd end up here," Mitchell said when I asked about his life. "Nobody spoke English the first year, and the Finns are shy until you get to know them. The TV didn't have many channels. There were no newspapers that I could read. It was like losing track of time and the world." He paused, then said: "The first few weeks I wondered, What the hell am I doing here?"

This was by far the longest soliloquy that Mitchell delivered. When I asked about his background, he gave staccato answers: Danville native. Caddied as a kid. Assistant pro at the Danville Golf Club. Married to Dorothy, who spends summers at home in the States.

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