"Santa Claus," sighed Mitchell.
Yes, Virginian, there is a Santa Claus. In 1993, Mitchell coached Père Noel, Father Christmas, Babbo Natale, Kris Kringle, Joulupukki: Santa Claus answers to all of these names, often on his red Nokia phone. (Finns are the highest per-capita users of cell phones in the world; it is not uncommon to hear a golf bag bleating during your backswing.)
As a golfer, Claus was no Ernie Elves. He knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good, but he swings a club like a bunker rake. "He's a big guy," Mitchell said. "If he had any kind of swing at all, he could hit the ball far."
I thanked Mitchell for this frank violation of pro-pupil confidentiality and then set out to find Claus for myself. His workshop is in Rovaniemi, 45 miles north of Tornio—latitude 66° 33'07" N, to be precise, literally on the Arctic Circle. (There really is a dotted line across the pavement, as on your globe at home.) By the way: Lest you think this is all a Sidd Finch-like fabrication, I assure you that every Finn who spoke to me about Santa Claus did so with absolute credulity. "Santa's workshop is in Rovaniemi," Marja-Leena told me matter-of-factly. "He has a big white beard. You can go see him for yourself. Why are you smiling? You be nice to him."
Claus is huge, in every sense of the word: a giant celebrity, second only to the Pope in worldwide recognition. Some 680,000 letters from around the world were posted to Claus in Rovaniemi in 1996, and if that number sounds trifling, it does not include the countless more visitors to his Web site (www.santaclausoffice.fi) or the thousands of petitioners who visit him each December.
An audience with Claus, even in June, would not come easily. Bob Martin and I approached his people about an interview and photo shoot. They said, and I quote: "You'll have to talk to Santa." We did. The genial Claus proffered his business card and agreed to sit for us.
"What should I call you?" Bob asked.
"Call me Santa," he said wearily.
Well, you can hardly visit Lapland without landing on his lap. "Last Christmas," Santa told me in a stage whisper, "the Spice Girls were here." Sure enough, the British birds were posed seductively around Santa, in his workshop, in a photograph dated 12/5/96, at which time the pop group had the No. 1 hit in 100 nations.
We made more small talk: Bob casually remarked that Santa could have gotten several thousand quid had he flogged the Spice Girls photo to a London tabloid. Santa arched a white eyebrow and then told me, "Charlie"—Gibson, of Good Morning America, on which the Jolly One had recently appeared—"was a nice guy." After a few more minutes of niceties, the conversation veered to golf.