A frustrated Santa said he had given up the game. "I still open some tournaments here and there," he said. "Years ago I took lessons from a pro. But when he went back to America, I didn't continue." Santa peered at me over his reading glasses. "That," he said, "is off the record."
I could see why Santa, like the president of the U.S., would want to conceal his athletic allegiance. But I could not retroactively render his comments off the record, no matter how badly that might screw me next Christmas. Anyway, he made no secret of his other sporting passions. On the walls of his workshop—a place the size of a two-bedroom apartment, located in a Santa-themed shopping complex—hung photos of Santa with numerous Olympic skiers and ski jumpers who have trained near Rovaniemi. Indeed, the town's soccer team in the Finnish professional league is called FC Santa Claus. "They're Second Division right now," Santa said, "but they have a very good youth program, so they might get to First."
But by far the biggest sports buzz in Rovaniemi centered on the grand opening of the city's new golf course. Nine holes of the Arctic Golf Club were inaugurated just two days before our visit, and the remaining nine were expected to open in September, at which time the AGC, on the Arctic Circle itself, would become the northernmost 18-hole course in Finland. And, I dared believe, the northernmost 18-hole course in the world.
We asked Santa if we might see reindeer roaming the fairways at the AGC. He couldn't promise anything, but Marja-Leena had thought we would. "There are many reindeer in Rovaniemi," she said. "Maybe you see them on the course, yes?"
I desperately hoped so. I had just procured a talismanic publication from the Swedish Tourist Board that publicized Björkliden Golf Club, a nine-hole course some 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was an entire day's drive from Rovaniemi but appeared to be well worth the pilgrimage: A photo showed a Laplander golfing in a golden twilight while a reindeer looked on in silhouette, a bag of clubs evidently slung across its back. "Welcome," purred the pamphlet, "to the world's most northerly green." Björkliden was, by every objective estimation, the earth's northernmost golf course of any size.
Bob told Santa that we were off to shoot some reindeer. (I reminded the nonplussed Santa that Martin was a photographer.) Then suddenly, upon stepping outside Santa's workshop, we saw our first such creature: a stuffed, burglar-proof reindeer wired to steel stakes in the ground. We repaired for lunch to the five-star Strindberg Brasserie, next door to the workshop, and saw still more of the cuddly creatures. The menu offered slightly salted smoked reindeer, sauteed reindeer Lappish-style and—sigh—porotournedos (tournedos of reindeer). I declined such Blitzen blintzes and set out instead in search of a live one: a reindeer that would carry my clubs, a reindeer that would replace all my divots, a reindeer that would wear a white jumpsuit with my name stitched across the back.
At 7 a.m. on the longest day of the year, on an otherwise empty course, I faintly heard bells jingle, and they seemed to play Jingle Bells. Through the pines of the Arctic Golf Club I espied a large bearded figure in a flowing red cloak, a belled red nightcap and fur-fringed boots: Santa was putting out on the dewy 9th green, a fact confirmed by Bob's dramatic photographs. Only the day before, Santa had claimed to have given up the game. But that was, thank goodness, a happy deception—what a golfer might call a "good lie." Santa was, in fact, a regular Andy North, a veritable David Frost, a virtual Don January.
That afternoon, in the parking lot of the Arctic Golf Club, I met Ville Vehviläinen, a 21-year-old in a Seattle Mariners cap; Mika Pekkala, a 22-year-old in a Chicago Bulls cap; and Jani Meriläinen, a 23-year-old in a red-and-white replica jersey of London's Arsenal soccer club. Lovingly preserved on Jani's golf bag was a British Airways destination tag, LHR, for London Heathrow. "Jani bought his clubs in London from a man who said he sold clubs to [Arsenal star] Dennis Bergkamp," Ville said skeptically. Ville served as interpreter for the threesome. Jani spoke only four words of English to me, possibly the only four words of English he knew. "I like Nick Faldo," he said, grinning broadly.
"Tiger's all right," Ville said when I asked the guys what they thought of Woods. "He's O.K. He can play a little bit. He's pretty good." The others laughed at this sacrilege. "Everyone talks about him too much," Ville said. "He is all you hear about." (Memo to IMG: You have overexposed Tiger even in the Arctic Circle.)
Before the Arctic Golf Club opened, Ville and his buddies played on a nine-hole goat track along the river in Rovaniemi. "The old course here sucked," Ville said.