If you should ignore this cautionary tale and fly to Helsinki anyway, and from there clatter eight hours north by train, and from there drive 1,251 miles, deep into the Arctic Circle, in search of the northernmost golf course in the world, 3 a.m. tee times, caddying reindeer, tee boxes built atop saunas, the Swedish Loch Ness Monster, Santa Claus (jolly old St. Nicklaus) and an effective mosquito repellent, then at least promise me this: On the odd chance that you make it home alive, confirm to your friends that this story is true. Every word of it. Even the part about the Spice Girls. Tell them that there really is a place where a man can snap-hook his tee shot into another country—and play it from where it lays. Verify that one can indeed banana-slice a ball so badly that it not only travels backward but also travels back in time. There is no need to corroborate my claim that the yeti exists, for I have unimpeachable evidence on that count: scorecards full of abominable snowmen.
But the rest of these facts you must take on faith, and you have been burned before. In 1994, for instance, this very magazine pronounced the Akureyri Golf Club in Akureyri, Iceland, "the most northerly 18-hole course in the world." Poppycock. The whole of Iceland lies south of the Arctic Circle—Akureyi itself is 60 miles below it—and I have chili-dipped my lob wedge in far chillier latitudes than that.
Take Tornio (rhymes with, and has more mosquitoes than, Borneo). This Finnish town is only 45 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and its 18-hole course was the southernmost stop on my June golf tour of Scandinavia. From Finland to Sweden to the Norwegian border, photographer Bob Martin and I spent seven glorious days and zero fabulous nights beneath a never-setting sun, in a rented Opel Vectra, running down the world's hardiest golfers, occasionally playing with them and urging these good people, whenever possible, to seek immediate psychiatric counseling.
"SPORTS ILLUSTRATED?" asked the desk clerk at the Strand Hotel in Helsinki, examining the address on my bill as I checked out on my first morning in Finland. "Don't tell me you have come for the swimsuits."
"I've come for the golf," I said.
"Then you must come back in the winter, when we play golf in the snow, in freezing temperatures, with balls that are purple."
"Yes...well...I imagine they must be," I stammered before bidding him good day.
So began this strange and epic expedition in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
As recently as 1991 the Green Zone Golf Course in Tornio, a day's train ride from Helsinki, was "said to be the northernmost course in the world," according to the shameless hyperbolists at The New York Times. The Green Zone is not the world's northernmost course—never has been—but it is the only course on earth where you must cross an international border four times during a single round. And that's assuming you keep the ball in the fairway.
The Green Zone clubhouse is in Finland, as are holes 1, 2, 7, 8 and 9. Across the narrow Tornio River lies Haparanda, Sweden, and holes 3, 4, 5, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17. The remaining three holes—6, 10 and 18—straddle the border, as does the driving range: The stalls are in Finland, the 200-yard marker in Sweden.