Even under ideal conditions, golf is a demanding game. So imagine what it's like to play on a course where the fairways move, the greens resemble sand traps and the hazards have claws or antlers.
Welcome to the northernmost golf course in the U.S.: Alaska's Fairbanks Golf and Country Club, a mere 165-mile chip shot from the Arctic Circle. At first glance the Fairbanks course seems positively tame—a flat, nine-hole, 3,000-yard layout lined with spruce and cottonwood trees and uninterrupted by bunkers or water. But under the shallow topsoil lurks a thick layer of permafrost, a frozen subsoil that softens or hardens with changes in temperature, causing the topsoil to heave, ripple and gape.
This terra unfirma creates the most treacherous fairways imaginable. A player can hit a shot down the middle, only to see his ball bounce 90 degrees offline, straight for the rough. Or a fairway section may suddenly collapse; just such a mishap once dropped the club tractor and its startled driver into a hole 12 feet deep and 20 feet long.
The permafrost also makes it difficult to cultivate grass for the greens. So the greens here, as in other grass-poor areas of the world, consist of sand mixed with motor oil. Highly lofted balls end up buried in this gritty compound, which requires players to rake a flat path to the hole before every putt. According to club manager Eddie Dean, the course could have real greens if the club were willing to put in a very expensive irrigation system. But no one has pushed for it.
Then there are the roving hazards—the massive wild animals that roam the area freely and show golfers no respect. One Chicago visitor watched in dismay as a bear became entangled with his golf bag and dragged it off into the forest, bouncing it off trees like a drunken caddie as it went. And Dean will never forget making a blind shot that conked a mother moose. The injured party chased Dean to a nearby radio station and trampled his abandoned set of clubs before returning to her calf.
But despite the wildlife, most of which remains aloof, and the uncertainties of playing on top of permafrost, an outing on this course is normally a delight. During the season, which runs from May through September, temperatures are usually in the 60s or above, rain is infrequent and the peaceful forest bordering the club is a bright, vibrant green.
A visitor can rent clubs and a pull cart for $4.25 a day and squeeze in as many holes as he likes for $5.50. These fees are even more of a bargain than they may seem, because a Fairbanks summer day can have almost 22 hours of light. And no matter what your score is, whether you break the nine-hole course record of 28 or challenge the worst-round record of 115, set by a tipsy barmaid who had consumed her own concoctions, the club will award you its Greens' Badge of Courage, a certificate testifying that you survived a round on the northernmost golf course in the U.S.