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The Elemental Golf of Punta Arenas

By: David Wood


At 53 degrees south, below the equator, Punta Arenas - in the heart of Chilean Patagonia - has the unpleasant distinction of having one of the largest holes in the ozone hovering menacingly over its head. I know there are folks who view these silly atmospheric gaps as voodoo science, but those naysayers might want to visit Punta Arenas where there are several weeks each year when school children aren't allowed out for recess because of the ultraviolet rays shooting down from the deadly sun.

As I was getting ready to play golf there and not wanting to look like the Grim Reaper after a few hours with my skin exposed to the elements, I painted on so much sunscreen the locals probably thought I was either Frosty the Snowman or Edgar Winter, depending on their age or how many drugs they took in the Sixties.

Founded in 1917, the Magallanes Golf Club had the stark look of a forgotten Scottish links left to fend for itself. Small swaths of green grass had started to spout after the long harsh winter. The handful of trees that dotted the course looked to be in no hurry to sprout leaves on their gnarled fingers. Wind swept over the course like a hurricane. It was golf at its most rudimentary as I imagined it might have been in the 1700s in the Kingdom of Fife.

There is indeed a Scottish history to Punta Arenas. Scottish immigrants flocked there in the latter 1800s to seek fortunes in the wool and gold booms of the time. With the abrasive winds and lonely seascapes, the Scots would have felt right at home. Luckily, they brought their national game along with them and built the golf course on the outskirts of town.

It was hardly ideal golf weather during my visit. The wind blasted from the southwest and the white-capped stormy waters of the Strait of Magellan spewed artic-cold spray over the large boulders that bravely tried to stop the relentless pounding of surf.

The sky was a shade of pale blue that I had never seen before. It seemed more atmospheric than sky - the blue molecules appeared sparse and hanging on for dear life. There was a thin feel to the air as if a well-stuck golf shot could pierce its fragile veil and soar directly into outer space. There was little doubt I was on the fringe of the golfing world.

There are only 17 golfers total in Punta Arenas. They were listed along with their respective handicaps on the wall just inside the small wooden one-room clubhouse that was a sanctuary of warmth from the frigid wind. Fortunately, I arrived at the same time as the only other golfer who would show up on that blustery day - a Chilean Naval captain and fellow golf-nut named Arturo.

To the chagrin of his wife, Arturo spends every minute of his off-time playing as much golf as he can. Arturo, 32, is as addicted to the game as any person I've ever met. He told me he dreams of being a great golfer - his hero is David Duval.

I asked Arturo why there were only 17 golfers in Punta Arenas - a city of 120,000. He cited two reasons. The first was that if you were lucky enough to have a job you seldom had any time off. The second was the cost. It was simply too expensive for locals to buy equipment and join a club. Arturo could play cheaply because he was military officer. His monthly dues were $30.

This was my first crack at golf so far south on the globe. I wore most all the clothes I had brought for the trip and the cold wind still was getting to my shivering flesh. Arturo and I braved the elements and hit our drives off into the first fairway of brown tundra. The course played up and over a hillock and then down into a shallow valley which offered at least a bit of shelter from the gale off the sea - which was almost continually in view and no more than a few hundreds yards due west.

I played in mighty gales before during visits to Scotland and Ireland - two countries familiar with violent winds. In 1998, I played on the west coast of Ireland after Hurricane Danielle roared through the Caribbean. Ireland sits on the same Gulf Stream as those tropical islands.

During that trip, the Emerald Isle was receiving the harsh remnants of Danielle with intense wind and pounding rain. I was there to play golf during some of the worst weather anyone could remember in decades.

The storm followed me up the west coast of Ireland like a shadow. As I walked through the violent gusts to the first tee at Rosses Point, an excellent course in County Sligo, I met an Irish golfer who attempted to play during the storm. He found the weather too difficult to navigate and was walking back to the clubhouse after a few holes. It was the first time he had done so in 30 years of golf! He gave me a friendly warning, "Good luck lad, you're gonna need it!"

It was worse in Punta Arenas. I had never played in that strong of a wind. The gusts were up to 60 knots - according to Arturo. Having not paid attention during any science class in high school, I didn't actually know how fast a knot was, but since my golfing partner was a navy captain, I took his word for it.

It was brutal. At one point, when teeing off on the ninth hole, Arturo popped his ball straight up into the air directly into the teeth of wind and the ball landed 20 yards behind us! It was funny and we both laughed at the craziness of what we were doing. We stuck it out and finished the round, although we had to walk backwards most of the time into the wind because it was slapping us so harshly in the face that you couldn't keep your eyes open. It was golf at its most rugged.

I asked Arturo after the round if that wind was unusual.

"No, today is normal," he said. "I've played in much worse."

This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on September 15, 2006.

David Wood - writer, corporate speaker, and humorist - is the author of the soon-to-be published book "Around the World in Eighty Rounds." With several appearances on "Late Night with David Letterman," Wood combines humor with his love for golf and adventurous travel. For comments or inquiries on having him speak to your group, contact David at David@DavidWoodSpeaking.com. His website address is www.golferdave.com.