Playing in the Parks

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 25, 2008

At sea level, a golf ball struck squarely by an average player could travel about 220 yards by air and 25 more on the roll. In the thin air a mile above sea level, that same ball might fly 230 yards and roll 30. Bring the scenario 200 feet below sea level and, well, all sorts of things happen.

At least they did when I played the Furnace Creek Golf Course, which claims to be the world's lowest course at 214 feet below sea level in California's Death Valley National Park.

On a mid-May afternoon with temperatures near 100 (just another fine day in Death Valley, where summer temps routinely top 115), I step to the first tee. The fairway broadens before me, verdant, flat and straight. I sink a tee into the soft earth and wonder if I didn't somehow get on the wrong flight.

I'd seen photos of Furnace Creek featuring cushy fairways, spongy greens and even marshy water hazards but figured they had to be a hoax: Encompassing parts of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, Death Valley harbors the hottest, driest terrain in North America. Annual rainfall here averages a scant 1.5 inches.

Perfect for, say, a sunscreen clinical trial, but golfing?

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Furnace Creek (6,236 yards, par 70) is one of only a handful of U.S. golf courses on or within national park land. (The course is on private property within the park; it's owned and operated by Xanterra Parks & Resorts.)

That it was rated the 50th hardest course in the United States by Golf Digest seemed logical: I envisioned driving off rock-hard, sunbaked earth and playing all subsequent shots from the world's largest sand trap. For a moment during my pre-trip research, that vision was confirmed: A Web search for "Death Valley" and "golf course" produced images of a spot called the Devil's Golf Course, a searing, cracked salt pan on the north edge of Badwater Basin that looked post-apocalyptic. It took a few clicks for me to realize that this was a fancifully named tourist attraction and that even Satan himself would summon an excuse to bail on his tee time here.

Furnace Creek was built in 1931 as the first grass course in the California desert and redesigned (and expanded) in 1997 by respected course architect Perry Dye. From a layout standpoint, it's not that challenging: The greens are smallish but, beyond that, even Golf Digest asked, "What's hard about a short flat course?" The magazine attributed the difficulty rating to the barometric pressure below sea level and the summer heat.

True to the survivalist aura of a desert, there is no country club scene here, just a basic pro shop, open-air bar and a short-iron driving range. Date palm and tamarisk trees (imported for shade) overhang the pro shop and line many of the fairways.

My first drive is a 120-yard worm burner slowed by the thick grass. (As an average golfer, flubbed drives are a staple of my repertoire, but I tend to recover well.) I trudge after my ball. Seeking to embrace Death Valley's heat and perhaps create added drama, I'm walking the course. Honestly, which story would you rather read: "Average golfer cruises 18 holes in cart" or 'Slightly deranged man courts heat stroke in inhospitable sinkhole"?

Yeah, me too.

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