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Playing in the Parks
In Death Valley, only a true duffer finds water in the desert. Twice.

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?

* * *

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.

Three more mis-hits later I make the green, two-putt and head to the second tee confident that the worst is behind me. And since you're wondering, yes, I am playing alone. I tried to team up with other players, but a weathered dude manning the pro shop advised me not to wait around. "Slow season," he said. "I doubt you'll see anyone else out there."

The second hole, a 144-yard par 3, wraps around a reedy pond into which I promptly whack two balls. Triple bogey, and a question: Ponds? In Death Valley?

The water for all of Death Valley's concessions comes from a vast regional aquifer that is fed from as far away as the northern Sierra Nevada. Xanterra uses aquifer water for its hotel swimming pools, then recycles that water to fill the ponds and irrigate the course.

"It's natural spring water, and we don't treat it -- no chemicals or anything," says Joel Southall, director of environmental health and safety for Xanterra. "Having a golf course in the driest place in North America seems to run counter to [responsible water use], so we only use the minimum amount we need."

In the pond I see some beautiful scythe-beaked ibises, none of which seems particularly perturbed by my bombardment. The birds are another pleasant surprise, with coots, orioles and other species making regular appearances at the ponds. Xanterra even built a birding platform overlooking a pond between holes 6 and 7, and Southall swears it draws non-golfing visitors in cooler months.

On the third and fourth holes, irritation turns to annoyance as shots I would normally hit respectably hook, slice, ricochet and, in one case, dribble pathetically off the tee.

I want to, but can't, blame the nice set of Hippo XXL clubs I had rented from the pro shop. Nothing wrong with them.

* * *

My next instinct is to claim fatigue from a horrid night of sleep in Vegas, the two-hour drive to the park and a morning hike through the baking desert of Desolation Canyon, a mix of serene, velvet-smooth slot canyon and scrubby badlands a few miles east of the golf course.

Hiking is a big draw here. At 3.4 million acres, Death Valley is the country's largest national park and offers hundreds of miles of trails and thousands more miles of free-range wilderness. It's not always hot: High season for most activities, including golf, is November through March, with highs in the 60s and 70s and lows in the 40s; the coldest temperature ever recorded in the valley is 15 degrees. The hottest: 134.

In summer, the smart people head for the hills: The Panamint Mountains rise virtually straight up from the west side of the valley floor, topping out at 11,049 feet on Telescope Peak, a basin-to-peak rise of more than two miles; across Death Valley are the Amargosa Mountains, dusty slopes with geologic striations the color of wheat, almond, sand and pink marble, with some peaks above 6,700 feet.

Back on hole No. 7, good things happen. I hit a dart of a drive, 250 yards down the middle of the fairway, skirting the birding pond and setting myself up for a 50-yard chip to the green, a two-putt and par. As I stride to the tee on No. 8, I imagine birders on the platform turning their binoculars away from the rare desert chicken to catch a glimpse of me, the savvy upstart threatening for the lead.

My play will reduce my head to normal size soon enough, but no matter: Most golfers are drawn here by the locale and not by any delusion that this is the next stop on the road to Augusta.

"This is cool because you're playing golf in Death Valley," Mike Price tells me later at the 19th Hole bar. He and a group of buddies, ranging in age from about 30 to 60, are here on a motorcycling trip from the Seattle area. They are well lubricated and friendly, and most are wearing biker-themed T-shirts. "Most people wouldn't think you'd have this here," he says. "This course isn't best in the world, but it's really playable. You see the coyote? He was on 10 a little earlier."

I play the back nine better than the front but remain inconsistent, and, it turns out, I can't assign any blame to the negative altitude, says John Bohn, a physics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who has studied baseball flight.

"If you compare a baseball hit at sea level to one hit in Denver, a well-hit fly ball will travel an extra 20 [to] 40 feet, and that's at a mile above sea level," Bohn explains. "So if you're looking at a golf ball traveling a couple hundred yards [at 200 feet below sea level], I would think the change in daily barometric pressure would pretty much make it a wash" -- i.e., not affect the distance of a drive at all.

Xanterra's Southall, a 4-handicap golfer, confirms this. "I grew up playing in Boston, basically at sea level, and I can't tell a difference here."

* * *

I spend my last few hours in Death Valley getting out of Death Valley (the basin, not the park). I drive north from the Furnace Creek area, through 25 miles of haunting, empty desert to the milky silhouettes of the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, a 14-square-mile, Sahara-like aberration where parts of the original "Star Wars" movie were filmed, and 30 more miles up Emigrant Canyon Road, into the foothills of the Panamints.

The road climbs past 1,000 feet in elevation, then 2,000 feet and up farther from there, and suddenly I feel like I'm in another park. Wildflowers appear on the edge of the road, desert gold, purple Mojave aster and blood-red blossoms, and soon I roll up my window against the chilly air.

At about 6,000 feet, I park next to the Wildrose kilns, a line of 10 beehive-like structures, each standing 25 feet tall, that produced charcoal to fuel silver-lead smelting in the area in the 1870s.

Behind the kilns I start up a trail, a sweater in my pack, through a thin piney forest that is way more "Colorado mountainside" than "bone-bleaching desert." Two hours later, sweater on, I stand on the 9,064-foot summit of Wildrose Peak with a view clear down to the valley. Across a wide ravine is Telescope Peak, still clutching snow in its upper reaches. In this thin air, I think I can get there with a 5-iron.

John Briley last wrote for Travel about kite-surfing in Florida.

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