Who Needs Grass?

By: David Wood

In the 35 years of torturing myself with the foolhardy endeavor of trying to put a golf ball into a little round hole, grass seemed to be a necessary component of the game. Just as vinegar needs oil, peanut butter needs jelly, and Brooks needs Dunn - I figured golf needed grass. Golfers know grass. I may not know the difference between Bach and Mozart, but I sure as hell know the difference between bent and Bermuda. However, I found a golf course that proves grass isn't all it's cracked up to be.

The dusty boomtown of Arica sits at the northern tip of the extra-long-stiff-shafted-one-iron that is Chile. Arica is wedged between the Atacama Desert - the driest place on earth - and the scarcely inhabited dustbowl of southern Peru. Grass in that region is as scarce as a gimme eagle putt. There are towns in the area that haven't had rain in recorded history. I asked a local when the last time it rained was. After several moments of intense thought, he replied, "It might have rained for a second-or-two 25 years ago. Or was it 30? I don't remember."

Thirty years ago, some Arica folks got together and decided that they weren't going to let a little dilemma like no grass stop them from playing the world's oldest game. They built the Club de Golf Rio Lluta - a 6,570-yard course that is one of the most enjoyable golfing experiences I've ever had. By the way, in Spanish the word "Rio" means river. The Rio Lluta (River Lluta) is a river in the same way that lard is a health food. Perhaps, it's just wishful thinking.

One's first look at this course is one of the strangest a golfer will ever have. From the clubhouse perched on a hill overlooking the entire course all you see can see is brown and more brown. The only thing breaking up the achromatic color scheme is a series of white-painted lines that serve as the boundary definitions of the 18 fairways. It looks like 18 crime-scene chalked outlines of murdered giants who have been carted off to the morgue. You then begin to notice small black circular pools periodically spaced around the sand hills. It takes a second or two to realize that those are the greens!

Just because there's nothing but dirt, don't think there aren't hazards. The Club de Golf Rio Lluta has created water from stones. When you hit your ball wayward into an area with blue-painted rocks - you're in a water hazard! The locals have a sense of humor. In some of these "watery graves" you see shark fins rising up out of the sea of dirt just to let you know that you're indeed in peril. You can walk "on the water" to retrieve your ball, but that's all you can do. You have to play your next shot as if it's in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Fish it out of the drink and take your penalty.

Green-painted rocks are considered the rough and your ball can be played as it lies. But think twice about it if your ball is resting near one of these green mini-boulders - they can't be moved. You swing at your own risk - to your health and that of your club.

This is a course where hitting the "fairway" is a premium. Each golfer carries a green piece of Astroturf that can only be used if your ball is between the hole's chalked boundary lines. You have a much better chance of hitting the "green" from your piece of synthetic turf than trying to make it directly off the turf (so to speak). The putting surfaces are a mixture of dirt and used motor oil that has been sifted together. Each player is given a flat wooden rake that is used to smooth the black ground between your ball and the hole before putting. Once smoothed, the greens roll remarkably true.

As if all this weren't odd enough, after all the players have holed out, one player takes the five-foot wooden pole with iron-mesh netting attached that resides behind each green and then drags the putting surface clean of the footprints just created so the golfers in the next group will have a smooth surface for their approach shots. It's hard to put backspin on a well-struck iron when it lands in Bigfoot's shoeprint.

What a pleasure to find golf in this converted wasteland. Though there are only 30 golfers in the entire area, they are as keen on the ancient game as anywhere I've traveled. I finished the round caked from head-to-toe in a coating of grime and, months later, I still find dirt that crept into the crevices of my golf bag.

But I'd go back in a heartbeat. Grass is overrated.

This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on July 27, 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.

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