The shivering thought of playing golf in Iceland would be enough to send chills right up the shaft of your five iron, continue through the arms, shoulders, neck, and head only to trigger one of those stifling brain freezes. That was pretty much the reaction when announcing I was packing my clubs for a journey to a barren island in the north Atlantic just below the Arctic Circle.
Typically, the trip-caddy requests are exhausting but this time, unless people were in tune with the eccentric pop singer Bjork, they were geographically challenged where Iceland lies and just advised me to bring warm clothes and “have a nice trip.” However, a couple of map wizards actually realized this was the same country jolted not too long ago by a large-scale volcano called Eyjafjallajökull but if they were thinking some eruption on a mountain I couldn’t even pronounce was going to disrupt my travel plans, they can kiss my ash!
No doubt this natural disaster brought instant notoriety to Iceland resulting in a lava flow of jokes, but to a country that was still reeling from an historic economic implosion, this event was not funny to the 300,000 inhabitants, none of whom, by the way, live in snow homes. Since first settled by Nordic people in the 9th century, imminent volcanic explosions are a way of life in this fascinating and picturesque country that is made up of green paddocks, giant glaciers, black beaches, massive waterfalls, fjords and constant geothermal activity.
Scattered among these amazing landscapes are 65 – I repeat, 6-5 – golf courses making Iceland truly a nation of golf addicts with more courses per capita than anywhere else in the world. Granted, only 15 are 18-hole layouts and the rest 9 holes but, at 66ºN latitude, it is as close to golfing heaven on top of the world as I could ever dream to get.
Although my June visit afforded me 24 hours of daylight, I wasn’t on the island long enough to play all 65 but throughout the regions I explored, every village outside of the capital city, Reykjavik, seemed to have a golf course where the passion and love for the game – the second most popular sport in Iceland after soccer – could not be questioned. Even if the course owner doesn’t play.
That was evident when my car hooked right off a rural farm road to inspect a beautifully landscaped 9-hole course called Golfklubburinn Skrifla (“hot spring”). I poked inside the quaint, well-built clubhouse where I encountered an elderly gentleman with a full head of snow-white hair sitting solo at one of the tables.
He politely stood up to introduce himself as the owner, Bjarni Gufrafsson and I no sooner had a cup of joe in front of me while listening intently to him educate me about the origin of his property.
As a builder and farmer all his life, the 75-year old Bjarni constructed his course to “give me something to do with my land.” All operations of the course and several small cottages for overnight visitors are run by him and one other employee, whose salary is paid from the hay produced on the farm. So far, it’s turned into a smart business opportunity with the number of players doubling from 500 to 1,000 during the first two years of operation. One of them was notBjarni. He wants to wait until he can hit a ball at least 165 yards with his driver.
To fully appreciate the ultimate experience of playing golf in Iceland, there is a short window of opportunity to visit due to the Icelandic golf season only from late May through early September. At best, the courses are in prime condition for only a couple months. The good news is if you’re there during the precise crack in that window, you can play all day – literally! From the time I arrived in Reykjavik several days after the summer solstice until the time I left six days later, I had endured roughly 154 hours of uninterrupted daylight. The only darkness I experienced was when my disoriented body clock allowed me some shut-eye behind the black curtains in my hotel room.
With spectacular views of the Alftanes peninsula and the famous Snaefellsglacier, one of my marathon golf days began with an early afternoon (I think) round at Keiler GC, opened in 1967 with nine holes. Thirty years later, construction finished on the other nine holes carved out over the moonscaped lava field where, aside from my swing, the only real danger I had to contend with was staying away from the Arctic Terns, a society of medium-sized birds that took up domestic quarters between some of the lava rocks lining the fairways. Get too close and they can become extremely hostile and attack in bunches if looking for a ball in their territory.
After finishing the 18thhole in a light rain (local knowledge dictates if the weather is bad, just wait five minutes), it dawned on me I was only halfway through my golf for the day(s). Following a stop in town for dinner, it was onto the ultimate challenge of staying awake past midnight to play another round. The anticipation of striking golf balls when the clock struck 12 had been building for weeks. My only hope was that I would be able to do what I can’t even do on New Years Eve any longer…watch a bigger ball light up Times Square.
Here I stood on the first tee at Grafarholt GC, the oldest 18-hole golf course in Iceland, getting ready to smack a ball into the crisp evening air at 8:35PM and the sun, not the moon, is shining on me. It might as well be 8:35AM! I’d have to believe the native golfers have better things to do at this time of the day.
Strolling down each fairway as the night rolled on, my primary goal was to conserve enough energy to hit that memorable shot at the magical moment. When it came, fittingly, I found myself at the course’s highest elevated tee box where I was able to gaze out over the city of Reykjavik and a sun that seemed inches from setting below the horizon. Just as quickly, by the time it was 12:01AM, the sun was already beginning its ascent. It was dawn after midnight and I was suddenly rejuvenated to finish my round on this new day.
Reality soon set in after I dropped my final putt and lingered into the clubhouse to convene with all the other dreamy-eyed golfers and noticed the clock reading 1:15AM! After two days of golf rolled into one (some thought they played 36 in one day), everyone in our group made a toast, some with caffeine and some with alcohol, before jumping on the bus back to the hotel room where I shut the drapes.
After what seemed like a blink of an eye, another first-time golfing experience was about to unfold. I boarded an Icelandair puddle jumper for a quick 30-minute flight to Heimaey, the largest and only inhabited of the Vestmannaeyjar Islands off the south coast (there are 15 islands, including the mainland, in Iceland). It was here that a volcano, after more than 5,300 years of inactivity, erupted suddenly in 1973, nearly burying the fishing village and forcing the evacuation of the 5,300 residents by fishing boats. Miraculously, nobody died and now nearly 4,000 people reside there, in addition to the largest known puffin colony in the world – over 2 million.
Buried with ash from this catastrophic eruption was the Vestmannaeyjar Island Golf Course, originally built as a six-hole course in 1936 and expanded to nine in 1962. Following four years of disrupted play to clear the ash, the course was restored and, eventually, nine more holes were added in 1994. Currently, this layout is situated within the crater of an older volcano that is believed to have been extinct for over 10,000 years, which eased my comfort of the mountain blowing while standing over a 10-foot putt.
Sitting on the edge of the world, the surrounding scenery of the steep crater hillsides displaying the appearance of a volcanic ice cream sundae and neighboring tiny islands popping up out of the turquoise-shaded Atlantic take one’s breath away.
Iceland will never be tagged as must-go golf destination but when the courses are blended with the island’s natural, unspoiled earthly wonders, it is a mind-blowing adventure. So, if ever there was a silver lining to a natural disaster, no matter how you say it, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano opened the eyes of those who may not have ever considered a journey to this little corner of the world.