FORE! (-teen below)
The 12th hole at the Iditarod Classic is a long, flat par five. Off the tee be careful
not to slice or you’ll end up in a deep fresh powder trap. At about 250 yards the course
doglegs left around a group of ice fishing huts. A large den, sure to house a slumbering
bear, protects the bailout area to the left front of the putting area setting up a great
risk/reward shot for those who go for the green in two. Be sure to play your shot short of
the hole because this course is notoriously slick.
It’s getting into the long dark of winter and at the back of even darker closets
around the globe lie thousands of sagging bags of neglected golf clubs. For those willing
to brave frigid temperatures, howling winds, bears, or even 1400 ft. of mountain it’s time
to show your clubs the sun again (if only for a short while).
Around the beginning of each year golfers from around Alaska and sometimes
beyond brave the snow, ice, and frigid cold to hit the links at Wasilla Lake. That is, on
Wasilla Lake. Normally a golfer’s worst nightmare, the summertime water hazard, frozen
solid, is transformed into a par-71 18-hole course for the Iditarod Ice Golf Classic.
Twenty-five years ago Don Keuler, owner of the Mat-Su lodge overlooking Wasilla
Lake, perhaps a bit stir crazy nearing the end of the long Alaskan winter had somewhat of
“I get so antsy during the winter,” Keuler said. "I'm an avid golfer. Most of my
friends and customers are avid golfers and it just seemed like a natural thing to do.”
Now every year in March, the Ice Golf Classic kicks off in conjunction with the
start of the last great race 15 miles to the south. As challenging as playing ice golf can be
building the course can be an even more so. Wasilla can get several feet of snow over the
winter so clearing the lake is not easy and sometimes comes with consequences. February
had dumped more than three feet of snow on the ice of Wasilla Lake a few years ago, and
in the process of clearing it off trying to plow it, the weight of the wet snow broke the
brackets on not one, but two of Keuler’s plows.
Fortunately for the tournament (not so much for the plows) a relentless windstorm
ended up doing much of the heavy lifting for them clearing the lake of all but an inch of
The Iditarod Ice Golf Classic isn’t the only tournament of its kind either. In Nome,
golfers battle the rocks and the undulating ocean under their feet at the Bering Sea Ice
Classic. A six-hole par-41 course is set up in March and being on top of the frozen ocean
gives a whole new meaning to the term water hazard.
“There are so many fun things about ice golf,” said Nikki Polk, a teacher in Nome.
“It’s such a unique experience.”
Fans of the sport in Kodiak have taken that uniqueness to new heights, 1400 feet to be
exact. Twenty years ago during the lull in the commercial fishing season known as winter
the Pillar Mountain Golf Classic was born of a wager at Tony's Bar. Glenn "The Cod
Father" Yngve slapped a hundred dollar bill on the bar and issued a challenge to fellow
fisherman Steve "Scrimshaw" Mathieu to beat his score in a golfing contest to the top of
Pillar Mountain. At the time Kodiak was devoid of an official golf course; and golf clubs
were something buried in the closet waiting for the vacation to the Lower 48. Soon 21
challengers dug out their clubs and polished their swings to compete in this crazy event.
The generous fisherman decided to charge an entry fee, pay prize money and expenses
and donate the remainder to local charities. The Pillar Mountain Golf Tournament was
born. On April Fool’s Day weekend each year since seasoned veterans of the game along
with many who only play one day of the year get together to test their skills against
probably the longest hole in the history of golf. The Pillar Mountain Classic is an event
that pits golfers against tundra, snow, howling winds of up to 100 miles per hour, and
even the occasional bear as they compete to see who can get their ball to the summit first.
Par for the hole/course is 70.
Ice golf is by no means limited to eccentric hearty Alaskans though. All over the
world enthusiastic golfers are trading in their golf glove for wool mittens, plaid knee high
socks for leg warmers, and green sport coats for down jackets.
“The trick is finding something warm to wear that you can still swing a golf club
in,” said Dale Dailey who helps organize the Mat-Su tournament.
Ice golf tournaments are held in several polar and semi-polar venues including the
Polar Ice Cap Golf Tournament in Michigan, the Pawtuckaway Open in New Hampshire,
the Chilly Open in Minnesota, and even the Drambuie World Ice Golf Championships
held in Uummannaq, Greenland. So if you’re worried that your swing will go cold over
the winter, fear not, there is probably and ice golf tournament near you.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re any good at golf people just come out to have a good
time,” said Dailey. “Golfers are a funny bunch.”
Golf is a summer sport, or at least a sunshine sport enjoyed strictly in warm climes, right?