This is what 18 in hell feels like
Those who brave it, maintain it and love it: Furnace Creek GC in Death Valley
DEATH VALLEY, Calif. -- You know it's going to be a day like no other on the golf course when you approach the second tee, look at the pond fronting the green and think about jumping in.
Never mind the dead coyote lying on the bank of the pond or the green film of who-knows-what that is floating on the surface, that water looks pretty refreshing.
Normally, you do everything you can to avoid water on a golf course, but as you find out over the next four hours, traditional golf conventions and decorum do not apply at Furnace Creek Golf Course.
Here, in one of the hottest places in the world, you play by summer rules.
You don't pull the flagstick when you putt, you don't bother bending over to mark your ball on the green unless it's directly in somebody else's line, and you think long and hard before you pick up a rake to tend to a bunker after hitting a shot out of the sand.
It's all about limiting movement and conserving energy in a sun that sizzles at temperatures well into the triple digits all summer and regularly tops 120 on the hottest days. You don't play Furnace Creek in the summer, you survive it.
"That's pretty much the goal out here," said Matt Muscari, a Las Vegas resident who played the Heatstroke Open tournament at Furnace Creek last month. "Just make it through without passing out."
A DESERT DWELLING
Furnace Creek sits a quarter mile from the site of the highest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere in the aptly named Death Valley, a national park that features some of the hottest, driest and lowest spots on Earth.
It's a region filled with arid mountains, huge fields of jagged rocks and giant sand dunes in the Mojave Desert near the California/Nevada border. It's a desert in the truest sense with vast stretches of nothingness and heat visibly rising off the ground. It's the last place in the world you'd expect to find a golf course.
But Furnace Creek Golf Course has been an area attraction since 1927, when date palm farmers laid out three holes, then expanded the course to nine by 1931, to keep themselves entertained. Although surrounded by barren and desolate land, it sits on an oasis so there is water to sustain the course.
Noted course architect William F. Bell (Torrey Pines, Industry Hills) added a second nine in 1968 and Perry Dye, son of hall of fame designer Pete Dye, came in for a renovation and redesign in 1997 and installed a full irrigation system that helped turn Furnace Creek into a resort-quality course.
Now it is a featured attraction for the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort, but only the die-hards play in the summer. Sure, you are surrounded by the trees, ponds and green grass typical of any golf course, but it's still the desert and the heat remains the same.
That means you have to take precautions, such as staying hydrated and spending as little time in the sun as possible, in order to survive. If you don't have a cooler to fill with water, the pro shop will provide one. Out on the course, you don't drive directly to your ball, you dash from tree to tree in order to stay in the shade.
If the group ahead is slow, so be it. That gives you a few more minutes to soak in some shade. If you hit your ball in the trees, it's almost a relief that you don't have to venture into the sun-baked fairway to hit your shot. And if you do hit it in the fairway, you get out of the cart, grab your club, hit and get back in the cart as quickly as possible.
"You don't mess around with practice strokes," said Ben Spillman, a journalist from Las Vegas who recently played the course. "That's how you get heatstroke. Too many practice strokes results in heatstrokes."
The large, round thermometer conspicuously placed at the entrance to the pro shop serves as an instant reminder of just how real the danger of heatstroke is at Furnace Creek. The thermometer, shaded by the clubhouse awning, maxes out at 130 degrees. Quite often, it needs every bit of that dial.
The highest temperature ever recorded in the Western Hemisphere was at Furnace Creek on July 10, 1913, when temperatures blazed at 134. It still ranks as the second-highest temperature ever recorded in the world, just behind the 136 in Libya on Sept. 13, 1922.
The average daily temperature in July and August over the past 100 years is right around 115, but temperatures in the mid-120s are quite common during those months.
Golf in such extreme conditions isn't exactly appealing to the casual golfer, so it's no surprise that tee times aren't in high demand during the summer months. On a good day only eight or 10 people will play and most of them are resort employees going out first thing in the morning or in the early evening.
"But every once in a while you get people who come out and just want to go for it," said Steven Prehm, the assistant golf professional. "We try to tell them to play early in the morning, but they want to really experience it and play at two or three in the afternoon. I'm like, 'Are you sure?'"
"It's a very dry heat," said Don Forehope, a member of the course's grounds crew. "People laugh when I say that, but it's very different. Out here, you have to pay attention and look for the signs because the heat can get you real fast."
Spillman and his playing partner Ryan Nakashima almost found that out the hard way the first time they played Furnace Creek on July 4, 2007. The high that day was 126 and Nakashima recalls feeling woozy and dazed by the end of the round as he began to question his sanity.
"It was brutal," Nakashima said. "That was a rough one, man. That was hard."
Still, Nakashima and Spillman have come back every summer since. They try to play on or around the Fourth of July and always play afternoon rounds in the thick of the heat "just for the hell of it," Spillman said.
Oh, there's some hell in it, all right, but since that 2007 scare, Spillman and Nakashima have perfected the art of playing at Death Valley.
They play quickly, stay in the shade as much as possible and stock their cooler with plenty of water, sports drinks and fruit. Towels are mandatory equipment, not because they need them to clean their equipment, but because they will soak them in cold water and drape them over their heads. They know that there is a hose near the 11th hole and use it to cool off every time they play.
Even so, it sometimes becomes unbearable. Driving a golf cart through the heat gives a sensation reminiscent of opening the oven door when standing too close, only the sensation doesn't stop until the golf cart does.
Prehm shakes his head at the adventurous mindset of those who want to play in such conditions because he tried it once and vowed he would never do it again.
"I thought I was going to die," he said. "I was throwing up. You start seeing the white cloud and it was like 'Uh oh, time to get home' and I haven't done it again since."
It's rare that golfers fall victim to heatstroke at Furnace Creek. Most play early in the day before the heat gets to be too much and often quit after nine holes if it does. Longtime employees can recall only one or two golfers who needed medical treatment.
Prehm, who is currently in his third summer at the course, said he hasn't had a single player come down with a serious case of heatstroke or heat exhaustion since he's been there.
And, perhaps more important, "I haven't had anyone die on me yet," he said.
THE (CRAZY) PEOPLE'S OPEN
In the early spring and late fall, Death Valley weather is perfect for golf, with temperatures in the high 70s and 80s. The course, a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary, attracts dozens of birds and critters and sprouts to a nice, lush green.
This is when the course business booms. Playing Furnace Creek, you get the feeling of a typical resort course, not one that's smack dab in the middle of nothingness, so it's a nice place to play golf. It's no surprise, then, that Furnace Creek is the site of several popular tournaments during those times.
This year, however, Phil Dickinson got a crazy little idea.
Dickinson has been the director of sales and marketing at the Furnace Creek Resort for 13 years. A few folks might have thought the heat had finally gotten to him when he hatched the plan to hold a tournament during the summer.
The inaugural Heatstroke Open took place June 25-26 and 48 players showed up to play.
"I'm not so sure I thought it was a good idea at first, but it was different," Dickinson said. "I just thought it would be neat to do a golf tournament that appealed to those folks out there that are a little over the edge. So we decided to challenge the temperatures here in the summertime."
Those who braved the elements for the Heatstroke earned a certificate and a T-shirt. Most were regulars at Furnace Creek and some had played the fall, winter and spring tournaments for 20 years or more.
But other than the dozen or so resort employees who signed up, none had ever played Death Valley in the summer.
When we opened the plane door it was like a blast furnace. We've been coming here for years, but we'd never been in the summer so I didn't really know what to expect, but we had to be here for the inaugural Heatstroke Open. There will never be another.” -- Mike Parker on the
summer heat in Death Valley
"I've been playing here for years and years, since the late 1970s," said Bobby Martinez of Needles, Calif. "I have a tournament out here every year in November and we usually get about 150 players, but when I asked them to come out for this, they were like 'You're nuts. Nobody plays there in the summer.'"
For a logo, Dickinson selected a drawing of a skeleton playing golf surrounded by the remains of dead animals. It seemed ominous, but truth be told, it wasn't really that hot for the Heatstroke Open.
The official highs for those days were 115 on June 25 and 114 on June 26, but the players teed off at 7:30 a.m., before the temperature had cracked triple digits, and finished before noon, when it still hadn't reached 110.
That's OK by Dickinson. He didn't want to push things too far for the first run. Some of the players who signed up are in their 70s and very few had ever experienced a Death Valley summer.
"I'd like to have done it in July, but in fairness, that might have been tough on some people," Dickinson said. "We didn't want to put people at risk. We wanted to do something funky, but certainly make sure that they were going to be OK."
It was officially summer, however, and that alone was enough to pique the interest of players who'd never experienced a Death Valley summer. Mike and Cathy Parker, longtime regulars at the resort, were so intrigued that they fired up their Cessna 210 in Salem, Ore., leaving behind perfect Oregon weather, and landed at the airstrip right behind the course.
"When we opened the plane door it was like a blast furnace," Mike Parker said. "We've been coming here for years, but we'd never been in the summer so I didn't really know what to expect, but we had to be here for the inaugural Heatstroke Open. There will never be another."
Someday, the Heatstroke Open may move to July and include midafternoon rounds to test the limits of golfers in the intense heat. The Badwater Ultra Marathon, a 135-mile race from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney every July, already tests those limits for runners, so why not do the same for golfers?
But this year, it was just your regular old tournament, complete with beer drinking, trash talking and griping about the sandbagging handicaps of the winners. And even though the temperatures were mild by Death Valley summer standards, it was still pretty hot for golf.
Some players stopped playing by the end of the second round. Many doused themselves in water at every opportunity and the coolers filled with chilled towels were the most popular attractions on the course.
The winners, Sharon and Gary Razcka, came from Las Vegas. They had never been to Death Valley before, but Sharon heard about the tournament and bought the package for Gary as a birthday present. And while it is plenty hot in the summer where they live, they said it was still a challenge.
"I thought I was going to have to crawl to the end," Sharon said.
She said she also learned a little something about golf in Death Valley.
"I made an 8 on one of the par-5s," she said. "So I guess you can have a snowman in the desert."
NOT EASY BEING GREEN
Most Heatstroke Open participants said they would probably do it again, so in that regard, the tournament was a success. It also had an unintended side effect: boosting the morale of the golf course staff.
Other than the scattered play by employees and the occasional thrill seekers who show up, Furnace Creek Golf Course gets pretty lonely in the summer. The resort fills up with a surprising number of European tourists doing tours of the national parks, but very few of them come out to play.
It's so empty at the course that the 19th hole -- the course's post-round watering hole -- is shut from June through September and head pro Kip Freeman leaves Death Valley every summer to work at another course in Ohio.
Still, the course requires care. Letting the course die during the summer and bringing it back in the fall would be far more expensive than maintaining it throughout the year, so superintendent Chris Bessette and his staff diligently do the work required to keep the course in playing condition.
Getting people to work out here is a struggle. How many people want that job?” -- Chris Bessette, the Furnace Creek superintendent, on maintaining
a course staff
They mow the grass, roll the greens, cut new hole locations, spread fertilizer and everything else typical of a golf course grounds crew, but it's a forlorn existence.
"Sometimes in the summer, we'll have nobody playing," Bessette said. "You start getting the feeling of 'Why are we doing this? There's nobody playing golf today.' This tournament is absolutely great because it gives us some kind of purpose for working on the course."
Maintaining Furnace Creek in the summer is not easy. The resort and course are on an oasis fed by a huge underground aquifer, but the National Park Service greatly restricts water use in the summer. Bessette estimates that he must maintain Furnace Creek on about a third of the water most golf courses require.
"We get to the point in the summers where we don't have enough water," Bessette said. "So we do things like stop watering the rough."
But the biggest challenge, Bessette says, has nothing to do with water or keeping the fairways and greens in shape. It's finding people willing to move to the middle of the desert, an hour from anything resembling a city, to work in severe heat.
Employees at Furnace Creek get good perks. Housing is either dirt cheap or free. Same with meals. And anyone who works at the resort can play golf for free. Still, it's hard to convince a potential employee that working outdoors in the desert is a good way to earn a living. Bessette has a staff of seven.
"Getting people to work out here is a struggle," he said. "How many people want that job?"
The crew begins work at 5 a.m. and typically works until about 1 or 2 p.m., but Bessette, who is in his 10th year at Furnace Creek, knows when to call off the troops. Early on in his tenure, he began monitoring his employees in the heat and found that at 123 degrees, the work level really started to tail off.
"If it gets to 123, I send them home," he said. "That's enough. That's the point that people don't seem to be into the job anymore. And we don't have a lot of paying guests in the summer, so really why send people out there to work and suffer?"
YOUR LOWEST ROUND, GUARANTEED
At first glance, Furnace Creek Golf Course doesn't appear very intimidating. Most fairways are wide open and many parallel one another so even if you're spraying the ball, you'll have a shot. It's only 6,236 yards from the back tees, which is quite short by modern standards.
But the course has defenses. Elevation is the main one. At 214 feet below sea level, it's the lowest course in the world. And much as golf balls travel farther in higher elevations, they fly shorter in Death Valley.
"Maybe about 10 to 20 yards on a drive," said Prehm, the assistant pro. "And at least a half club on irons. Maybe a full club."
Also, the greens are quite small and very difficult to read because when you are standing in the lowest place on the continent, you don't really know which way the land slopes.
The Perry Dye renovation in 1997 added a multitude of other challenges. Dye added mounds between the holes and placed trees in strategic locations. Some of the holes were completely re-routed to make them more difficult and scenic.
And in the summertime, there are even more challenges. Putting becomes harder because Bessette and his crew must keep the grass longer so the greens don't bake out and die. The unwatered rough turns into dry patches of dirt.
But then, if you are playing golf at Furnace Creek in the summer, you have far more to worry about than a bad lie in the rough and the slow speed of the greens.
Trying to shoot the temperature, for example.
And trying to figure out just what would happen if you jumped into that pond in front of the second green.
Peter Yoon is a writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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