Mon, Jul 05, 2004 - Page 16 News List

A 2.3-million-yard par 11,880 across Mongolia

Rolling, grassy plains that stretch over an area twice the size of Texasmake Mongolia one American adventure golfer's dream

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , Arvayheer, Mongolia

Andre Tolme tees off in Arvaikheer, Mongolia on May 28. This summer, Tolme, a civil engineer from New Hampshire, is golfing across Mongolia. Treating this enormous Central Asian nation as his private course, he has divided Mongolia into 18 holes.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Andre Tolme sized up the day's golfing terrain -- thousands of yards of treeless steppe rolling toward a distant horizon. Without another golfer to be seen anywhere on the horizon, he loosened up at his own pace, taking practice swings with a 3-iron.

Then, with a powerful whirl and a satisfying swak, he sent the little white ball soaring far into the clear blue Mongolian sky.

"I feel good about that shot," Tolme said, intently tracking the ball until it disappeared from view. "You could just hit the ball forever here."

In a sense, he is. This summer, Tolme, a civil engineer from New Hampshire, is golfing across Mongolia. Treating this enormous Central Asian nation as his private course, he has divided Mongolia into 18 holes. The total fairway distance is 2,322,000 yards. Par is 11,880 strokes.

"You hit the ball," he said, explaining his technique in a land without fences, a nation that is twice the size of Texas. "Then you go and find it. Then you hit it again. And again. And again."

Moving across the rolling steppe, Tolme is walking a route favored almost a millennium ago by Genghis Khan. The fairway may be something less than manicured, but to the north are Siberian forests and to the south is the Gobi Desert, one of the world's largest sand traps.

With his caddy, Khatanbaatar, carrying water, food and a tent in a Russian jeep customized with an upholstery of handwoven rugs, Tolme teed off May 28 and calculates he will finish his game in the trading center of Khovd sometime around the end of July.

That a lone American, armed only with a 3-iron and an easy, impish smile, can golf across Mongolia reflects several factors: the friendliness of largely Buddhist Mongolia to Americans; Mongolia's geography of vast unfenced expanses; and a new extreme golf movement that is prompting young Americans and Europeans to break way out of country clubs.

For Tolme, 35, it is also a summer adventure: a night listening to a chorus of howling wolves; standing dumbstruck as children race horses down the steppe toward him; enjoying the hospitality of the nomads, drinking fermented mare's milk inside a yurt; and watching as sheets of rain and lightning bolts march down the open plain.

"Hey, I watched the movie Caddyshack, I know to keep my club down when there is lightning around," he said. A few minutes later an early summer hail storm struck, driving him into his jeep.

To Khatanbaatar, Tolme's golfing style is a bit of a mystery. "I don't know anything about golf, but what I saw on TV, they put the little ball in a little hole," said Khatanbaatar, a retired soldier who still wears camouflage military fatigues.

Tolme, who learned rudimentary Mongolian while golfing across the eastern half of the country last summer, explains that he considers each major town to be a golf hole. Pocketing the ball upon arrival, he walks through the town and then tees up on the other side.

"I only use the tee when I start a hole," Tolme said, adding that he plays by "winter rules because Mongolia can be often cold."

Last summer, Tolme teed off on June 5 in Choybalsan, an old Soviet Army garrison town in Mongolia's far east, facing the Chinese border. Fifty days and 352 lost balls later he surrendered to nettles and high weeds and halted his march in this interior town, his ninth hole, a place described in the Lonely Planet Mongolia guide as of "little interest" with "dreary hotels."

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