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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Beyond the Ring

Golfing Under The Midnight Sun
Dylan Markov heads North toward the Arctic Circle and learns that, while Finlandís winters may be ideal for snowmobiling and dogsled rides, in the bright nights of summer, thereís nothing quite like a long midnight drive.

"To be honest, Iím really not much of a golfer." This is the disclaimer I typically offer up to my unsuspecting partners just before shanking my opening drive deep into the trees, or dribbling the ball anemically down the cart path and skitters to a stop just shy of the ladiesí tees. My turf divots often fly further (and straighter) than my ball and have become a trademark of my game, once leading a disgruntled club pro to suggest that I find a course "better suited to my game" to play on.

In recent years, I have taken to playing golf alone, sneaking out for the odd round when few observers are likely to be on hand to witness my awkward displays. Sadly, this is par- tially out of necessity, as those with whom I have played in the past have rarely invited me along to play a second time.

And so I was both surprised and delighted when I received an invitation to participate in a midnight golf tournament in Finland recently. The organizers clearly had no idea what they were getting themselves into by including me on the tournament roster, but the way I saw it, by the time they realized what a nuisance I can be on the course, we would already be miles from nowhere in the Finnish outback, and theyíd be stuck with me for the duration of the two-day tournament.

Still, I wasnít quite sure what to expect from a ímidnightí golf tournament. According to the literature I received with the invitation, golf has become increasingly popular in Finland in recent years. For the 80,000 or so registered golfers in this country of 5 million inhabitants, there are some ninety-eight 18-hole golf courses. The fact that for about two months of the summer the sun in northern Finland never drops below the horizon line makes it quite logical Ė at least to the Finns Ė that midnight golf would be the sportís next big trend.

In fact, only three countries in the world boast courses far enough north that it is possible to play golf around the clock in the summer; neighboring Sweden and Iceland are the other two. But it has been the Finns who have been most creative in marketing this popular sport íwith a twist,í and attracting foreigners from more southerly climes to come and experience what itís like to play under the midnight sun. Golf marathons, which require teams to play three to four 18-hole rounds in a single day, have also become increasingly popular.

The fact that for about two months of the summer the sun in northern Finland never drops below the horizon line makes it quite logical Ė at least to the Finns Ė that midnight golf would be the sportís next big trend.

The tournament in question was to be played on two courses Ė Paltamo and Katinkulta Ė considered to be two of Finlandís finest. To get there I flew from Moscow to Helsinki, where I connected to the regional center of Kajaani, a one-hour flight to the North, just below the Arctic Circle. There, I and the other golfers, assorted club pros, tour operators and journalists from across Europe, were met at the airport by the organizers, loaded onto a 1950s-era logging camp bus and driven off into Finlandís magnificent wilderness. Thirty minutes later, we pulled off the road at the edge of an enormous lake and the group was loaded into a long, Viking-style rowboat. Struggling to establish a synchronized cadence, we powered ourselves the final mile across the lake to Paltamo.

Following a quick orientation and a dinner of assorted regional delicacies, including fresh white fish and smoked reindeer, we took a few practice swings on the driving range, and began our first round at the stroke of midnight.

Paltamo, being further south than some of Finlandís other courses, does not enjoy bright sunlight at this late hour, even in June when the days of summer are at their longest. Instead, it is dusk (think 10 p.m. on a June night in Moscow). By 2 a.m. the sun hits its nadir just above the horizon line, and once again begins its gradual ascent into the morning sky.

Most of the teams were comprised of one local pro and three foreigners. I would be playing with Kari Turinen, the jolly and eternally optimistic organizer of the event, Richard, a 50-something consultant from London who had flown in with his teen-aged son, and Pekka, one of the local club proís.

"To be honest with you all, Iím really not much of a golfer," I said casually as I walked tentatively to the first tee. They were cordial, but didnít seem to be buying it. With the midnight sun hanging heavy in the distance, I smacked my opening drive firmly, but it veered away quickly, and splashed down in the lake we had paddled across an hour earli- er, some 50 meters off the shoreline.

There are nearly 200,000 lakes in Finland, and many golf courses are built around these imposing natural water hazards. Paltamo is no exception. Designed by noted course architect Richard Fream, it is defined by its untamed nat- ural beauty, incorporating large stands of birch and pine trees, jagged rock outcroppings, ponds and marshes. The fairways are narrow and daunting, and most of the first nine holes run dangerously close to the water. Unfortunately, such a challenging course is ill-suited to a play- er of my modest ability, and my first 18 holes of midnight golfing turned out to be something of a debacle. My teammates were patient and sup- portive, despite the fact that I held them up, and did little to help keep us in contention.

Following our round and a late-night supper, we all boarded a bus which took us to Katinkulta, a 40-minute drive away. I disregarded the scenery and seized the opportunity to catch up on my sleep. Breakfast would be served at 1:00p.m. sharp, and for most of us it had been a very long day.

In contrast to Paltamo, a beautiful golf course that has not yet been fully developed, Katinkulta is a sprawling, all-seasons family resort. The main hotel complex (rated "4-stars plus") has 116 rooms, five types of sauna (this is Finland, after all) and no less than 20 indoor and outdoor swimming pools. Adjacent to the hotel property stand more than 200 individual log cottages, perfect for families, many of whom stay for several weeks at a time. There are bicycles for hire, sports fields, a supermarket, and bus service to the hotel, nearby ski resorts and other attractions. Winding through it all is Katinkultaís 18-hole championship golf course.

Getting There:
Finnair operates daily flights from Moscow, including one that leaves Sheremetyevo II Friday nights at 16:35, connects in Helsinki, and arrives in Kajaani at 20:35. Ground transportation can be arranged through The Holiday Club ďKatinkulta.Ē

Accomodation:
The Holiday Club ďKatinkultaĒ offers standard double hotel rooms from $150/night and one- and two-family cottages for $800-$2,000/week, depending on the season.

Information:
Finnish Tourism Board in Moscow, Tel.247-3735, www.finland-tourism.com
Finnair www.finnair.com
 
Paltamo Golf www.paltamo.fi/golf
 
Katinkulta sales.katinkulta@holidayclub.fi
For incentive travel: www.realreward.com or www.kari.turunen.vuokatti.fi

The tournamentís second round got under way at 8 p.m. on Day 2. (Because we were to finish at around 12:00, this, too, qualified as "midnight" golf.) The Katinkulta course is much more forgiving than the one at Paltamo, with wider fairways that are flanked by stands of tall birches and pines which are much less dense, making it considerably easier to find stray balls. The enormous lake here is also a prominent feature, but it is easier to maneuver than the one at Paltamo, and serves as a magnificent backdrop for several showcase holes.

For whatever reason, my game began to show signs of improvement on Day 2. The ball still occasionally flew in directions that I wished it wouldnít, and cries of "fore" could be heard alerting players on adjacent fairways to scram- ble for cover, but generally I was less of a liability than I had been the night before, and I gradually began to make token contributions to the teamís scoring efforts. Kari and Pekka were typically upbeat, offering me welcome words of encouragement and pointers on my swing. Richard was politely tolerant, but much more focused on the competition.

Perhaps appropriately, by the last few holes I began stringing together several respectable shots in succession, and my approach to the 18th green landed with a thud, and rolled to within ten feet of the pin. My putt stopped just short of the hole, and I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment as I tapped it in for a rare par to close out the round.

After a traditional Finnish smoke sauna, we all convened for an awards dinner at 2:00 a.m. How strange it seemed to be sitting down to the evening meal as the hotelís disco next door was closing its doors for the night! Stranger yet, that the sun should be shining and another group teeing off to begin their own round just outside. After dinner, trophies were awarded to the winners, and each player was given a framed photograph of his or her team, ensuring that no one went home empty handed. The "evening" ended with a toast to all the participants, words of gratitude for the organizers and sponsors, and promises to return again in the future.

There are many reasons to take a holiday in this beautiful and ecologically-pristine region of Finland, even if you donít happen to be a golfer. Beyond the grounds of the hotel, the Kainuu region, where Katinkulta is located, offers downhill and nordic skiing in winter, a 90-meter ski jump, and virtually every other outdoor activity one could conceive. There is even an indoor half pipe for warm-weather snowboarding, and a 1.6km-long, subterranean cross-country skiing tunnel which is used by many international ski teams for summer training.

Given its easy access from Moscow - five hours flying time including a convenient connection in Helsinki - it is quite reasonable to make the trip for a week, or even for several days.

Iím looking forward to returning next time with my family. My wife loves the outdoors, and our son will have a ball splashing around in the swimming pools and exploring on the banks of the lake. As for me, now Iíve got a good reason to work on improving my golf game. Itís funny but, despite all of my lousy shots and divots and repeated breaches of golf etiquette over the course of the tournament, Kari and Pekka actually said I could come back and play with them any time I want. And for me, having gotten used to playing by myself, thatís really something!

 







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