Monday 26 September 2016

Icelanders carve golfing tradition out of volcanic rock

Dermot Gilleece

Published 03/07/2016 | 13:00

Despite the hostile nature of the landscape, Icelanders have shown their resourcefulness by creating playable golf courses, such as Westman Islands Golf Club on Heimaey Island. Photo: Robert Harden/REX/Shuttershock
Despite the hostile nature of the landscape, Icelanders have shown their resourcefulness by creating playable golf courses, such as Westman Islands Golf Club on Heimaey Island. Photo: Robert Harden/REX/Shuttershock

As an expression of Icelandic resolve, the words of Hannes Thorsteinsson were a perfect fit for the remarkable happenings in Nice last Monday evening. "I've never seen a project that is impossible," he said. "There's always a way."

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This was the country's foremost golf course designer, speaking in the wake of one of their earlier giant-killing acts. And, in a way, to have outscored England in the European Men's Amateur Team Championship at Portmarnock in 1997 was arguably more impressive than their latest exploits in football.

Given the seriously hostile nature of their home, it would be hard to imagine anything to test an Icelander's resourcefulness more than the challenge of creating playable golf courses. Yet they've done it really well, as I discovered on a visit there back in late July, 1981.

That was when Philip Walton and John McHenry were in Ireland's line-up for the European Youths Team Championship at Grafarholt GC, just outside Reykjavik. A brave, even controversial decision by the organising body cost the hosts about €30,000 - which would equate to close on 10 times that amount in today's money.

After an unusually hard winter, the fairways and greens were somewhat backward, and bare rock protruding through the soil in places, led to preferred lies. In the rough, players had to contend with liberal quantities of volcanic rock which, when not embedded, could be removed for a clear shot.

Walton retains a painful reminder of that particular hazard, from his refusal to take a penalty drop. In the process of rearranging the Icelandic landscape, he caught the middle finger of his left hand between two rocks, so sustaining cuts above and below the knuckle, which had blood seeping through his leather glove.

He still grimaces at the memory. "That finger hasn't been right since," he said, holding out his left hand. In the event, as the most accomplished participant on view, it was appropriate that he should have eventually been involved in the key match of the final against Spain.

After Ireland had lost both foursomes, it was imperative to secure a win in the first of five singles. Unfortunately, the gifted Spaniard, Jesus Lopez, gained revenge on Walton for a defeat in the final of the Spanish Amateur earlier that year, beating the Malahide man by 4 and 3. So, Spain swept to the title by a comfortable four-point margin and Iceland were 10th from 14 competing nations.

Abiding images are of the 581-yard 15th played into brisk winds off the North Atlantic, and the magnificent backdrop to the finishing hole. There, beyond stunning countryside, the outline of snow-capped cliffs bore a remarkable resemblance to Ben Bulben, evoking home thoughts of Rosses Point.

Another memorable aspect of that trip was the experience of GUI officials at the nine-hole Ness course set on a peninsula seven kilometres from the capital. That was where, in the finest missionary tradition, the president and president-elect were set upon by angry natives while attempting to propagate the game.

At first, their attention was caught by a strange bird cry, not unlike that of a common seagull, though soon to be accompanied by a rapid rat-tat-tat such as a woodpecker might make. Then suddenly, Arctic terns swooped like miniature dive-bombers and it was only through some adroit footwork by John McInerney and wild swinging of a mid-iron by Fred Perry, that injury was averted.

They weren't to know that the terns, which migrate to that particular part of Iceland to breed, become dangerously aggressive when they believe their nesting areas in the calf-high rough are under threat. Smaller than a seagull and with a black head and long beak, they hover closely overhead, furiously flapping their wings and emitting a high-pitched shriek. And should someone happen accidentally upon a nest, they will be attacked without warning.

It was only after their frightening experience that the GUI duo were informed it was common practice at Ness to walk along the fairways with a club held over one's head to ward off the birds. Which makes it probably the only course in the world where even accomplished players are perfectly content not to encounter a birdie.

When I spoke with Gunnar Torfason, secretary of Grafarholt during that 1981 visit, he said modestly: "We will never win anything in international golf. We believe, however, that we can become one of the better nations in Europe, like we are in other sports. For a nation our size, that is something of which we could be proud."

At the time, Grafarholt, the Icelandic for hill of graves, was the country's only 18-hole course, though a second one was completed close to the northern town of Akureyri a year later, making for a total of 18 courses serving 21 clubs and 2,200 players. By the time they came to Portmarnock 16 years later, however, Iceland had 53 clubs serving 7,000 players. And the current count, mostly credited to Thorsteinsson, is 65 courses, 75 clubs and 16,054 players for a population of 330,000.

It should also be noted that of the country's 39,700 square miles, upwards of 60pc is bare rock or rock material. When NASA needed to train astronauts who would land and walk on the moon, they sent them to Iceland.

Describing how he approached golf-course development, Thorstenisson talked of simply walking and walking. "Finally I find little valleys and depressions I can picture as fairways," he said. "We haven't used a single tube of dynamite or anything to create explosions. We just crush the lava with the big bulldozers. That's it."

Meanwhile, as serious competitors, England's amateur golfers could hardly be further removed from their professional footballing brethren, especially when captained by Peter McEvoy, as was the case at Portmarnock. Gary Wolstenholme was in action, only two years after beating Tiger Woods in the Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl, along with a promising teenager named Justin Rose and future European Tour campaigner, Matthew Blackley.

In wild, windy conditions, however, alarm bells were already ringing for England at the end of the first day of stroke-play qualifying, when they found themselves in 11th position - a point behind Iceland.

By the end of the following day, the gap had increased to five points and with Iceland claiming seventh place in the top flight of eight, England were relegated to flight two.

When it was all over, Spain were crowned champions ahead of Scotland, with Ireland third; Iceland were eighth and England 10th. And who was between them? None other than France, the country England expected to play in Paris today, before Roy Hodgson's men were sensationally upstaged in Nice.

The determination of a remarkable sporting nation was graphically projected by Karen Saevarsdottir, one of their first women golf professionals.

"I've been out on the golf course where I've gotten blue in the face," she said. "When it's cold and windy and raining very hard, it definitely makes you tougher."

Indeed. It would also make French soccer stadiums in mid-summer feel like heaven-sent environments by comparison.

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