[From the Concord Monitor - July 24, 2003]

A fairway stretching as far as he can see - Man reaches hole six on golf odyssey
Monitor staff

Andre Tolme is alone in Mongolia, miles from America's pop divas and politicos, surrounded by vast, flat land and his own thoughts. Yet some days, he can't stop humming Top 40 hits. He thinks about alien abduction and writes in his Internet diary about "a layer of filth on my legs thicker than Tammy Faye's makeup." He jokes about George W. Bush, dreams of filet mignon and zinfandel and worries that he has spent too much time during the last two months talking to himself.

But Golf Mongolia, Tolme's athletic expedition across that faraway country, has been a success so far, he says. He's at hole six, and he has spent the last few days in Ulaan Baatar for a three-day Naadam Festival of horse racing, wrestling and archery competitions. For the first time in many weeks, he has been surrounded by people.

Tolme, 33, grew up in Northfield. He first visited Mongolia two years ago and fell in love with the country's dichotomy of hospitality and isolation. An avid golfer since his youth, Tolme decided to travel to Mongolia again two months ago. This time, though, he would map the country into an 18-hole golf course, and walk more than 1,300 miles across the steppe.

This may be Tolme's most extreme adventure, but it is not his first. A few years ago, he quit his engineering job in California, sold his car and furniture and rode a bus through Central and South America, then backpacked through Europe and Asia. He hasn't stopped exploring since.

The golfer, who pushes a small cart carrying his tent, his backpack and hundreds of golf balls, has been chronicling his journey by e-mail (cities along the way afford him brief meetings with technology). His Web site, www.golfmongolia.com, tracks his progress with maps, journal entries and scorecards. As of earlier this month, Tolme had taken 3,445 shots, completed six holes (across more than 300 miles) and lost 186 golf balls. A GPS receiver and compass helps him find each next hole as he stomps through long grass past tumbleweed and grazing animals (including an angry bull who charged him near the fourth hole).

The journey has given Tolme a chance to explore one of his passions: travel writing. With each progress report, he offers anecdotes and observations about Mongolia's people and traditions.

At hole four, he writes about Mongolia's creatures, from the ever-present sheep and goats to the cuckoo bird "with its mocking, cynical call," who teased Tolme as he walked through a town called Moron.

At hole six, he finds himself surrounded by the thundering noise of a long-distance horse race.

"I sat quietly having some lunch and a rest in the middle of nowhere when I heard an incredible roar that vibrated the ground. Then I saw the dust cloud rising on the horizon," he wrote. "Luckily I didn't need to use my 3-iron for self-defense because they were children dressed in traditional Mongolian costume. . . . I somehow had placed myself in the middle of the race course (I thought it was a golf course) and the kids were hootin' and hollerin' as they rode past me on all sides."

Earlier this week, Tolme reflected, via e-mail, about the trip's lessons and surprises.

Golf Mongolia is more treacherous than Tolme expected. The weather is unpredictable. There's little shade from the sun and wind, and thunderstorms come without notice. Food is a package of preservative-filled cereal or a chunk of mutton given to him by a stranger. And water is predictably hard to find: Tolme carries heavy bottles of it wherever he goes and relies on the people he meets along the way to refill his supply.

Though he often jokingly questions the wisdom of his trip, Tolme says the expedition has made him a better traveler.

"I headed out into the Mongolian countryside with almost no grasp of the Mongolian language. However, I've shared meals and stories with many of the locals that I've met. I've taken part in their daily lives and laughed and played games with them," he wrote. "Traveling is about stripping away all the pretensions of language and making real connections with people of other cultures using shared human feelings. . . . Yes, I have become a better traveler. The only danger in this, though, is that it fuels my desire to travel even more."