[from The New York Times - July 7, 2004]

SPORTS DESK - Sports of The Times;
The Golfer of the Year Is 135 Strokes Over Par


PHIL MICKELSON and Retief Goosen can forget about their chances of being the golfer of the year. Even if Tiger Woods suddenly finds more fairways in next week's British Open or next month's P.G.A. Championship, he can forget about it too.

And all those gold-medal winners in next month's Olympics should forget about being the athlete of the year, along with whatever superstars emerge from other sports.

No matter what happens for the remainder of 2004, the golfer and the athlete of the year is André Tolmé, a 35-year-old civil engineer from New Hampshire, who is spending two months this summer hitting a golf ball, actually hundreds of them, with his 3-iron across the treeless steppes of Mongolia, the small Asian nation landlocked between China and Russia.

Rees Jones or Tom Fazio, two of the world's best golf architects, did not design Tolmé's course. God did. And God has not bothered to redesign it.

Divided into Tolmé's version of 18 holes from one major Mongolian town to another, his course -- call it Steppes National -- stretches 1,319 miles, roughly the distance from New York to Oklahoma City. Tolmé's par is 11,880 strokes. The 13th hole is the longest, 112 miles with a par of 845; the third hole is the shortest, 35 miles with a par of 694.

At last count, according to James Brooke's report Sunday in The New York Times, Tolmé had played 14 holes in 9,503 shots, 135 over par.

On 6 of those 14 holes, Tolmé was under par. On the 35-mile third hole, he needed only 344 shots -- a dazzling 350 under par there.

Woods has never been 350 under par on a hole. Neither has Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen or Harry Vardon.

Then again, none of those Hall of Fame golfers were ever 255 strokes over par on one hole, as Tolmé was on the 86-mile eighth. But that's golf, especially when you obey golf's first commandment.

''You hit the ball, then you go and find it,'' Tolmé said. ''Then you hit it again.''

When Tolmé is not swinging his 3-iron, he and his Mongolian caddie, Khatanbaatar, travel in a Russian jeep with water, food, a tent and, hopefully, enough cases of golf balls to stay the course. Through 14 holes, he had lost 441 balls.

On any other course, that would be a bad rap on Khatanbaatar, but on Steppes National, it is, shall we say, par for the course.

And for the sake of Tolmé's financial solvency when the best golf balls cost $50 a dozen, it's to be hoped that an American golf ball manufacturer is providing his supply, if only for the advertising possibility: ''Get the ball that soared 1,319 miles across Mongolia!''

With the touring pros' whine of complaints at the United States Open last month still ringing through Shinnecock Hills, wouldn't you love to see the best professional golfers try to cope with the 1,319 miles of Steppes National, or even two or three of the holes? That would be a reality show more worthy of prime time than any network reality show.

If the pros thought the wind on the final day of the Open turned Shinnecock's seventh green into linoleum when they were putting, how would they handle the wild wind that screeches across the Mongolian steppes?

You might call Tolmé's adventure extreme golf, but shorter versions of it have always been played, beginning centuries ago when Scottish shepherds first swatted rocks. Dan Jenkins, the author and Golf Digest columnist, has often joked about the Goat Hills course that ran through his Fort Worth neighborhood in the years after World War II.

''It was about six blocks long, from the third tee of the old Worth Hills course down to the first hole of the Colonial Country Club,'' Jenkins recalled yesterday by telephone from his Fort Worth home. ''It went through backyards and around fish ponds and had two routes. One went down Simondale to Colonial Parkway, the other down Alton Road to Colonial Parkway.

''The trick,'' he said, ''was to hit your putter to keep your ball in the middle of the street so it wouldn't get into the gutters that led to the sewers where the ball would disappear. If you went the whole six blocks in 12 strokes, that was about as good as you could do. Some guys needed 30 or 40, and you watched everybody. 'Hey, you had three lost balls.'''

Tolmé may inspire ESPN to add golf to its X Games, but it's doubtful you could lay out a 1,319-mile course anywhere in the United States. Too many trees, too many mountains, too many rivers, too many cities and towns. But maybe you could close Interstate 80 and see how long it would take Tiger Woods to play from New Jersey to California.

See how many golf balls he would lose, too.