TIMES ONLINE (The Times of London) - July 26, 2003
One steppe at a time for 1,300-mile golfer
by clem cecil

THE steppes of Mongolia were once the home of Genghis Khan and the ferocious Mongol Horde. Today, for an American named Andre Tolme, they are nothing but a giant golf course.

The 33-year-old engineer is about a third of the way through a quest to hit a golf ball right the way across the vast empty plains of a country the size of Western Europe.

For the past seven weeks he has been driving golf balls down the world’s biggest fairway, past Mongolian yurts — nomadic tents — and herds of wild horses. To date he has taken 3,445 shots, covered about 716,949 yards and has lost 186 balls. He has reached what, by his reckoning, is the equivalent of hole six.

Mr Tolme, whose handicap is 15, mapped out his 1,320-mile round of golf after a visit to Mongolia two years ago when he decided it was the world’s most naturally formed golf course. He left Los Angeles with 500 balls and two golf clubs at the end of May. He teed off on June 4 in the eastern settlement of Choybalsan, witnessed by a herd of grazing cows, from where it was 138,889 yards west to the first “hole”. His course roughly follows the Kherlen River from east to west , passing through the capital, Ulan Bator.

Almost immediately Mr Tolme had his first encounter with “salikh”, the Mongolian word for wind, which he describes on his internet journal on www.golfmongolia.com as “the golfer’s worst enemy”. The wind blows constantly on the steppe at a rate of 15 miles per hour. The lone golfer finds his way from hole to hole using a GPS receiver and a compass. He walked the first three holes, carrying all his equipment on his back, but taking the rucksack on and off began to take its toll.

"[As the weight takes its toll on me] I tend to hit poor golf shots, which means more lifting of the pack, more exhaustion, more poor golf shots, spiralling downward",” he wrote in his first entry. A local craftsman made Mr Tolme a small cart for his equipment. He is carrying a 3 iron and a 4 iron — distance clubs suitable for hitting off grass.

By his second hole, Mr Tolme was already teaching local nomads how to swing the golf club. “I’m convinced its in their blood,” he wrote, “Genghis must have been ferocious off the tee back in the day.” Despite the wind, Mr Tolme believes Mongolia is the birthplace of golf. “Archaeologists recently uncovered human remains in Central Asia that were covered in Tartan plaid fabric. Do we really need more evidence than this?

The horses, goats, and sheep keep the fairways mowed down to the perfect playable height. Every day is a sunny day and the marmot holes make perfect targets.”

Marmots, carriers of bubonic plague, are but one danger that the lone golfer faces every day. There are four types of poisonous snake and swarms of flies and mosquitoes to which Mr Tolme has developed a Zen-like approach. “I just ignore them no matter how many are covering my face, head, backpack or golf club.” He does not have the energy to battle with flies, concentrating on the next shot, the next hole, the missing ball, or his emptying flask of water.

Golf, not the most strenuous of sports when played in a country club with caddies, is less of a pleasure when played alone in Mongolia. The sun beats down, the wind lashes and there is a constant danger of water shortage. Online, Mr Tolme complains of everworsening blisters, and a pain radiating from his neck into his shoulders. He is often invited into yurts to drink hot milky tea, or sometimes vodka. This impairs his golf, but is impossible to refuse.

Luckily he is not fussy about what he eats. He is living on a high-calorie diet of mutton, mutton fat and sheep’s milk, mostly provided by nomads he meets en route. By hole five, Mr Tolme was losing fewer balls. “I mark the line like a labrador retriever and then count my steps,” he writes. Supporters of Golf Mongolia can sponsor a golf ball at $25 (£15.60) a time. At his present rate he should reach the 18th hole — 2,322,000 yards from the start near the Chinese border — sometime in October, provided he successfully avoids the world’s largest bunker, the Gobi desert.

In Colorado yesterday, Mr Tolme’s older brother Paul described Golf Mongolia as “an enlightened excuse to walk across Mongolia”. He said that his brother was unfazed by playing alone, and he described him as “fearless and extremely gregarious”. Despite limited knowledge of Mongolian, Mr Tolme has learnt how to hobble a horse and shear sheep in exchange for teaching locals golf.

He is now looking for a caddy.

Mongolian facts and figures:

- Mongolia is about three times the size of France

- It has a human population of 2.6 million but more than 30 million livestock

- 40 per cent of the population is nomadic

- The average altitude in Mongolia is 1,580 metres, the highest point is 4,370 metres above sea level

- With 100 per cent of property occupied by its owners, Mongolia has the world’s highest percentage of private housing

- Taiwan officially considers Mongolia to be part of its territory

- The gerbil originated in Mongolia

- Menk Batere, who comes from Chinese Inner Mongolia, plays basketball with the Denver Nuggets

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