By Jack McCallum
VIA Online – The AAA Traveler’s Companion
Follow the sun to the links of Fairbanks, where tee time is any time of the day or night.
Pulling his golf cart behind him, John Burns spreads his arms and lifts his face to the skies. “Beautiful golf weather, eh?” he says to his playing partner, who happens to be me. “Let’s get going.” Well, there you are: another billing-you-by-the-hour lawyer out smacking drives and stroking putts in the middle of the week when he should be hunkered down at his desk figuring out your next tax dodge. Except Burns has already put in an eight-hour day, and, further, in just six hours he’ll be getting up to put in another.
Welcome to Fairbanks, Alaska, home of the 24-hour-a-day golfing opportunity. On and around June 21, the summer solstice, there is enough sunlight to double-bogey yourself into frustration at literally any hour of the day. On a visit to Fairbanks last year, I teed off at 10 p.m. at North Star Golf Club, played nine holes, drove the short distance to Fairbanks Golf and Country Club, and got in 15 with Burns. We didn’t stop because of darkness; we stopped because he had to go to work in a few hours. I crawled into bed at about 3:30 a.m., looked out the window, and said to my wife, “You know, it’s still light enough to hit balls.”
The solstice occurs when the sun is at its greatest distance from the celestial equator, meaning that at the Arctic Circle it does not set. Because of the refraction of sunlight, in fact, it appears not to set there for four days; to a lesser extent, the same principle applies in Fairbanks, which is about 200 miles south of the Circle. Even so, Fairbanks can get as hot as Orlando in the summer. Burns says he has gone to work at 60 degrees below and played golf at 90 degrees above.
If you decide to take advantage of 24-hour golf in Fairbanks, don’t be concerned that you’ll be waiting to tee off behind hordes of antsy tourists. Yes, June is a busy time in Alaska, where the state mineral is gold, the state bird is the willow ptarmigan, and the state sound is the Princess Cruise bus idling outside your hotel window, but few of the cruisers are there to hit the links. Both courses advertise 24-hour golf but not on a grand scale. Of the locals, some take it, but most leave it. Teeing off in front of me at North Star were two Ohio couples. “We wouldn’t have come all the way just for golf,” said Carl Lefevre, “but it was definitely part of the attraction.”
That’s a good way to put it. Even for a golf nut, neither course is in itself worth a long plane trip. But why not visit the 49th state in mid-June, bring your clubs, and turn it into a Follow the Sun vacation (the title, by the way, of a biopic about the great golfer Ben Hogan).
First of all, Mount McKinley and Denali National Park are only 120 miles south of Fairbanks. You can take part in the annual 10-kilometer Midnight Sun Run; there’s also one in Anchorage, a city that Fairbanksians consider so overly precious and pretentious that they refer to it as “Los Anchorage.” Hit the Summer Solstice Fair in downtown Fairbanks, which has a delicious frontier ambience about it. I did not see a single store advertising a Solstice Sandwich or a Midnight Sun Muffin, and on the wall of the Alaska Coffee Roasting Company is a sequence of photos showing a polar bear devouring a beluga whale. That ain’t Starbucks, bucko. And you can drive north to Tack’s, about 40 minutes outside the city limits, pick up an Alaskan blackberry pie, and have an al- fresco piefest.
And by all means hit the Midnight Sun Baseball Game, a Fairbanks tradition that dates back at least to 1908, when the following hyperbolic account of the game appeared in a local newspaper: “The players had the blistering rays of the midnight sun beating down upon them, their every move followed intently by a crowd of wild fans whose enthusiasm held them in the oven-like bleachers.” The idea behind the game, which begins at 10:30 p.m., is that the lights are never turned on. “There’s a car in the parking lot with its lights on,” intoned public address announcer Todd Dennis last year, “and lights are not allowed at the Midnight Sun Game.” The crowd roared.
But the truly special thing about Fairbanks in June is being able to play golf far into the night. Make sure you get teamed up with locals, because they take an admirable civic pride in the natural phenomenon that has the golf gods smiling down on them and their quirky courses. (Make sure, also, that you bring bug repellant; being unable to operate most of the time in Fairbanks, the insect population really gears up for an all-out summer assault.)
At North Star, my playing partners, Dave Lezar, Hans Sobjana, and Jim Lefavor, waxed rhapsodic about sightings of foxes and ravens on the course and the pesky squirrel who emerges from time to time to pilfer well-placed drives. The layer of permafrost that underlies all of Fairbanks provides an, uh, interesting aspect to its fairways, which are uneven and replete with potholes. But for North Star regulars, the topography at Augusta National could hardly be more inviting.
The Fairbanks Golf and Country Club takes itself a little more seriously, which is why the bare greens on some holes (caused by snow mold, something they don’t worry about in, say, Arizona) were a major complaint last year. But the course, visited by no less a luminary than General Dwight “Tee It Up” Eisenhower shortly after it opened in 1946, is a delight to play, with some holes that bend around at right angles from tee to green, unusually placed bunkers, and a rough that’s straighter and thicker than a drill sergeant’s hair.
The best thing, though, is that undeniable something that comes from finishing up a round of golf between midnight and dawn, feeling that you’ve somehow cheated the march of time. “Look, I might as well be out here,” says Burns, lining up a putt, “because I don’t sleep much around this time of year anyway.” He looks up at the sky. “See, Alaskans are very photosensitive. It’s almost as though we suck up sunlight and then store it in our bodies as energy.” He looks back down at his putt. “And there’s no place better to get rid of that energy than out here.”