The air is crisp and full of forest scents as our threesome steps off the gondola at 1,480 feet, golf clubs in hand. Soon we're standing at the first tee, trying to get our bearings straight. To the north, through a thick, tree-lined corridor, we spy the rolling, emerald hills that ring Mountain Creek ski resort in Vernon, N.J. The fairway looks like a recently harvested cornfield, albeit with a steep pitch and sprinkled with wildflowers, and the rough to either side is an impassable jungle. To make matters worse, there is no sign of the green, some 383 yards away. One playing partner, Ben Johnson of Dalton, Mass., jogs to the edge of the slope to decide his plan of attack. He comes back laughing: "It's a straight shot, right down the hill."
Welcome to the U.X. Open.
Johnson, a compact golfer with muscular shoulders, tees off first, nailing a high-arching drive that's framed by blue skies and white, billowy clouds before dropping out of sight over the lip of the slope. "Hope I can find that one," he says with a broad grin, collecting his clubs and tossing his backpack over his shoulder. Now this is what golf ought to be X-rated, as in extreme. No burdensome rules. No dress code. No golf carts. Ten holes with oddball names Sayonara, Hey Cabbie!, Fred and Graveyard played on the side of a ski slope. Think of it as the PGA meets the XFL, without the bouncy cheerleaders.
"I love the traditional game," says Rick Ryan, the 42-year-old founder of the U.X. Open. "But this sport isn't really aimed at guys like me. I've seen alternative sports extreme sports go from sort of a fad to absolute mainstream. So I figured, why not marry stodgy, old golf with extreme sports?"
Seeds for the U.X. Open were sown in 1980, when Ryan, then a student at Middlebury College in Vermont, went for a hike with friends up to Middlebury Ski Bowl. Before long, one pal mentioned he had golf clubs in his car. "So, for hours, we literally emptied his bag of golf balls," Ryan says. "We had a blast."
The U.X. Open, designed to create a buzz for Ryan's vision of an "alternative golf course" at every North American ski resort, isn't tailored for the 50-something couch potato who expects to complete his round from the padded seat of a golf cart. The rules, however, are refreshingly simple: four clubs to a player and preferred lies allowed. There are no holes to shoot at, just greens, typically 20 feet to 30 feet in diameter. Once you're on the green, you're done the ultimate gimme. Still, the object is the same as in traditional golf complete the round with the fewest number of shots.
Having a finesse game certainly helps. The typical U.X. Open course, littered with obstacles, rewards a deft touch as well as an atom bomb drive. Fact is, even if you hit your drive dead perfect, you can still lose it in the tall fairway grass. And there's no guarantee even the most accurately placed shot is going to stay where it landed, or that you'll be able to find it once it does go off track. That "X" factor, says Ryan, is all part of the fun.
Equipped with my 35-year-old Sam Snead rock clubs the envy of every competitor I tally an "X" on the first hole, meaning I needed more than 10 shots just to get my ball on the green. The third member of our trio, Steve Gross, of Chappaqua, N.Y, notches the same score. "This is just the opposite of what the sport is about," Gross says with a good-natured smile. "Golf is the search for the ultimate groomed course. No matter where I play next weekend, it's going to be absolutely luxurious."
My game improves slightly on the next hole. I rebound from a poor drive, which went pinballing off a rocky access road and deep into the woods, to record an 8. Then I realize that my score after two holes, 18, is already more than half of last year's winning total of 34 and I still have eight holes left to play. I quickly suppress any thoughts of hoisting championship hardware. Meanwhile, Johnson, who lugged a 12-pack of Coors Light up and down the mountain (the load got lighter as the round wore on), is scorching the course with opening scores of 3 and 4. I'm clearly out of my league.
By the fourth hole, my wayward drives have the ball spotters, who dot the course like Secret Service agents, running for cover. At the same time, we're dodging mountain bikers barreling down the hill. The fifth hole is a particularly diabolical layout, with players forced to hit their tee shots directly into the path of an oncoming gondola. I finally smack a monster drive on the final hole - Zero G - inspired by my thinly-disguised intention to get this match over as quickly as possible.
Afterwards, at the party tent, I cool off with a tall cold one, nursing a couple of blisters and the myriad scrapes and cuts I suffered while looking for lost balls amid trees, rocks, shrubs and shaggy grass. Those ugly fluorescent yellow balls that exclusive clubs frown upon? They're a life-saver at a U.X. Open event. In all, I offered up about a half-dozen to the alternative golf gods. My tally for the day is 80 (a fairly respectable score for 18 holes, but abysmal for 10), 44 shots off the winning score. I'm just about to go sulk when the loudspeakers click on, announcing the start of the awards program. In the fine tradition of "the last shall be first," Ryan declares that I've won the dubious distinction of posting the day's high score, and hands me a sleeve of Titleist balls.
Eighty strokes and a dozen brand-new balls? I'd say I got my money's worth.
For a list of U.X Open events and venues for the 2001 season, visit www.uxopen.com, or contact UXGA Tour Properties at 212/424-0100.