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Pitching, putting among Mongols

Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / June 19, 2005

Every so often when traveling, you come across a perfect place for that favorite sport you play back home: a basketball court perched high above a sweeping view of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge or a country lane in the dry hills of Andalusia that descends and climbs at a scale inviting for a road bike.

Andre Tolme, 35, a wandering civil engineer from New Hampshire, had that kind of moment a few years back. Thing is, he was in Mongolia. And his sport is golf.

''Staring at the short grass that stretched endlessly across the country, that is where I got the idea of hitting a golf ball in Mongolia," Tolme wrote by e-mail recently. ''I wondered if I would be able to just hit the ball all day, and then finally, I posed the ultimate question to myself: I wonder if it's possible to golf across the entire country?"

Well, it is. And he did.

In 2003, Tolme golfed for 90 days across some 1,200 miles of Mongolia's wind-whipped steppe.

There is only one regulation golf course in Mongolia, but a law of common land use means that one man's pasture is another's front nine. Playing only with a 3-iron, Tolme took 12,170 shots, he says, and lost 509 balls while walking east to west across the country. He slept in a tent on the open terrain and relied on the kindness of strangers who offered many a meal, including fresh goat.

Tolme's seemingly quixotic feat -- tilting at windstorms -- was as much about physical endurance and cultural immersion as hitting a ball, and it brought quick fame: He appeared on ''The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and Outside magazine named him one of ''The 25 Coolest People Now."

Now Tolme's back in Mongolia, this time leading summer tours for those who want to club their way across the land of Genghis Khan. He recently traded e-mails with the Globe in a question-and-answer session about the birdies and bogies of his adventure. Some excerpts:

What's the first course you played?I began playing at the age of 10 . . . on a local nine-hole course in Sanbornton, N.H., called Den Brae Golf Course. . . . Three-putts are my nemesis.

What's the first country you visited?My father took a job in Gabon, on the west coast of Africa. This was my first serious overseas travel [at 10], and a great experience. . . . When I quit my engineering job in 2000, I boarded a bus to Mexico and kept going south all the way through Central America, and eventually South America. This around-the-world travel adventure took me to Northern Europe and Scandinavia, then to Estonia and Russia, where I boarded the trans-Siberian train to Mongolia. In September 2001 I was in the Mongolian countryside.

Where are you now?Mongolia's capital, Ulaan Baatar. By most counts, it's not a beautiful city. The architecture is distinctly Soviet, with low-rise concrete buildings squatting in rectangular formation. . . . Once outside the city, you embark on a journey back in time. Nearly everyone in the countryside lives in ''gers" [Mongolian for yurt] and they are primarily herders. In May, winds tend to be strong and dusty gales blow. . . . This is the season of the legendary Gobi dust storms in the south. Cold Siberian winds can drop temperatures dramatically in a matter of hours, and it's necessary to have a sleeping bag rated for below freezing all through the summer.

Do Mongolians golf?The national sport of Mongolia is wrestling. Other than that, there aren't many organized sporting events. But Mongolians in my opinion are very coordinated athletically. Maybe the horse riding and hard work out on the range has brought this about.

What are some of the sublime rewards of golfing in Mongolia?Standing in the vast emptiness of the steppe, it's easy to imagine the logistical difficulties that a man like Genghis Khan faced in uniting an empire. But it's also easy to understand why Mongolia was always a difficult place to rule as a conquering force. The people are spread very thin and they are fiercely independent. . . . I am not a religious person myself, but I found myself performing the spiritual rituals that Mongolians practice as I traversed the country. An offering of the first cup of tea in the morning to the spirits, and the contribution of stones to the sacred rock piles called ''ovoos" that are spread across the land. The land is humbling and it gives one a great insight into the history of spiritualism of mankind.

What was the most profound encounter you had during your golfing in 2003?On a day of unbearable heat and horrible shots with my 3-iron, I ran across three teenage boys on horseback. I was tired and depressed and running extremely low on water, so I asked them to help me find the river. I jumped on the back of a horse and bounced along until we came to the river about two miles away. After filling up my water bottles, they invited me back to their family's ger. Their mother was just getting dinner going and she invited me to stay for mutton and homemade noodles. I was ravenously hungry and they were all pretty impressed when I ate three big bowls. (Mongolians themselves are big eaters.) After dinner, we played a few rounds of makeshift pitch-and-putt golf, which I taught them. They taught me how to catch a horse with a lasso and then hobble its legs for the night.

Will you get to play much this summer, or have you worked yourself into the role of logistical caddy for paying customers?

I plan to play along with my tour groups. There are some techniques that I have learned that I'll be teaching them. Finding the ball when all the terrain looks the same in every direction is harder than you think.

Tolme's 10-day Mongolian golfing tour, including four days with four-star hotel accommodation in the capital for Naadam, the annual Mongolian archery, wrestling, and horse-racing festival, costs $3,700 per person, starting July 1 and 8. For more information, visit www.golfmongoliatours.com.

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