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Extreme Golf in Death Valley

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A fairway at Furnace Creek, Death Valley, missing only golfers when it's 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

By John Grossmann

I stepped to the first tee at Furnace Creek, absolutely certain I'd be in for a memorable round.  And (hold the Acme jokes) I wasn't even accounting for the coyote and roadrunner I'd seen before even teeing up my ball. How could I be so sure?  Because no matter how many strokes I tallied, I'd notch an extreme golfing feat, playing a round on the planet's lowest golf course–some 214 feet below sea level. 

So began my stay at The Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch, a lush, historic oasis in Death Valley National Park, and a perfect base camp for exploring one of the world's most inhospitable but captivating places.  

The golf proved as surprising as the local sights: desert links with water on half the holes, many fairways tightly lined with tamarisk trees (credit mountain springs high above the resort), no au naturel waste areas and hardly any sand filled bunkers. The real hazard, for those braving the course after Mother's Day, when the inn closes for four months and all guests overnight at the more family oriented ranch, is the heat. 

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The pool at Furnace Creek, a cooling 85 degrees when it's 115 in the air.

Slugabeds suffer. The clubhouse thermometer, which read 87 degrees at 7:30 a.m., registered 101 by my round's end at 11 o'clock; hit 110 at noon; and later peaked at 115. Which explains why an afternoon dip in the inn's pool, a spring-fed 85 degrees year round, actually felt refreshing.  

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Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch.

Fashioned of local stone and 18-inch wide adobe bricks, the 66-room inn opened in 1927, when guests arrived by train at Death Valley Junction with steamer trunks and traveled the remaining 30 miles in open-topped Cadillac roadsters.  Much of the early 20th century ambience remains.  Through its nine decades, Furnace Creek has hosted Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, Anthony Quinn, Marlon Brando, and most recently, Laura Bush.  Most rooms overlook what's arguably the nation's most striking oasis, an idyllic, water-filled date palm garden accented by oleander and bougainvillea. Beyond, looms the stark but enchanting panorama of Death Valley's salt-crusted badlands.

"Since we rarely have clouds, our sunset skies aren't spectacular.  But," smiled longtime inn manager Alex Cabana, "the mountains turn lavender." 

Location: In the heart of Death Valley National Park, 120 miles from Las Vegas; 275 miles from Los Angeles.  Pack water for the desert drive.

Lodging: Furnace Creek Inn and Ranch, Death Valley, California; 760-786-2345;
Money: Accommodations at the inn (mid-October through Mother's Day) run from $320 to $458 for a suite; at the resort's ranch, a mile-away sister site featuring the golf course, a saloon, caf‚, and steak house, rooms are available year round from $126 to $211.
Local Knowledge: In summer, Furnace Creek's Extreme Golf package offers club rental, electric cart, a sleeve of golf balls, tees, chilled bottled water, and nine holes of golf for $30. Saddle horses and carriage rides can be arranged at the ranch.   Nearby National Park attractions include:  the unforgettable overlook from Zabriskie Point, the mountain- hugging Artists Drive, with its pastel colored slopes; and Badwater Basin, at 282 feet below sea level, the lowest spot in the Western Hemisphere.  A bit further away, one encounters the deja vu view of Death Valley's towering stand of sand dunes used by George Lucas as an other-worldly set for Star Wars.   

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