Alaska’s golf season is short and sensational. Here’s how it ends

Golf in Alaska looks — and plays — a little bit different.

Kohjiro Kinno

Every time a moose walks across a green, it leaves a mark.

Every individual step leaves a mark, really. A large moose is larger than the largest horse, so its hooves sink into the vulnerable turf. Fixing the damage from one moose promenade is sort of like repairing several large, uneven ball marks.

But the problems start in earnest when the moose go after the flagsticks. They like to circle around the holes, to play with the flags, sometimes to bite or head-butt them.

“Red flags are a big deal to them,” Bill Engberg tells me. “Each time I see massive amounts of damage, the red flagstick is a common denominator.”

Engberg just finished his 17th season as superintendent at Birch Ridge, a nine-hole course on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, where he says he got rid of the red flagsticks as soon as he got the job. Before this job he was the pro at nearby Bird Homestead (known to locals as “Funny River”), a nine-holer where the bull moose used to fight on the greens, which made for some challenging agronomy. He got rid of all red flags there, too. Next year he’s taking over the operations at Kenai Golf Course. Among the first orders of business: replacing the red flags.

“The babies are curious about the flagsticks and seem to literally play Ring Around the Rosie,” he says. The mothers usually get bored and wander off into the woods, and the calves will eventually follow, but not before inflicting some damage. It’s a reminder that the course exists at the mercy of the surrounding nature. In this part of the world, there are plenty such reminders.

In Alaskan golf, the courses operate at the pleasure of the moose. Bill Engberg

Every course in Alaska has its own set of moose tales. One of the best — or worst — comes from the aptly named Moose Run in Anchorage, the state’s only 36-hole facility. The story goes that early one morning on its Creek Course, a member of the turf crew was out working when a female moose walked onto a nearby green and grabbed the flagstick between her teeth. She bent it nearly in two before ultimately letting it go, sending the flagstick whipping. But on its recoil it thwacked her on the rear, sending her into a mode Engberg calls “full on rototiller.” She proceeded to tear apart the entire putting surface.

They’d play a temporary green for the rest of the season.

What’s the end of the golf season like in Alaska? That’s the reason I phoned up Engberg, who’s known as “Kenai Bill” or “Bill the Thrill,” an enthusiastic, eccentric, essential patch of the Alaskan golf quilt. He’s 62 and in plenty good shape; a walk-behind mower is no problem. Engberg is a good player, too, and dangerous on his home turf. We’d met a few years back when I traveled to the Last Frontier to chronicle the smallest U.S. Open qualifier. But that was in May, which gave me a peek at the season’s beginning. How about the season’s conclusion?

“It’s … different,” Engberg says. “A lot of the stuff we do in Alaska is unique to Alaska, not even Minnesota or southern Canada. The only thing similar is the Yukon — and maybe Norway or Sweden, I don’t know.”

Playing golf in Alaska means playing epic golf. Adventure golf. If you’re playing early in the season that means you’re braving the elements; frozen turf, whipping winds, chance of snow. If you’re playing midseason golf that means you’re in the land of the midnight sun; you could tee off at 12 a.m. or 12 p.m. and get 18 in either way. Alaskan courses unfold in the shadows of glaciers. They’re hewn from thick forests. They gaze across glassy bays. The playing season is short and spectacular.

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It’s December now, which means Alaska’s fairways and greens have been closed for weeks. Some courses, Kenai included, shut their doors Oct. 1. Others hang on as long as they can; after weeks of on-and-off frost delays and half-days — standard for this time of year — Birch Ridge closed for the season on Oct. 22. Palmer, a muni just north of Anchorage that’s often the last holdout in the state, closed on Oct. 29. The day we spoke, overnight temperatures in Soldotna, home to Birch Ridge, dipped below zero degrees Fahrenheit.

But Engberg has migrated to Palm Springs, Calif., where he’s working on the turf crew at the Classic Club this winter. He’s been making this seasonal pilgrimage south for years, leaving at season’s end and returning in April, when the ice begins to melt in earnest.

Alaskans like to push the boundaries of the golf season. Bill Engberg

It’s that ice, he says, that makes Alaskan courses a unique challenge to resuscitate come springtime. The state’s temperatures are extreme, for one thing. But it’s the amount of ice buildup in the ground that really makes the difference. The ice runs deep, two or three or four feet under the surface. And because cold temperatures persist throughout April and May, frequently dropping below freezing overnight, the ice doesn’t melt quickly. The grass stays dormant for much of May and the resulting turf has a strange duality; it’s bouncy in places where the ice still sits at the surface and it’s soggy elsewhere, from irrigation or melt, where the water hits the ice layer and pools there, with nowhere to go. Engberg speaks of this challenge the way Carl Spackler might describe a gopher.

“Ice,” he says, “is your enemy.”

Fox Hollow in Anchorage went through its end-of-season aeration. Bill Engberg

Every superintendent’s season-ending task, then, is to try to do something to make the spring’s rebooting process as painless as possible. But there’s no silver bullet.

“There are plenty of different strategies and priorities,” Engberg says. “Some courses don’t do anything at all. At Birch, our end-of-season maintenance was aerification and heavy sand. That was the priority.”

One point of differentiation is winter tarping. While some courses rope off their greens and cover them up, Engberg isn’t convinced of their effectiveness, estimating they might give a course little more than a one-week head start in the spring. He’s also convinced that by midsummer, his greens rolled the purest in the state.

“There’s more to life than tarps.”

At Birch Ridge, Bill Engberg takes pride in the quality of his greens. Bill Engberg

Some golfing locals make like Engberg and migrate south for the winter to seasonal retreats in California or Arizona or Texas; others plan out two-week escapes to Hawaii, where there are direct flights. Those are the lucky ones.

“The unlucky ones are just jonesing,” Engberg says.

There’s plenty else to occupy their time, of course. There’s some natural hibernation that happens in Alaska’s dark winters — the sun rises after 10 a.m. in Anchorage for most of December, and sets before 4 p.m. — but also plenty of activities. Hockey. Snowmachining (aka snowmobiling). Cross-country skiing. Some of these activities even happen on the courses themselves.

“One year they did sleigh rides at Birch, but the damage was ridiculous,” Engberg remembers. “It was like when golf carts drive in the same spot every single time, only worse.”

Those who live around Anchorage have access to simulators at Moose Run or to the Golf Dome at Fox Hollow, an executive course and indoor training facility. Down on the Kenai Peninsula, though, the only simulator was at the bowling alley, which has since been torn down. In other words, once springtime comes around, local golfers are chomping at the bit.

Dog-sledding at Settler’s Bay Golf Course. Getty Images

The end of every season also marks a new beginning. That will prove true for Engberg, who is anticipating some awkwardness next season after the way things ended at Birch Ridge. His jurisdiction was threatened by a part-time employee who, Engberg says, came in and thought he could call all the shots. Engberg, who had his own idea how things should be run, didn’t take kindly to taking orders. “He and I didn’t get along,” he says simply. After forcing course ownership to choose — him or me — and not getting the answer he wanted, Engberg gave his two weeks’ notice in September.

The world of Alaskan golf is a small one. The largest state in the U.S. has just 22 courses, just eight of them 18 holes, every one of them public-access. Engberg’s new employer, Kenai Golf Course, is just 11 miles from Birch Ridge. It’s the only 18-hole facility on the peninsula. People will talk.

Engberg’s focus is on Kenai’s greens, which have been struggling for years. He likens his situation to an NFL coach taking over a struggling franchise; he might get a year’s grace period but sooner or later knows he’ll need to produce results.

Also like an NFL head coach, Engberg plans to bring his staff with him as he switches jobs. That’s made simpler by the fact that his crew is assembled from local high schoolers, many of whom have come through the local junior program he also runs. He insists their youth is more asset than liability.

Bill Engberg (center) and his crew. Bill Engberg

“Their work ethic, whether it’s because of the community, their parents, whatever it is, they come to work,” he says. “And they’re bright, they’re top of their class. For people who think mowing grass doesn’t take intelligence, it does when you’re a small crew and you’re doing a little bit of everything and it’s like, ‘go do those greens, when you’re done with that fix this tee box, when you’re done with that go tag-team the rough, then let’s go take lunch.'”

Work experience, he adds, is no guaranteed gain.

“I’ve worked with adults who have washed out on other jobs and though turf would be easy,” he says. “They don’t focus on technique, don’t care to learn. The kids? They see how much the details matter to me and they end up policing themselves. Taking ownership. They end up pushing me instead of the other way around.”

Engberg speaks with reverence about the crew and their bright futures. Some are golfers; some aren’t. They’re cellists, hockey players, horseback riders, students.

“They’re not going to be turf people for their lives, but this will be a stepping-off point for them.”

Palmer Golf Course in Palmer, Alaska. Kohjiro Kinno

So what’s the end of the golf season like in Alaska? Really, it’s a lot like golf in any other cold-weather locale. More moose. More ice. Fewer people. Fewer courses. The tourists have gone for the season, leaving a scene of local diehards waiting out the morning frost to sneak in their final rounds. Wintertime is when Alaskan golf plays hard to get. But its hibernation makes it that much sweeter when the first sunny May day rolls around.

Just keep an eye out for red flags.

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Dylan Dethier

Dylan Dethier Editor

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/ The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.