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The Splendour of Finnish Golf

Dermot Gilleece looks into the strange love affair Finland has with Golf

Posted Jun 03, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece


A third European Tour victory by Mikko Ilonen in the Nordea Masters last weekend, reminded me of the first time I made acquaintance with him, back in 1999.  That was when, as one of group of youngsters on a fact-finding mission from their native Finland, he proceeded to capture the West of Ireland Amateur Championship at Enniscrone, Co Sligo.  A year later, he returned to these parts to win the British Amateur Championship.

Not content with these impressive invasions by their brightest young player, the Finns have also had the effrontery to claim a major role in popularising the royal and ancient game in their area of northern Europe.  Indeed the evangelizing could be traced back to two young reindeer herders, Paarvi Tuulvitskoog and Olaaferinn "Ollie" Ruukinaanaluu, who took to batting around a frozen herring with a finely polished antler. The idea was to see which of them could slide the slippery kipper into a far-off, empty vodka bottle in the fewest number of strokes.

They called their game "paar en fisken", which means hit the fish.  Or paar for short.  When the lads discovered that the Scots had been playing a similar game for some centuries past, however, they immediately sold their animals and moved to Glasgow where they became besotted with the pursuit. The upshot of this episode was that paar, or golf as it soon became known, found a permanent and revered place in Finnish sports consciousness. And indeed led to the founding of the Helsinki Golf Club in 1932.

A likely story, I hear you mutter. Whatever the truth of these antler-waving antics, golf in Finland can have a very strange side to it. One of the most intriguing of its 100-odd courses is the Green Zone GC, located directly on the border with Sweden.  As a consequence, roughly half the holes are in either country.  Clubhouse attendants are only too happy to supply visitors with stamped customs forms. Especially interesting, however, is the fact that the short sixth hole actually traverses the international boundary and time-zone. Which means that your fourball could tee off in Finland at 12.50 pm and putt-out in Sweden at noon.

Another obligatory stopping-off point for the golfing tourist to Finland, is the charming, nine-hole Arctic Golf Club which, as the name suggests, is situated on the arctic circle.  Down in Enniscrone, Mikko Korhonen, an 18-year-old member of the visiting Finnish group, highlighted another fascinating aspect of golf back home. "In the middle of June, the light is good enough to play at midnight," he said. "It also makes it very easy to play 72 holes in one day, which I have done."

A few years ago, I had the opportunity of verifying his claim. And he was perfectly correct.  Looking down the 18th fairway into the gathering gloom, it was still possible to make out the desirable landing area for a drive, between bunkers right and left, about 220 yards away.  Further into the distance, cars with their headlights on were approaching from the clubhouse area, down a road skirting the left-hand side of the fairway.

On the right was Lake Katuma, which is frozen from mid-December until late March.   Now, its gently lapping waters were accompanied by birdsong. At eventide?  Well, that would be stretching things insofar as it was now 11.50pm, according to my watch.  By the time I reached the green, it would be the witching hour on Finland's splendid Linna course, about 100 kilometres north of Helsinki.

As Noel Coward might have observed, mad golfers in Finland do, indeed, go out in the midnight sun.  And this was July 12th, about a month later than the ideal time of year for such an exercise.   

Situated near Hameenlinna, Linna is within easy reach of Helsinki Airport and a variety of airlines including SAS, Finnair and British Airways, while Ryanair fly into Tampere Airport, 80 kilometres away.  Among the stories I heard from locals was an almost inevitable reference to Finland's most celebrated composer, Jean Sibelius, who apparently lived part of his life in the Linna area and was inspired to create his famous symphonic poem, “Finlandia”, while looking over the countryside from a viewing tower in Aulanko, about a 10-minute drive away.

With so much to inspire him in his native place, the wonder if that our friend Ilonen hasn’t won more often.

- Dermot Gilleece

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