The rain wasn't falling steadily, just enough to get the golf clubs wet and fog up my glasses - and make sure that every golf ball we hit would end up thwocking deep into the sand dunes surrounding us. But a little moisture wasn't enough to stop - or even faze, for that matter - a group of dedicated X-golfers. When you're responsible for creating a sport that's taken over Germany and is now spreading across the world, you don't even notice the rain. Or the whipping wind. Or the temperatures hovering near zero.
Using only one club each, we had been thwacking golf balls across the tractor treads criss-crossing a desolate-looking construction site in northern Hamburg for about an hour when I had an epiphany. I turned to Torsten Schilling, the man responsible for the day's events: »You realize,« I told him, »that you're insane.«
He smiled and faced his ball again, the skull-and-crossbones ring on his hand twinkling as he smacked the little white orb out of sight. I'm sure he's heard it before. In fact, as the inventor of X-golf, a sport in which golfers forego greens for the pleasure of playing on construction sites, in city parks and bars and off the tops of buildings, Torsten must hear it a lot.
The sport that gradually became X-golf - pronounced cross-golf - was born a decade ago, when Torsten was on a business trip. The employees of the television station where he works in the set design department had taken over several floors of a hotel, and after hitting the hotel bar, they decided to play golf in the hallway. That was so much fun that Torsten and his friends decided to keep on playing once they got home. The only problem: no hallways - so they took their clubs outside. Using what turned out to be a woman's club, Torsten led the group to a local construction site - and the craziness took off.
The group's logo, a skull sitting atop crossed golf clubs holding a tee in its mouth, was designed a few years later, when Natural Born Golfers shut down a city park so they could use it for a tournament. After stringing the perimeter of the park with the tape used to keep people out of construction sites, Torsten decided that something more ominous was needed and created the skull logo, an emblem which now emblazons his favorite sweatshirt and a large ring. It can also be seen in towns throughout Germany, where half-a-dozen affiliate clubs exist, as well as in Paris, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Vienna and Stockholm.
More than 20.000 people are on the group's mailing list, ranging in age from 11-year-olds through senior citizens, though most of the regular players are in their 20s. Many of them are in the media business. Toby Horn, for instance, does camera and sound work for a German television agency and has been playing X-golf for about three years, since he was 20.
Toby saw an article about the group in his local newspaper and around 2 a.m. the next day went looking for Natural Born Golfers on the Internet. »We read that there would be a tournament at 9 o'clock that morning,« he remembers. »So we called up Torsten Schilling at 2 o'clock in the morning - we just had to take part!« Now, he says, »I've infected a couple of my friends. We all play regularly.«
Like Torsten, Toby enjoys the lack of pretension at X-golfing outings. »A lot of creative people play, and no boring people,« he said. »On a Sunday, players will show up who've never had a golf club in their hands before - which sometimes is funny - but people shouldn't be intimidated by the fact that they've never done it before. It doesn't matter if you make a fool of yourself.«
In fact, that's what Sundays are geared for: people who might make fools of themselves. Although many of Hamburg?s X-golfers play several times a week, Sunday is the day new people get to try out the sport. »We'll have 50, 60 people or more show up when the weather's nice,« Torsten said. »That's why we play at the construction site: We have room to spread out and make sure nobody gets hurt. Safety is the only rule we have.«
On a frigid Sunday in January, only about 10 people show up, and most of them are experienced. Nevertheless, the group heads out to the Sunday meeting place, where a few stragglers turn up later in the day. The X-golf course looks more like a moonscape than a typical putting green, with blow- ing sand and random ditches dotting the site. A variety of construction machinery sits around, some destined to serve as goals later in the day.
The first goal: a pale blue pylon sitting atop a sand dune, all but blending into the building behind it. Clubs are grabbed at random from the bag Torsten carries: Most had been picked up cheaply at yard sales and flea markets, while the battered balls were bought from driving ranges.
Within minutes, we're spread across the moonscape, the better golfers ranging far ahead, while those of us new to the sport meander along yards behind, searching for lost balls and, when we find them, yelling »Achtung!« before swatting at them. Torsten hangs back with the newbies, showing them how to hit properly, correcting their stances and adjusting their grip on the club. Helping more people enjoy X-golfing is what brings him back to the sand dunes each week.
Sure, X-golf's popularity is continuing to grow and the sport is gaining more exposure, having been featured most recently in a Volkswagen commercial. The next step, Torsten said, is to have a worldwide X-golfing tour, an event he says should be set up in the next year or so. But the growth of the sport isn't really his goal. He just wants to keep on having fun.
»That's why I love X-golfing,« he said. »It's a good feeling to come together with old friends, to make new friends. I just like being out here, being with people, having fun.« Maybe he's not so crazy after all.
Plaid Pants Not Allowed
At least part of the fun of X-golf is that it's so unstructured, so do-your-own-thing. The only rule, founder Torsten Schilling says, is safety first. After that, just enjoy yourself. The golfers play in a variety of areas - anywhere, basically, other than actual golf courses. (Other than sneaking onto courses at night to play with glow-in-the-dark balls, Torsten says he's never been on a course.) After finding a likely area and making sure no innocent bystanders will be in the way, X-golfers only have to agree on a target and tee-up: Unlike a regular golf course, distances can't easily be figured out, so getting a particular club doesn't matter so much. Just grab one that feels good and start wacking away at the ball.
Timothy J. Gibbons, 27, is an editor for Oskar's. After a day of golfing, he managed one good hit, which pleased him much more than you'd think.