Hitting the pavement

I hate golf. I hate the silly clothes, the expense and the elitist attitudes that, for me, are part of the game. But most of all, I hate the destruction golf wreaks on the environment.

In my native Tucson, Ariz., golf courses have swallowed up huge swaths of desert. Thousands of acres of cactus have been bulldozed under, replaced by rolling green hills that look like they'd be more at home in Scotland than in the drought-stricken Sonoran Desert.

Recently, though, I started hearing about an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional putt-putt called urban golf.

Originated by guerrilla golfers in Hamburg, Germany, the game has spread to dozens cities around Europe. Played on concrete in city centers, urban golf dispenses with the green. That means no natural landscapes get dozed under, no water gets wasted, no nasty pesticides seep into the water table.

I wondered: Stripped of the things that I loathe, could golf be fun? What would it be like to tee off in the most beautiful city in the world -- my current home, Paris, the City of Light?

I spoke with a guy named Bastien, the self-appointed head of Paris' urban golf association, the 19th Hole. He invited me to join the group's next Sunday outing.

I found myself looking forward to the excursion: I had images of myself daintily tapping balls through streets of Paris' hip Jewish quarter, the Marais, or teeing off on the Champs de Mars.

Imagine my disappointment when Bastien told me to meet the group at Porte de Pantin, a metro stop in a scruffy district that straddles Paris' city limit.

Though I'd never met them before, the group's dozen members were easy enough to spot: Too cool for cumbersome golf bags, they carried their scuffed clubs strapped onto backpacks.

Only hipper-than-thou Bastien lugged a pastel pink- and-blue golf bag, acquired on eBay for a cool 15 euros -- about $10.

The group had planned to golf on the lawns of the Villette Park, but a warm spell brought herds of Parisians out of winter hibernation and onto the grass, so we went to the next best spot: an abandoned construction site underneath the massive bypass that rings Paris.

In urban golf, it's creativity, not fancy equipment, that counts.

We scoured the site for garbage to create a makeshift mini-course. A plastic bag knotted to a rusted iron rod became a flag. A piece of plastic tubing stuck into the sand piles became the hole. Any old thing -- a bottle cap, a bit of plastic, a dry leaf -- became a tee.

The golfers drove the balls into two piles of sand at the far end of the site.

Inspired by the whizzing balls, I grabbed a club and took a powerful swing. The ball didn't budge. I swung again. And again. Nothing. I learned the hard (and painfully embarrassing) way: Golf is more difficult than it looks.

Though most members had only recently taken up the sport, there were a few lifelong players among the group, and even two golf instructors who gave me impromptu lessons.

After about a million false swings, I finally got a ball airborne, sending a cloud of dust and pebbles flying with it. A few hits later, a ball veered wildly off course and narrowly missed two startled pedestrians.

Finally, a stroke of beginner's luck: A ball grazed the plastic tubing of the makeshift hole. My fellow golfers gave a beery cheer, and I thrilled inside.

Who would have thought that I could get so excited about an almost hole-in-one? Had I been bitten by the golf bug?

It was already dark when we finally hit Montmartre, a maze of narrow, cobblestone streets on a hill overlooking Paris. With its quaint village feel, the neighborhood -- where the hit movie "Amelie" was filmed -- couldn't be cuter.

But beginning urban golfers be warned: For all its Parisian charm, Montmartre is a less than ideal introductory course. Its hilly geography is a distinct handicap. I spent twice as much time racing downhill after errant balls than I did swinging.

An anarchic bunch, urban golfers often say their only rule is safety. When golfing in city centers, they use special urban golf balls made from high-tech foam, guaranteed not to shatter either windows or bones. Members of the Paris group swear they've never had any run-ins with the law. They insist that all the gendarmes they've happened upon have found their antics amusing.

We went along the Rue des Trois Freres, up the steep steps on the Rue Drevet, down the Rue Chappat. We ended up near the bottom of the endless flight of stairs that leads to the great white Sacre Coeur basilica. Aiming at the landmark church, we hit the balls as far up the steps as possible.

My personal best was a pathetic three steps, a far cry from the group champion's 55-step record.

Tourists on their way down the stairs ducked as the foam balls flew by.

A red-faced man looked ready to explode after one bounced harmlessly off his amply padded gut. But instead of chewing us out, he asked to borrow a club, and took a couple of well-aimed swings.

"I've seen kids playing this around Amsterdam," exclaimed the middle-age Dutchman, gesturing up at the dramatically lit basilica perched over the Paris skyline. "But this, this is spectacular!"

I had to agree.