High on the Crime

No boundaries, no fear, no shirts: Welcome to turbogolf
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

At first glance, Norwegian musician Hank von Hell—a former heroin addict known for lyrics such as “All my friends are dead/ They got kicked in the head”—would appear to have zero relevance to the golf world. But the game has a way of sounding like music to even the most unexpected ears.

In the late 1980s, von Hell’s band Turbonegro combined the musical stylings of punk rock, metal and glam rock to create a heavily face-painted genre of its own, dubbed “deathpunk.” Soon after, groups of European misfits, inspired in part by Turbonegro’s rowdy spirit of collaboration and combativeness, would mash together the budding urban- and cross-golf scenes with their rebellious nature to create a game they called turbogolf. 

While the band played no real part in the game’s inception, the name served as an ode to the Norwegian outlaws as well as to the pace at which they played. Unlike the more popular—and comparatively genteel—urban-golf leagues that were taking the game off course, turbogolf was designed exclusively for restricted areas. Their entire game was out of bounds. 

It flourished in Germany: On weekends, cemeteries, construction sites, city squares and even the area known as the “strip of death” along the Berlin Wall were transformed into grimy golf playgrounds. In order to avoid guards and police, rounds were completed in 30 minutes maximum.

The movement’s original pioneers soon spread the game throughout the continent, with most players doubling as students during the week and turbogolfers on weekends. 

Despite the constant threat of getting caught, turbogolfers did little to remain discreet. After climbing whatever barriers stood between them and their course, they cranked up the music, swigged more beers than they took swings and inhaled helium gas to ramp things up even more. Ripped jeans, baggy cargo pants and the absence of shirts became the unofficial uniform. 

In May 2001, photographer Jens Rötzsch caught up with the Berlin turbogolf chapter led by a character named Domenic Devil, also known as El Presidente. There, in the area of Nordbahnhof—where, only a few years before, concrete walls had separated East and West Berlin, and watchtowers were manned by armed soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders—Rotszch captured the essence of turbogolf with a Hasselblad camera and color negative film. 

The series of images shot that day would go on to win third place in Sports Stories at the 2002 World Press Photo contest. 

Looking at Rötzsch’s subjects, one can feel the same torment and truculence of von Hell’s screeches on the song “Wasted Again” tromping through every makeshift hole: “Sweeping floors, working nine to five/ Working for the weekend just to stay alive/ Streets are dead, but I’m totally wired/ Dude, it’s 4 a.m. and my soul is on fire!”