Former standup comedian and humor columnist Wood sold his condo in Seattle and set out on a yearlong global golfing journey. He tells a highly entertaining tale of his trip through 22 countries far off the beaten path from the typical golf vacation. He played the first of his 80 rounds on the world's southernmost course at the tip of Argentina and finished in the northernmost climes of the upper reaches of Norway. In between he played a vast range of layouts: a grassless brown track in the Atacama Desert of Chile; spectacular courses in New Zealand and Australia; a course adjacent to the pyramids and sphinx in Egypt; and the only golf course in all of Russia. He suffered various setbacks, such as golf clubs temporarily lost on a South American bus line. He writes well about the terrain and local atmosphere, and provides a deft mix of golf and travel writing. His take on the people of the world is a 48-year-old bachelor's perspective, as he judges Argentina, Chile and Hungary to have the best-looking women and writes longingly of a beautiful foot masseuse in China. Wood's humor is sometimes forced, but like a few shanked shots in an otherwise well-played round of golf, it doesn't spoil the whole. (Mar.)Copyright 2007Reed Business Information
Around the World in 80 Rounds: Chasing a Golf Ball from Tierra del Fuego to the Land of the Midnight Sunby David Wood
At forty-seven, David Wood sold everything he owned and set out to fulfill every golfer’s dream: For one year, he traveled the world (covering sixty thousand miles and every continent except Antarctica) by plane, boat, train, motorcycle, and rickshaw, to play the game he loves in the most exotic locales, including the world’s highest, driest,
At forty-seven, David Wood sold everything he owned and set out to fulfill every golfer’s dream: For one year, he traveled the world (covering sixty thousand miles and every continent except Antarctica) by plane, boat, train, motorcycle, and rickshaw, to play the game he loves in the most exotic locales, including the world’s highest, driest, hottest, coldest, and most remote golf courses, and lived to tell the tale.
Along the way, he met a bevy of fascinating characters, including surly cabbies, taxi drivers with a death wish, welcoming golf-course managers, threatening kangaroos, and golf pros out for a quick game. David faced dire situations, such as bouts of food poisoning in India and Egypt, altitude sickness in Argentina, getting booted out of the Ukraine by armed guards, and muddling about with limited language skills. But through it all he maintained a sense of humor and, of course, his passion for golf, which he played every chance he got.
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Around the World in 80 Rounds
Chasing a Golf Ball from Tierra del Fuego to the Land of the Midnight Sun
By Wood, David St. Martin's Press
Copyright © 2008 Wood, David
All right reserved.
Four centuries plus after Mary’s last game, my bus bounced along the rocky dirt road that parallels Magellan’s discovered channel as I was on my way to Ushuaia, Argentina, the home of the world’s southernmost golf course. Ushuaia was the first goal of my around-the-world golfing quest.
It had been a long slog of travel from Seattle to get to within spitting distance from Ushuaia. Zigzagging across both Americas, I had flown ten thousand air miles south from the Pacific Northwest to Santiago, which sits midway down the shaft of the one-iron–shaped Chile.
I had spent five days in Santiago acclimating myself to South America and enjoying the robust, but terribly smoggy, capital city. I met with travel agents trying to find the best methods to get around overland. The common consensus was the overnight sleeper bus—the salon de cama. I had hoped to take trains, my favorite mode of transportation, but rail travel is sadly on a severe decline in those parts. While sipping Chilean coffee in Santiago’s charming sidewalk bistros, I came up with an outline of an itinerary for the South American portion of my quest.
My plan of attack to explore golf in South America was to make my way to Ushuaia first and play theworld’s most southern course (once the snow cleared). Next was a trip to golf-rich Buenos Aires with a side excursion to Uruguay. While doing my hasty research in Seattle, I had read that there was a terrific course in Montevideo designed by the Michelangelo of golf-course architecture, Dr. Alister MacKenzie. Along with numerous golf-course masterpieces built in the 1920s and 1930s, MacKenzie has golf’s greatest design on his vaulted résumé—Cypress Point on California’s splendid Monterey Peninsula. An Alister MacKenzie–designed course in Uruguay? If true, it would be like finding an unknown Picasso hanging next to the velvet Elvis on the wall of a double-wide in an Arkansas trailer park. This I wanted to see. Finally, my plans were: back to Chile for the northern half of the one-iron and then top it off with a journey to Bolivia’s La Paz and a visit to their nosebleed-high course. It was a rough outline and that’s all I wanted—just me, my golf clubs, my Dramamine, and my map.
My only other obligation was the promise I had made to my sister that I would find out whether or not the water swirls the other way around in the toilet when flushed in the Southern Hemisphere. She was under the belief that it flows in the opposite direction below the equator. Living in Minnesota, and the mother of my two beautiful teenage nieces, she probably wanted something clever to impress her friends and loved ones on those bitter-cold Minnesota nights in January.
While in Santiago, I had also attempted to use the small bits of Spanish I had hurriedly crammed into my head. Back in Seattle, I bought a self-learning cassette-tape course of elementary Spanish and tried to give myself a crash course in Español. Up until then, the most complex phrase I knew was tacos al carbon. Having decided to take this trip only two months prior, there obviously wasn’t the time to learn Spanish as thoroughly as I would have liked. Especially since Santiago seems to be the wild-dog center of the universe with packs of ferocious canines trotting around in roving gangs most every block, the phrase that would really could have come in handy was:¿ Perdóname, cuándo fue la última vez que ese gruñiendo, destraillido Doberman tuyo mató y comió un viajero norteamericano? (“Excuse me, when was the last time that growling, unleashed Doberman of yours killed and ate a North American traveler?”)
Traveling south from Santiago my next destination was Valdivia. I went to the main bus depot to find my salon de cama. When a South American takes a bus trip, every member of his or her family comes to see them off. Grandparents, parents, brothers, sisters, and third cousins twice removed all come along for moral support. I saw this ritual repeated over and over again in the continent’s bus terminals. On the platform next to me stood a thirtysomething gentleman from Santiago who was waiting for the same bus as I was. He was accompanied by eleven relatives to see him off. Thinking perhaps he was moving away from home and wouldn’t be seeing his loved ones for a long time, I asked him if he was leaving Santiago for an extended time. “No, I’m going to Valdivia on business. I take this trip twice a month. I’ll be back in two days.” I was going around the world for a year and no relatives back in the U.S. saw it necessary to go see me off.
The overnight ride to Valdivia cost me twenty-nine dollars and served two purposes—it got me hundreds of miles closer to Ushuaia and was a cheap place to bunk. Our double-decker bus arrived, and I began the Chilean leg of my quest for Ushuaia.
From Santiago, it was ten hours overnight to the delightful river city of Valdivia—where I stayed for a couple of days as Chile was celebrating its independence day. Their holiday is similar to our Fourth of July except they don’t get drunk and blow their fingers off with fireworks like we do. They get drunk and blow off their entire limbs. What people in Chile consider fireworks, we consider major artillery fire. There were explosions throughout the night that shook my hotel room. I wondered if a war had broken out instead of a celebration.
Moving on from Valdivia, I took a four-hour ride to the dour Chilean port city of Puerto Montt. From there, I immediately boarded another flight and flew three hours due south to another of Chile’s outposts—Punta Arenas, which unhappily boasts of having the world’s largest hole in the ozone hovering over its exposed head. From there, I boarded another passenger bus to travel fifteen hours overland across the archipelagos of southern Chile and Argentina to Patagonia and then down into Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia sitting on the basement floor of the continent.
Entering Tierra del Fuego, I could feel the edge of the golfing world was near. The pale blue horizon looked more atmospheric than sky, as if the blue molecules were sparse and a well-struck golf shot could pierce the fragile veil and soar directly into deep space. The middle of the earth seemed to hog all the oxygen and only threw us the scraps as the latitudes became smaller in circumference. If you set a globe of the earth on the ground like a golf ball, Ushuaia would be smack-dab on the grass alongside frigid Antarctica. These were areas where people visited to watch penguins frolic, not to play golf.
I had spent the previous night in a tiny hotel room in Punta Arenas—a city of 121,000. Scottish and British immigrants flocked there in the later 1800s to seek their fortunes in the wool and gold booms of the time. With the harsh winds and barren landscape, the Scots would have felt right at home.
Punta Arenas sits on the Strait of Magellan, and was a perfect locale as a trading city for the Southern Hemisphere. Before the Panama Canal, it was also a crucial refueling station for ships circling South America. Great fortunes were made in the boom, and opulent mansions built at the turn of the twentieth century stand as testament to that wealth today. Most of these homes have lost their luster, but were indeed grander than one would expect given their location on the earth.
I had phoned ahead from Puerto Montt to book this hotel on the advice of my guidebook. Calling my room small wouldn’t have been doing it justice. Actually, calling the accommodation a “hotel room” was a bit of a stretch: it was a broom closet with a bed. Being claustrophobic, I went down to the front desk to see if a larger room could be found. I had no desire to sleep in a coffin until I no longer had any say in the matter. “No, Senor Wood, you’re in our deluxe room,” the innkeeper insisted.
Accepting my fate, I went back to my casket-sized room. I had to slow dance with my golf travel bag to get back into the teeny space. I could lie in bed, stretch out both arms and touch the opposing walls. The bathroom sink was so close I didn’t even have to get out of bed to brush my teeth before nodding off.
Waking up surprisingly rested and ready for the final leg to Ushuaia, I woke early with the excitement that this was the day I would venture to the very end of South America. The weather was brisk as snow was in the forecast. Wisely, I put on my silk long underwear just in case the bus was cold.
My hotel was only one block from the bus depot. I showed up bright and early, clean, packed, warm, and fully prepared for the day of travel. Then all hell broke loose. I discovered they didn’t take credit cards for the bus ticket. I had no Chilean pesos left. I had tried to play it smart financially by spending all my Chilean pesos as I would be in Argentina the following evening. My guidebook had warned that changing money between the two countries was a risk as one rarely accepts the currency of the other. Thinking I was being a clever traveler, I spent every last cent of my Chilean pesos the night before on a wonderful seafood dinner and bought provisions for the long day of bus travel set to begin at seven the next morning. Clever traveler, I wasn’t.
People in Chile were among the nicest, kindest, most helpful people I was to meet in my travels, but the “gentleman” at the bus counter wasn’t one of them. We weren’t communicating well, and he was one of the few people who didn’t take kindly to my terrible Spanish. I think the only English words he knew were: “No Visa!”
The bus was leaving in twenty minutes. I sprinted down the streets of Punta Arenas looking for a cash machine at seven in the morning. The central part of town, where the banks were, was about eight blocks away. I was running as fast as a forty-seven-year-old man can run a with a fifty-pound fully packed golf travel bag, my sole piece of luggage, in tow.
ATM after ATM was either out of order or, because of the early hour, locked up tighter than the Unabomber. It was at that moment I began to realize that my decision to wear the long underwear was starting to be an incredibly bad one, as sweat was pouring off me like an embezzler during a company audit. I only had about five minutes until the bus was to leave when I remembered that I had some U.S. dollars tucked away in my golf bag “in case of emergency.” The next bus to Ushuaia wasn’t for three days. This was an emergency! I knew that the only way I was getting on that bus was if the guy at the bus station would take dollars. I ran back to the depot, pulled out some cash, and asked the evil bastard at the counter if he would accept U.S. currency.
It turned out that the only other English words he knew were: “No U.S. money!”
I was defeated. Ushuaia would have to wait, and so would I. It was at this point the Chilean Satan behind the counter laughed, pulled out a calculator, converted dollars into pesos, and wrote down on a piece of paper that for twenty-two U.S. dollars the ticket was mine. I don’t know if he felt sorry for me, or if a spark of humanity had entered his dark soul, but he sold me the ticket. He was chuckling and speaking in Spanish to a friend of his who was standing beside the counter. I was sure they were laughing at my sweaty expense.
Now that I had the hard-won ticket in my hand, I looked him directly in the eye and said in perfect Spanish: “I hope you develop the worst case of hemorrhoids in the history of the world!”
Well, actually, I certainly couldn’t have managed a Spanish phrase that complex. I meekly said “Gracias,” and boarded the bus to Ushuaia.
Calming down from my altercation at the bus depot in Punta Arenas, my sweat-soaked long johns started to dry. I settled in for the long bus ride to Ushuaia as I reflected on how far golf had traveled from its birthplace in Scotland to one of the earth’s bookends there in Tierra del Fuego.
It is said that at its zenith at the turn of the twentieth century, the sun never set on the British Empire. The sun also never set on the world of golf. By 1900, those seafaring wanderers and invaders from those rather small islands in the North Atlantic controlled 20 percent of the world’s land mass and over 400 million people born without that stiff upper lip. No matter where they decided to plant their Union Jack on the globe, even in lands that had the audacity to already have had their own flag, they took everything England with them and tried to turn these foreign locales into replicas of Liverpool or Cardiff-by-the-Sea or Ipswich. They brought along their warm beer, stern military rule, strict boarding schools, corporal punishment, horrible cuisine, dainty afternoon tea, and inflicted all of this mess onto their realm. Thankfully, they also brought along something positive as well: the game of their homeland—golf.
From my seat in the back of the bus to Ushuaia, I thought on how strange this land must have appeared to Magellan in 1520. With little imprint from the hand of man, it couldn’t have changed much from then to now. There’s ample room for millions of new golf courses. This is land to get lost in. If I was ever in the federal witness protection program, I would have them send me to Patagonia—even the Gambino crime family couldn’t find you down there.
Actually, the area could use a mob family in the cement business, because the long road to Ushuaia would benefit from pavement. The ride was rough. Every fifteen minutes or so, we’d hit a small boulder in the road that would send me bouncing up toward the bus ceiling like I was sitting in James Bond’s Aston Martin passenger ejector seat. It’s a wonder we didn’t break an axle. My intestines were tossed like a chef salad for fifteen bone-jarring hours on that teeth-chattering ride.
As our bus crossed the Strait of Magellan on a rusty old ferry, I met two couples who were traveling together. A foursome of doctors, Josef and Renee were from the Bay Area of California while Callam and Sara were from Cupar, Scotland—which is just outside St. Andrews. Josef and Callam had met and become friends during medical internships in New Zealand.
We shared our travel stories. They got me all excited with tales of the golf bounty of New Zealand, which has more golf per capita than any country on earth. It had been awhile since I had spoken with people fluent in English, and it was fun to converse without using my Spanish-English dictionary for every other word. They were lively, well-traveled, and adventurous.
When I had bought the bus ticket from Punta Arenas, I assumed that it went all the way to Ushuaia. This turned out not to be the case and was my second stupid mistake of the day. The bus only went as far as Rio Grande, a small town on the Atlantic side of Tierra del Fuego. It was still another four hours to Ushuaia. I had the feeling I was going to be stranded because not only didn’t I have Chilean money, I didn’t have any Argentine pesos—there hadn’t been an opportunity to get them. Rio Grande, bleak and forlorn, didn’t appear ATM friendly either.
My new friends came to my rescue. Callam spoke Spanish confidently, and being the doctor he is, he took control and found a van that was leaving for Ushuaia in twenty minutes. He must have sensed my hopelessness because he bought a ticket for me along with his group. I gratefully promised him quick repayment upon arriving in Ushuaia. Having the unlikely but good fortune to meet a Scot fluent in Spanish was the first of many lucky travel situations I would encounter in the coming eleven months. The Golf Gods were watching over me so far, despite my ineptitude.
We shared the van with a young Chinese spiked-haired backpacking couple who looked more rock and roll than Chairman Mao. They too were lively and fun and while they didn’t speak much English—they certainly knew more than I did Chinese. They taught me some simple Chinese phrases that I forgot as quickly as I learned them—I was still trying to get a grip on Español.
En route to Ushuaia, the landscape started to become extremely mountainous as snowflakes started to fall. A day that had begun with me running like a madman all over Punta Arenas seeking a cash machine had morphed into this merry band of diverse wanderers motoring up the steep incline that would eventually lead down toward the bottom of the earth.
When I first encountered Ushuaia during my Google search for the southernmost golf course in the world, I pictured an abandoned snowy outpost with more penguins than inhabitants. How wrong that impression was. Ushuaia is a thriving community of 64,000 nestled alongside the gloriously blue Beagle Channel, named for Charles Darwin’s ship—the HMS Beagle—that the naturalist used to sail on his two-month survey of South America. The channel is surrounded by the snowy peaks of the Fuegan Andes, which soar majestically up from the peaceful harbor.
I found my hotel just off the town center, the Hostal Del Bosque, checked in, and found an invitingly cozy room that had a radiator hissing warmth to beat the cold and snowfall outside. I got out of my long johns—they’d done yeoman’s work that day.
Ushuaia had me immediately charmed. There was a prosperous feel to the city floating through the brisk air and falling snow as I walked around to de-bus my legs. I walked past several restaurants and bars full of late-night diners and folks gabbing and laughing and looking as if the end of the world is the only place to be. Ushuaia seemed like an energetic Italian ski village that just happens to be at the southernmost extremity of an entirely different hemisphere. The locals spoke Spanish in rapid-fire bursts that seemed more Italiano than Español.
Not only do Ushuaians talk like Italians, you quickly learn they also drive like Italians, which means traffic rules are merely suggestions. Ushuaia is small. You can walk from one end of town to the other in ten minutes, but cars were zipping around like in the chase scene from The French Connection. The local rule is you go as fast as you can whenever and wherever you want. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but there are no stop or yield signs in the entire town. Plus the main part of the village is on a steep slope, so cars are careening downhill like gas-fueled toboggans.
In the mornings while killing time waiting for the weather to turn, I would sit and read my newspaper by the window in a corner coffee shop watching near-miss after near-miss as cars buzzed up and down the hills. It was insane! As near as I could figure, the first car to the intersection had the right of way, and if you weren’t there first, you better be wearing your seat belt and a crash helmet.
It took several days for golf weather to finally emerge. My fourth morning in Ushuaia, I opened the blinds on my hotel window and sunlight flooded my room. The snow had finally stopped! There was a thin layer of white frosting on the cars parked on the street, but the bright sunlight gave me hope. I decided to go for it. It turns out I would be the first player to start the new golf season at the world’s southernmost golf course.
Passersby gave me strange looks as I waited for a taxi with a golf bag slung over my shoulder in front of the hotel. People heading out for a day on the snowy slopes surrounding Ushuaia were walking by with skis and snowboards that seemed more appropriate. I hailed a cab that was thundering down the street toward the demolition derby of downtown Ushuaia.
The cabdriver and I had a lively conversation on the three-mile trip to the course, which is located just west of the town. Actually, he was having a lively conversation; I couldn’t understand a word he said. I had learned that even though I never actually understood 99.9 percent of anything anyone ever said to me in South America, if I just smiled and said, “Sí,” things usually went along pretty well. For all I knew, the taxi driver could have been asking me if I had eaten a feta cheese and hamster omelet for breakfast while wearing a tutu, and I would have just smiled and said, “Sí.”
We reached the Ushuaia Golf Course; things didn’t look promising.
Resting in a river valley at the base of several dramatic peaks, the nine-hole course looked unplayable with a blanket of white hiding the green playground underneath. The snow obscured the tees and greens as well as the contours of the land. It looked like a white winter pasture from my Minnesota youth.
There was a local gentleman who had also driven out to the course; apparently he felt there was a chance of golf as well after their long hard winter. He had parked in front of the wooden farmhouse that serves as the clubhouse. The small shack gave the impression of having been boarded up for the winter.
The local was a fellow golf addict, who I could tell wanted to play as badly as I did. A junkie knows a junkie. The sun was starting to peek through the mountains and some green bits of fairway were starting to show through the white frosting.
In Spanish, I think he asked me if I had clubs. I smiled, and said, “Sí.” For the first time on my trip as far I knew, my answer matched the question. I assumed he told the cabbie that he would give me a ride back to town as I got my clubs out of the trunk. The cabbie muttered something about “muy loco” as I paid the fare. He raced back to the joy of possible multicar collisions in town.
The setting of the Ushuaia Golf Course is one of the more dramatic a golfer will find. Five glacial Fuegan Andes mountains soar to the heavens surrounding the Pipo River valley where the course resides, as the nine holes of golf transverse a serpentine river that is really more a creek. There are old railroad tracks from the early 1900s that parallel the right side of the first fairway. Because of its remoteness, Ushuaia was first settled as a notorious penal colony in 1902. Initially, the prison housed political prisoners and later, criminals with violent offenses. The Argentine judicial system in Buenos Aires probably had no clue they were sending the convicts to somewhere so idyllic. They just knew it was the end of the world and as far away as criminals could be sent in Argentina.
The prisoners were trained out to this river valley to work, chopping down trees for firewood and gathering building materials for the growing town of Ushuaia. The bucolic spot must have been a welcome relief from the direness of their tiny prison cells. Their backbreaking labor had cleared the land for golf decades later.
There was a glorious silence in the golfing valley. Gliding hawks were swooping along the steep slopes of the mountains like graceful kites. The narrow river meandering across the course had broken the dams of ice that held back its flow and was now cheerily bubbling along to its next destination, the Beagle Channel. After a long, brutal winter, spring was finally waking up and getting out of bed after a deep slumber. I was happy to be there.
My golfing partner was Raul, a retired businessman form Buenos Aires, who had decided to settle down in the beautiful scenery of Tierra del Fuego. The Ushuaia Golf Club, a compact three thousand yards, gave him a place to scratch his golfing itch, weather permitting. Wisely, he took out an orange golf ball on the first tee. I’m not one for playing anything but a gleaming white Titleist, but I was jealous of his brightly colored ball. I looked down the field of white that was the first fairway of the short three-hundred-yard par-four and knew he was going to have a better chance of finding his ball than I was. We both hit decent drives, given the circumstances and volume of clothing layers we wore to fight the cold, which had to be near the freezing mark. Off we went.
Raul knew less English than I knew Spanish, if that was possible. In his late sixties, he still possessed robust health and I could tell he had always enjoyed the outdoors.
We had a blast playing winter golf. We laughed often because of the absurdity of what we were doing as we whacked the ball around the slushy course. Initially, there was so much snow it was difficult to tell where the greens were hiding, but my new wingman Raul guided me as he’d shout from across the fairway, “Por allá!” and pointed me toward the spots where my shots were supposed to go.
After an hour, the sun had finally risen higher than the glacial peaks that horseshoe the valley and started to melt the snow on our second nine. Finally able to shed a couple of layers of clothing and free up our swings a bit, we marched happily along communicating in the only language we had in common: golf.
Raul had played golf since he was teenager. I would later learn that Argentina—especially Buenos Aires—has a long golfing history dating back to the start of the twentieth century. Raul, strong and burly, possessed a powerful athletic swing and a handicap of thirteen compared to my seven. I was glad we weren’t playing for pesos. There is nothing more dangerous on a golf course than a thirteen handicap with a well-timed swing. That’s a license to print money.
Though twenty years older, Raul hit the ball every bit as far as I did, and on the par-five sixth his ball sailed twenty yards past what I thought had been a well-hit drive of my own. Raul knew he had caught one on the screws. His sly smile and twinkling eyes told me he had tried to better my tee-ball. I had ample opportunity to compliment him with “Bueno!” after all his excellent shots—which were occurring with a far greater frequency than mine were.
A euphoric feeling of accomplishment fell over me after completing my round in Ushuaia. Raul and I shook hands on the final green after playing the loop twice; two cold but happy golfing warriors playing the game we love. We hadn’t kept score or even worried about putting out on some of the greens because the course was in such bad shape from the long winter and recent snow, but that was hardly a concern. Today was the start of the four short months of golf there at 54.8 degrees below the equator before the Arctic cold would return with a frosty vengeance. It was golf at its fundamental best—two new friends out smacking a ball around a field, enjoying the fresh air and carrying on in the tradition of those bored shepherds five hundred years ago in the Kingdom of Fife. I laughed to myself that I had gone from daydreaming in my old office in Seattle two months ago to playing golf at the southernmost course in the world. I had reached my first goal of this crazy adventure and would now start making my way slowly around the world to Tromsö.
As Raul and I had walked up the final fairway I could see puffs of smoke wafting out the stone chimney of the little wooden clubhouse. It looked cozy and inviting with the hope of something warm to drink after we had finished the last. It was exactly the way the southernmost golf course in the world should be—cold and rough around the edges. If only Mary and Ferdinand were there to see it as well. They could have joined up with Raul and me. We would have been a hell of a foursome.
Copyright © 2008 by David Wood. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from Around the World in 80 Rounds by Wood, David Copyright © 2008 by Wood, David. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
David Wood is a former stand-up comedian with a lifelong passion for golf. He currently writes a monthly humor column for Grand Tour magazine as well as golf articles for periodicals and websites. He lives in Seattle, Washington. Visit his website at www.DavidWoodSpeaking.com.
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