Winter Golf

When the Game Becomes Something Else

November 17, 2004

Welcome to winter golf. Technically, we are only half way through autumn, but golfers know that winter really starts when the clocks “fall back”. That is when the sun slinks away westward to the Alleghenies before the nine-to-fivers even punch out for the day; when the straightest drive can be lost among the thousands of noisy leaves that pepper the fairway. It is when the clubhouse gets crowded with retirees and shift-workers sipping coffee and telling stories while waiting for the morning rays to retake the greens from the frost that crept in under a cold crescent moon. This is when only true golfers remain.

The golf season actually begins to end at Labor Day. The part-time golfers who play a handful of times during the summer put their clubs in the garage. The local schools and universities send another part of the golfing population back to their books and chalkboards. Even the most beautiful days ahead will not entice many of these duffers. For them, golf season is over.

winter-q1Then October comes around, and there are days that require a good wind shirt to play comfortably. Nowadays we talk about things like “under-armor” and “micro fibers”, and the tags hanging on the clothes in the pro shop promise something called “thermal protection.” Some of us search hard for a way to keep the golf going. But for another segment of the golfing population, the first breaths of Canadian air mean no more swings until spring.

On the other hand, the northern air brings northern people. The cars in the parking lot show tags from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. They are down to enjoy the radiant Shenandoah foliage, and to add days of golf to the dwindling number at their home courses, many of which will close soon.

By the time November arrives, the conversation turns. It is all about muzzle loaders, bow hunting, tree stands, and 8-point bucks. For about a week or so after deer season starts, the golf course is quiet, even when the sun shines and the mercury jumps back up to sixty degrees. And then come the holidays, so the ranks of loyal golfers thin out some more.

December. Now we know the true golfers. They are the only ones still playing; those who teeter precariously between being passionate and, shall we say, a little touched. If they were on the moon taking a few swipes with Armstrong in 1969, they would have skipped the return flight if there had been a nine-hole layout and an open tee time. And they are already dressed appropriately—winter gloves (one for each hand), long underwear, wool socks, turtleneck, rain pants, headband, and another pair of socks. Some have secret weapons against their die-hard fellow competitors: the hand warmers in their pockets, and the smuggled bottle of whisky in their golf bag.

winter-q2The temperature drops into the 40s, but they come into the pro-shop and say, “You know, if you do a little walking out there, it actually gets pretty warm in these clothes.” It drops into the 30s and they say, “It’s not as bad as you think.” It drops to the low 30s with a drizzle/sleet combination: “It’s kind of chilly, but the next few days don’t look so good, so we better get it in now.”

By January these battle-tested veterans are playing a new sport. Imagine dressing up in a Michelin Man suit and hitting golf balls on the deck of an aircraft carrier, which is what the frozen greens are like. At this point there is no avoiding the truth: it is no longer golf–it is an imbalance. It is tragic; but heroic too, kind of like Don Quixote. Even if some of these true warriors cheat a little bit by putting a cover over the golf cart and heating the inside with a miniature propane heater, they are still out there. They are the reason the golf course stays open all year, except for Christmas Day (and they want to know who to write to about that).

Maybe playing in those conditions is just another rite of passage, another test before we earn the title “true golfer”. Maybe we have not really played the game until we have been caught on the fifteenth hole by a blizzard—and we finish the round, hitting putts even though the ball picks up snow with every roll, like we’re starting to build a tiny snowman. Maybe we should be ashamed if we waste a third of the year, neglecting our clubs and the beautiful game just because the ground and our toes are frozen. Maybe we should all play in the Turkey Bowl or the Santa Scramble at least once.

As for me, I have been there and done that. The cold gets to me more than it used to, and after nine years in the golf business, I can wait for warmer days to play. I have got plenty of other things to do during the winter. I probably will not play until the Pinehurst trip in February. Unless you need me to fill a foursome.

Welcome to winter golf.

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