Winter in the Mid-Atlantic

Where Golfers Hope Against Hope

January 15, 2006

Golf in January, like everything else, is different in the Mid-Atlantic region. In this clump of misfit states stuck somewhere between New England and the Deep South, even the grass we grow on our golf courses is different. People who study such things call this a “transition zone”, which is a fancy way of saying that we have goofy weather and that only certain grasses prosper here—the kind of grasses nobody wants to play golf on. Go north of here and your spikes will tear up Bent grass. Go south and your ball gets buried in Bermuda.

But here in the Mid-Atlantic we get weird mixes and hybrids because Bent suffers from disease in our inconsistent climate, and Bermuda spends half the year dormant, the color of coffee with cream. So we get Ryes and Blues and Fescues, and genetically engineered versions of Super Bent. Then we get a yearly warm-weather explosion of Poa Annua, that wonderful, urine-colored grass with gigantic seed heads. For a few weeks in the spring when Poa takes over you might as well be putting on peanut brittle, then the stuff dies in the summer heat leaving no grass at all on the greens.

Of course, we do not have to worry about Poa Annua unless we actually survive the winter. Winter golf is different here in the transition zone too. Go north and the courses have closed. Go south and they are open for business, just playing on that dormant Bermuda. Here in the Mid-Atlantic we are open…unless we are closed, which depends on the vagaries of Old Man Winter, who tends to be a little bipolar in this region.

On Friday this week I played eighteen holes wearing a short sleeve shirt. On Saturday I taught one of my juniors and the snow was not falling but ripping through the driving range horizontally, pasting itself on Nathan’s back and my left side, riding a West Virginia wind which, if personified, would have to be described as angry.

This winter has been typical in its inconsistency. November was mild and fairly dry, good for golf. Then, in the first week of December, we had snow followed by ice, and it stayed so cold that the greens were not ready again until after Christmas.

Up north, they know what is coming—cold followed by colder. The almost daily lake-effect snow leads to large bar tabs and larger families, and they know there is no golf until spring. They hibernate and deal with it. We, on the other hand, get cabin fever. Losing three weeks in December is especially difficult because we plan on playing when we burn that last week of vacation. This year we burned two cords of wood instead. It is the possibility of playing golf in the winter that makes it so hard on golfers when they cannot play.

I think it was Tantalus in Roman mythology whose punishment in hell was to be neck deep in a stream with fruit hanging just above him. If he got thirsty, the water level would drop. If he got hungry, the branches of fruit would rise out of reach. That is winter golf in the Mid-Atlantic.

During the down-times at Lakeview Golf Club guys straggle in, hoping against hope that we have opened nine holes. They might spend their gift certificates, won in various charity events and club tournaments through the warm months, before they expire. Maybe they buy cart-mitts and rain-pants, or turtlenecks and those little packs of hand-warmers just in case.

Then they buy a cup of coffee and wait for a quorum of stragglers, enough to convene court. A foursome sitting in the concessions area is enough to hold a hearing on the performance of Michelle Wie against the big boys out in Hawaii; to evaluate the teaching aid being advertised on the Golf Channel (which is on in the snack bar, of course); to discuss evidence of the improvement of Larry’s game over the past two seasons; and of course to share information on the best spots for a winter golf getaway.

The consensus at Lakeview is that the harsh December will lead to mild weather for the rest of the winter. But I am afraid that hopeful golfers make poor meteorologists, especially we deluded golfers from the middle states, from the transition zone. We are neither here nor there. We are teased by the possibility of playing golf all year round. We are like sad little marionettes prancing around in our spikes at the discretion and whim of the demented Old Man Winter. Right now we would settle for that bumpy cannibal Poa Annua on the greens, as long as there is no ice.

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