This week, as temperatures in the Washington D.C. area repeatedly top the century mark, I’d like to make an argument for winter golf. Of course, I’m a descendant of pasty, white, northern Europeans, like those who invented the game of golf, which means, among other things, I’m really not inclined to enjoy outdoor activities in equatorial temperature and humidity levels. For me, more than anything, golf is about fun and entertainment, and, as I work on the first tee of a local golf course, starting players in a summer round of golf that could be described as a “death march”, I’m noting none of them seem to be anticipating fun. Why play then?
Summer is not my golf season, and particularly in the summer weather considered normal for the region I call home. Of course, spring and fall can be glorious seasons for golf in the mid-Atlantic, but, unfortunately, that truth is so obvious, the golf courses can become jammed. Winter is my golf season, and I’ve been known to be playing (with others) in conditions where the wind-chill factor was about 14 degrees below zero… fahrenheit.
There are some obvious truths about winter golf that “fair weather” golfers don’t seem to appreciate. For one, and on the crucial matter of personal comfort, it is far easier to regulate one’s body temperature and comfort level in the winter. Simply by stacking thin layers of clothing -particularly over the upper body- and by wearing a warm hat, one can achieve an ideal level of body heat retention, and can regulate it be wearing or removing the hat. To the contrary, in hot weather summer golf, regulating one’s body temperature and comfort level becomes a hopeless and desperate endeavor, using marginal methods (moisture-wicking clothing, ice on the neck, temporarily-cool, wet towel on the head, etc.), and, even if golf courses would allow you to play nude (nude golf… an ugly thought, I know), on a day like today, the players would be nude, and still miserably hot.
There seems to be, at least for me, another advantage to the wearing of multiple thin layers of upper-body wear in winter golf… a tighter, more controllable, and more powerful golf swing. Some golfers may find that hard to believe, but, if one understands the power of a golf swing derives from an act that is similar to the loading and releasing of a spring-like coil, then it stands to reason a spring with increased resistance to loading will release its energy with increased force. Despite having it explained to me, by several golf pros, there’s no way I fly the ball further in winter, I’m certain I do, and I’m fairly certain it is the increased tension in my body/coil, created by layered clothing, that makes this true.
There are other distinct advantages to playing golf in the winter. Among those is the fact that, in winter, the ground is hardened, and additional shot length is available in the fact that a struck golf ball will bounce and run further on frozen ground than it would otherwise. Admittedly, with the additional length of a hard-bouncing ball, comes an increased emphasis on controlling the swing and the ball, but there’s no question that my golf swing can always benefit from an increased attention to control. Should, however, one’s swing still carry one’s ball into the rough… what rough? Even the thickest summer golf grasses tend to become thin and wispy in the winter. On top of all that, in proper winter golf conditions, the ball even bounces off water hazards.
Another distinct advantage to winter golf, particularly for those of us who like to play fast and alone, is the lack of crowds. The golf market is a little off right now, from where it was a decade ago, so golf course crowding is not the issue it can and has been in the past. Nonetheless, for someone who likes to go out and run a quick, two-hour round of golf, a day with air temperatures in the single-digits and a wind chill factor below zero will almost guarantee solitude on the links.
For all of that, it was on a very cold winter day that I was taught one of the greatest golf lessons of my life. If I have the dates anywhere close to correct, it was on a late December day, sometime between Christmas and New Years, when I decided to get in a quick 18 holes at a local public facility, Poolesville Golf Course in Poolesville, Maryland. Although I’d occasionally played golf since childhood, it was only in the mid-1980s that I was severely bitten by the golf bug. At that point in my life, there wasn’t a day that went by, when I wasn’t trying to get out and play. So, even with air temperatures at 7 degrees F., but almost no wind, I was happy to hope I’d have the big public course all to myself.
In the mid-1980s, the golf market was even weaker than it is today, and nowhere near what it would become in the Tiger Woods-era. Jack Nicklaus won his last major championship in 1986 and golf wanted for players of luminous star quality. My point is, mid-winter, one could occasionally still show up at a local course, on particularly cold days, to find the shop closed, and the course unattended. Such was not the case when I arrived at Poolesville that morning, but the place seemed entirely deserted except for the startled golf shop employee, who clearly wasn’t expecting to see anyone that early, that day.
I paid my greens fee and headed out onto the front-nine, where I played the first half of the round in just under an hour. I was playing well, had a wonderful rhythm and pace going and was enjoying myself immensely as I tee’d off on the ninth hole, but noticed, as I came closer to “the turn” and the clubhouse, there was a player beginning his round on the tenth hole. My disappointment mounted as I considered that this other player may not play as fast as I do, might break my wonderful rhythm and pace or, worse yet, might decide to ask to play with me, if I catch up to him. I guess what was going to be was going to be, but I tried to postpone the situation, giving myself a few more holes alone to enjoy my game, by taking a brief rest break and stopping to get a cup of hot chocolate in the clubhouse.
When I returned to the course, to make my tee shot on the tenth hole, the other player seemed to be finishing up on the tenth green. Perhaps, it seemed, he would play faster than I’d hoped, and the two of us could move around the back-nine, each enjoying our own sense of isolation. My tee shot at ten, a short, straight par-four, was hit neatly into the fairway, and my second shot to the tenth green -raised like a plateau at the end of the fairway- rolled up just short of the front of the green. As I walked up to the front of the green, to consider my next shot, I realized that, at first hidden from my view, the other player now seemed to be waiting for me behind the tenth green.
As I tell this story, the next moment is not one of which I am particularly proud. After three-putting and walking off the back of the tenth green, I must have been telegraphing my disappointment with this person’s presence to such a visible degree, the first thing the poor old guy said to me was, “Don’t worry. I don’t want to play with you. I just want to show you this.”
Now, this guy must’ve been, at least, 85 years old, and while I was slightly embarrassed at having been caught in a grumpy, anti-social faux pas, the old man’s approach, under these conditions, seemed gracious, considerate and harmless. “Okay…,” I said, at my cheerful best, “show me what?”
“This is the only time of year I can get on the next green ‘in regulation’.” The eleventh hole at Poolesville Golf Course is a mid-length par five, where the tee shot cuts from a bank high on the end of a rectangular lake, over the corner of the lake and then the hole stretches down one of the long sides of the lake. To reach a par five hole “in regulation”, is to reach it in three (or less) shots, leaving two putts for a total hole score of 5, par. The suggestion that this diminutive, wizened old man could not reach the hole in regulation normally, but could today, seemed unlikely and was, thus, immediately intriguing.
The old man invited me to tee off first, and, as is so often the case when I’m being watched by a stranger, I hit my best drive of the day. It sailed cleanly over the lake, and was hit so well, it actually ran through the hard fairway and into the rough. (What rough?) Then as I stepped back, the old conjurer commenced his magic. Setting his ball on a low tee, he drew from his bag a pitching wedge. Then he addressed the ball, aimed not across the corner of, but straight down the center of the long lake. Using a short stroke, which could best be described as a chipping stroke, he proceeded to bump the ball down the front slope of the tee, at least 30 feet lower than the tee, to where it hung up in the tall grass on the lake’s edge. Clearly this guy didn’t have the strength, flexibility and length of a much younger golfer, but the little stroke was precisely what he intended, and exercised with a skill clearly confirming this was not the first time he’d played it.
As we walked off the tee, I started to chuckle to myself, as I realized he was going to use the frozen lake as an advantageous condition of play. However, realizing that, I still hadn’t accurately imagined just how he would play the next shot. With deliberate aplomb, he then pulled his putter from the golf bag, grinned at me, stood over the ball, and whacked it several hundred yards down the frozen lake, to where it ran up on a bank, not too far from the green. Brilliant!
Perhaps engaged in some light social discourse, we walked around the corner of the lake to my ball, and though I continued to play the hole, I have no recollection of how that went. By then, I was just too busy being fascinated by the skill, joy and creativity being displayed by this little old man; and besides, he had another shot to make before he was on the green in regulation. This would be the shot, of the three, requiring something more like a full golf swing, and was the most prone to missing its intended target.
I probably should’ve known he’d execute his third shot with the same studied calm with which he’d executed the past two, and I’ll admit to no surprise when he used his pitching wedge again to successfully pitch the ball over the final 70-80 yards to the green surface. After watching the ball to the green, I looked back at the man and there he stood, like Nicklaus, Faldo or some other great champion winning on the 18th at Augusta, club in hand, arms stretched upward, enjoying his moment of triumph. I applauded briefly and, as he came up on the green, he put his hands up again and said, “Regulation. Pitching Wedge-Putter-Pitching Wedge.” He made his par and I probably didn’t. Then he said, “Okay, you can go,” and dropped a ball to practice putting for a moment, as I jogged off toward the 12th tee.
I may have looked back once before I tee’d off at 12, but I never saw the old guy again after that. For all I know, once I was out-of-sight, my little zen guru of the links might’ve simply wafted away into the mist of a cold, calm, darkly overcast winter day, but the lesson he left me about enjoying the game of golf has remained with me to this day. Golf is a game. Golf is creativity. Golf is about overcoming or, better yet, capitalizing on the conditions of the moment; and, most of all, golf is, for all ages and skill levels, about fun. I’ll see you on the first tee in January.