Golf Things Considered column by John Rogers
Welcome to winter golf.
Technically, we’re only half way through autumn, but golfers know that winter starts when the clocks fall back. That’s 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’s when the clubhouse gets crowded with retirees and shift-workers who sip coffee and tell stories while waiting for the morning rays to reclaim the greens from the frost that crept in under a cold crescent moon. This is when only true golfers remain.
It actually starts at Labor Day. The part-time golfers who play a handful of times during the summer put their clubs in the garage. The schools and universities send another part of the population back to their books and chalkboards. Even the most beautiful days ahead won’t entice many of these duffers. For them, golf season is over.
Then October comes around, and there are days that require a good windshirt to play comfortably. Nowadays we talk about things like under-armor and microfibers, and the tags hanging on the clothes in the pro shop promise something called “thermal protection.” We’re really talking about finding 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’re down to enjoy the radiant Shenandoah foliage, and to add golf days to the dwindling number at their home courses, many of which will close soon.
By the time November arrives, the conversation turns. It’s all about muzzle loaders, bow hunting, tree stands, and eight-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 60 degrees. And then we get into the holidays, so once again the ranks of loyal golfers are thinning.
December. Now we know the true golfers. They’re the only ones still playing; those who teeter precariously between being passionate and, shall we say, a little touched. If they’d been on the moon taking a few swipes with Armstrong in 1969, they would have skipped the return flight if they thought they could get nine holes in. And they’re already dressed appropriately – winter gloves (one for each hand), long underwear, wool socks, turtleneck, rain pants, headband and another pair of socks. And their secret weapons against their die-hard fellow competitors: the hand warmers in their pockets, and the smuggled bottle of whisky in their golf bag.
The 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’s not golf, it’s an imbalance. It’s tragic, but it’s 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 keeping the inside toasty 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 right to honestly be called a golfer. Maybe we haven’t really played until we’ve been caught on the 15th 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’ve 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’ve got plenty of other things to do during the winter. I probably won’t play until the Pinehurst trip in February. Unless you need me to fill a foursome.
Welcome to winter golf.