The Week Grip — A Golf Course for All Seasons
Welcome to the fifth installment of the Week Grip! Click here for the others, and follow along throughout 2019.
This past weekend, folks across the Northeast got hit with the trifecta: a significant snowfall, followed by sleet/freezing rain, all of which froze overnight. The end result was a two-day stretch where many people were basically iced into their own homes, unable to leave because their yards, driveways, sidewalks, and cars had turned into skating rinks. Literally, in some cases.
I’ve never lived more than 45 minutes away from Boston. Several of my best friends have fled for warmer climes (Los Angeles and Atlanta, to be precise), and I can’t deny that I’ve looked in envy at their five-day forecasts while watching a 4 PM sunset close another single-digit January day. I spent two hours this weekend shoveling and salting the driveway, then pouring hot water onto my car to melt the crust of inch-thick ice that had trapped it like a Nissan Sentra-shaped mosquito preserved in amber. But still, I love living here. And paradoxically, the reason has a lot to do with golf.
Before getting into the golf thoughts, though, I feel compelled to drop a short soliloquy on the reasons that I actually do enjoy having four seasons, as so many people are skeptical of it. First off, it’s all I know. So there’s that. But if I examine it further, I love the cyclical nature of the year, and how the change in weather constantly prompts you to take stock of your life. Sure, weeks and months and holidays exist in other parts of the country, but if it’s constantly between 55 and 75 degrees, it’s easy to slide along with no real external stimuli. Whereas here, thoughts like Oh shit, it’s winter already and I haven’t finished XYZ carry some real weight.
Being a golfer in a four-season region like the Northeast forces these moments of self-reflection (and game assessment), but also provides four distinct ways to think about the game as the year goes along.
I’ll start with Spring, as it’s the season of beginnings. Writing this in January, Spring seems so far out of reach as to be almost mythical. Every year around this time, while I’m blading chip shots into my couch cushions and rolling putts through the living room, past the automatic ball-returner, and under the dining room table, I’m struck down hard by the golf bug. I’m dreaming of a day where the air doesn’t hurt my face, and the ground accepts a FootJoy without squelching up three inches of mud-water in response. OK, the second part might be a tough ask, because it will be wet. And it might be cold. And of course, my swing will look and feel as if someone recently freed me from a block of ice by pouring hot water on me. But yet — it’s golf season. In Spring, everything sits in front of you, like a wide-open par-5 fairway that fits your eye perfectly. Every year when I play my first few rounds, I’m convinced that this will be the year I break par, the year I make an ace, the year I play all those cool courses that seem a little too far away. The courses, and my game, still lack the sharp definition that comes with Summer, but Spring brings with it the promise of the possible.
Summer is the obvious golf season around these parts. It’s the season in which many of us first play the game, as you gotta do something with all that summer vacation time. My first introduction to golf was a cut-down blade six-iron that I probably got from my grandfather, with which I spent many hours smacking those plastic holey balls around my backyard. Later, I took summer golf lessons, where the youngest group of kids started with just the range and putting green, and as you got older, you got the privilege of playing three holes, then six, then nine. Golf is still a summer game for me, and I feel most comfortable when it’s hot and dry and the ground is firm and I can feel the back of my neck and calves reddening in the sun. It’s the peak of the year, when early-season kinks have been worked out, yet you still have the rest of season to explore new courses and chase your best scores.
Many golfers around here argue that Fall golf can’t be beat, and while I disagree (too many leaves on the ground, any of which could be mischievously concealing my ball), I see their point. On the perfect high-50s to low-60s autumn weekend, you can throw on pants and a quarter-zip, enjoy 18 holes of perfectly temperate golf with nary a bead of sweat or a hint of numbness, and then retire to the couch for a full day of football. The deciduous trees up here really show their stuff around this time, and some courses even deign to drop their rates as we inch closer to Thanksgiving.
So what about winter golf? Isn’t it freezing and hard and filled with temporary greens and ice-rimed cups?
Yes. But so what?
Winter golf separates the true die-hards from the casual golfers. Perhaps my most fun round of 2018 came on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, when most of the golf world was curled up nursing turkey hangovers and watching Tiger and Phil huff and puff their way around Shadow Creek. It was 35 degrees with an absolutely ripping wind, and I drove an hour north to play 18 holes at Bass Rocks Golf Club in Gloucester, a wide-open, boulder-strewn Herbert Leeds design (he designed Myopia, not a big deal) that sits on a peninsula jutting off the southern end of another peninsula. It was so cold that you couldn’t put a tee in the ground. I flubbed an 8-iron off the second tee and it took a colossal bounce off the marsh in front of the green, which had frozen completely solid, and ran out to 15 feet. The best play on some holes with forward-tilting fairways was to get the ball on the ground as fast as possible, as the tundra offered less resistance than the screaming wind. It was incredible.
And in December, I played three rounds, each at South Shore Country Club, each with my dad. Remember what I said about the die-hards? He fits that description to a T, despite possessing almost no golf skill. Winter, then, fits the both of us perfectly. In the warmer months, I play with my friends two or three weekends a month, leaving my dad to search for his game at the range. But in winter, when most of my friends put the sticks away, my dad and I scan the forecasts, looking for temperatures that start with a 4 or, praise baby Jesus, a 5! He only started playing a few years ago, and his clubs and swing are none too pretty. But chasing our golf balls around the rolling, semi-frozen tundra and braving the elements together hits pretty close to the original spirit of this great game.
But that’s not all. Because in four-season climates, a golf course in winter serves an altogether different purpose than it does during the other three seasons. Sure, playing frozen winter golf is fun until the first snowfall. But after that, the golf course turns into the town playground.
The best day I ever had on a golf course had nothing to do with golf. It was the dead of winter, and I have no recollection of whether my friends and I were in the 12–13 age range (and thus reliant on parents for rides) or if one of us was 17 (which would have allowed us the freedom to drive ourselves). All I remember is that it had snowed earlier, and then the temperature dropped, flashing everything into an unbroken line of ice-encrusted snow. We spent almost an entire day at our town’s muni, Widow’s Walk Golf Course, snow tubes in hand, throwing ourselves down the slope along the edge of the driving range and sliding for what felt like minutes into the deepest expanses of the flat, snow-and-ice-covered plain. It was a popular spot, but somehow on this day we were the only crew there. We had 1v1 races, and distance contests, and the six of us formed human chains, linking arms while sitting in our tubes before plunging headlong down the bumpy slopes, our combined momentum ratcheting the speed up to a level where the only intelligible sounds we made were the high-pitched giggles ripped away in the wind. I have a distinct memory of the sun setting over the range, bathing the shimmering ice in red and gold, my snow pants and jacket dripping wet and twice as heavy as usual, my hair somehow snow-cold but sweat-dampened.
All of those guys remain my best friends; they were in my wedding party, and I still play golf with three of them (the other two were athletic enough, but never really took to the game). I don’t remember what we did the rest of that day; we probably went back to Greg’s house for hot chocolate and microwave nachos and GameCube, as we did so often. But that day of tubing will stay with me forever, a reminder that a dormant, snow-covered golf course in winter has the potential to bring just as much joy as a lush, green course does during any other season.