Thursday, 1 January 2015

Winter Golf

Are you a proper Winter Golfer?


THOSE poor souls on  the European Tour have had to spend a couple of weeks in South Africa, where they have been complaining about the heat. Huh!  Over the past two or three months I have played many games of golf up to my knees in mud and had to wait on a couple of occasions for the frost to thaw. There will soon be snow to spoil our days too. That means I qualify to be described as a proper "winter golfer". So listen guys, this is what winter golf is like for the rest of us... .

While you complain about the temperature reaching 100°F, we struggle round in temperatures that are close to freezing - and sometimes below that! But do we complain? Of course we do. Wouldn't you? But the choice comes down to putting your clubs away for four or five months of the year, or struggling around trying to keep our game in shape while being battered by the elements.

There are different stages to winter golf, and I would like to take you through some of them.

Winter Golf - End of Autumn

First of all, there's what we call "end of the autumn golf" - it starts with a few leaves falling on the greens; they have to be brushed aside so that we can putt. Before we know where we are, the bunkers are full of leaves and so is the rough - for the uninitiated, that can make the task of finding your golf ball somewhat challenging.

Eventually the leaves are blown away. By 80mph northerly winds howling in from the North Pole. Usually, at about the same time, we get the rain that turns our fairways and rough to mud, our bunkers into ponds and our greens into unplayable swamps.

This is when you need to invest in a set of waterproofs that will actually keep the water out and, hopefully, the heat in, but not the sweat. We are also faced with the big question: to tuck our trousers into our socks or not to tuck them in. Tucking them in is not a good look on anybody, but the option is to trail through the rough looking for your ball and, by the time you get back to the sanctuary of the clubhouse bar, you look down and realise the damp has crept up to your knees. How does that happen?

You hit a shot into a water-filled bunker. If you are lucky, you find it by dragging the rake through the water, time and time again. If you are not lucky, it has plugged and you never see it again. But let's say you have managed to retrieve it - you survey the scene and realise there is just enough bunker left to allow you to climb in and drop the ball. Thadunk! It lands on damp sand and plugs on a downslope. Wonderful.

After maybe 11 holes of fighting against the wind and rain and biting cold, one of your fourball asks: "Lads, is anybody actually enjoying this?" The rest of you look at him like he's mad. "Mikey, we could all be stuck in an office." "You mean an office where it is warm and dry?"

Strange man!

Then there are the greens. The temporary greens. Now I am not always the brightest light in the house, but it strikes me that if you are head greenkeeper at a course that is going to be hit by winter weather then it might be an idea to prepare proper winter greens. But no. It's easier instead to circle off an area of fairway just short of the green and stick a hole in it. That would be an area of the fairway from where players normally chip onto the green, taking divots in the process. And that would be a normal size hole, which actually ends up being smaller than normal because of the grass growing around it. You hit a six-foot putt and it somehow ends up six feet away after you have struck it. At right angles to where you were aiming.

There is something else that drives me stark raving bonkers. You walk onto a damp putting surface and repair your pitchmark. As you stand up, you notice another pitchmark, and another, and another. You repair them, too, while your playing partners are doing the same thing. So this is my question: if all of us are repairing these pitchmarks, who on earth is leaving them there in the first place?

While all of this is going on, do you think the greenkeepers have bothered to rope off the most vulnerable areas around the proper greens? Of course they haven't. So huge areas of mud appear, into which the wheels of our trolleys and buggies sink. Even I know that when spring comes around there will be no grass in these areas and anybody unlucky enough to land there will be left cursing.

Winter Golf - The Frost

Then comes the frost. It usually arrives at the end of November and makes regular appearances until the end February, and often beyond. So you all turn up to play and the professional grimly announces that the course is closed. Why? Because walking on frosted grass harms it, apparently.

Everybody heads for the clubhouse for a warming cup of coffee and then, 20 minutes later, the pro enters and tells you all that the head greenkeeper has carried out an inspection and the course is now fit to play, but you will be putting on 18 temporary greens.

We all emerge from the clubhouse and look out upon a scene that is precisely as it was when we were told the course was closed.

Frost creates its own challenges. By the time you have reached the first green, you and your partners have all grown by at least two full inches as the frost and ice cling to the bottom of your golf shoes.

Then you get to the temporary green with the smaller than normal hole and you strike your putt and watch the size of your ball grow and grow as it approaches the hole. It often grows to such an extent that by the time it gets to the smaller than normal hole it is actually too big to drop into the cup.

But the real beauty of playing on frozen ground is to hit a thin iron-shot. The club vibrates against the ground, sends shockwaves into your fingers, up your arms, down your spine, through your legs, into your feet and then back into your fingers at 120mph. The result? Pain and misery, a tingling in the fingertips that is beyond description, the loss of all feeling.

The key to it all is keeping warm. "Morning Derek, I am just popping into the clubhouse to get ready."

"OK Dave, see you a minute."

Several minutes pass, and then a figure emerges. It resembles the Abominable Snowman, but then it speaks and you realise it is Dave. He's put on his full set of thermal underwear, two pairs of trousers, a thermal top, three jerseys, all topped off with a set of white waterproofs with black trim. On his head is something no respectable ski-racer would be seen dead in - it has ear muffs that he has tied under his chin, and he has topped it off with his Titleist sun visor. And then it dawns on you - he reminds you of a giant penguin.

But Dave isn't finished yet. In each pocket he has some contraption that will keep his hands warm. Well they would keep his hands warm if it wasn't for the fact that he is wearing mittens that look more like boxing gloves. And he insists on wearing them to play his first shot of the day - an effort that sees the ball dispatched fully 30 yards, followed by his driver, which travels at least 75 yards because it has slipped out of his gloved hands as he has struck the ball.

So don't complain to me about it being too hot to play in South Africa, Australia or anywhere else until you have had at least 18 holes of winter golf with my mate Dave!

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