Mike B., Tim D., Rick, and I played at Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course today. The weather was actually pretty balmy, but the ground was frozen and we hit some monster drives. We also had trouble with the bunkers, even though they’d left the rakes.
I took the photo above last Thursday at Keney Park, a muny on the east side of Hartford, Connecticut, a little over an hour from where I live. Barney, Paul, and I couldn’t scrounge up a fourth, mainly because the temperature when we left home was in the thirties. But the sign above says it all. Even if you live to be 100, you don’t get so much time on this side of the wall that you can afford to squander golf days.
Eight or ten years ago, the Sunday Morning Group played quite a few winter rounds at Keney, mainly because it was one of the few courses we knew about that stayed open. It was in terrible shape, but you could tell that at some point it had been terrific. Then it closed, and underwent a big renovation. This was the first time any of us had been back.
When we first played Keney, I assumed that it had begun as a private club. But it’s always been a muny. Devereux Emmet designed the first nine in 1927, and Robert Ross, a city engineer, added a second nine in 1930. The clubhouse was built in 1934, using bricks from an old orphanage and a demolished post office. The workers were employed by the Civil Works Administration, a federal relief agency during the early years of the Great Depression. The city of Hartford closed the course in 2013, spent $11 million restoring and renovating it, and reopened it in 2016. It’s awesome, and worth playing in any weather. And the green fee, for Barney and me, walking, was $19. (Paul isn’t sixty-two yet, so he had to pay full price: $30.)
The Friday forecast was for thunderstorms all day long: on wunderground.com, the little icon for every hour of the day was a dark cloud with a lightning bolt streaking out of it. But Barney, Mike B., Tim D., and I decided keep our morning tee time at the Links at Union Vale, about an hour west of where we live. And we were right to ignore the forecast. During our round, there wasn’t even a distant hint of thunder, and we had a total of maybe ten minutes of light rain. Mike B., above, was the only one of us to carry an umbrella, and he used it only briefly. We all took off our rain jackets after a few holes, and wished we’d worn shorts. And, because other golfers have more faith in meteorologists than we do, we had the place virtually to ourselves.
The course was built in the late nineties by New York City golfers. A group of Irish players from Van Cortlandt, Pelham Bay/Split Rock, and other munis in the metropolitan area got fed up with the summer crowds and decided to build a place of their own within weekend commuting distance. Roughly eighty of them bought shares, at ten thousand dollars apiece, then found two hundred acres of cattle-grazing farmland and hired Stephen Kay and Doug Smith to design a course for them. The investors knew of Kay because he had done some work on the bunkers at Van Cortlandt and because he had designed an Irish-style course, the Links of North Dakota, that they liked very much. He built the course for about two and a half million dollars—a pittance even then.
Many of Union Vale’s members belong to one or another of the many Irish golf associations in and around New York City. They allow themselves preferential tee times and charge themselves reduced fees, but their club is open to everyone. The course itself looks and plays more than a little like an Irish links course, and every tee box is sponsored by a different metropolitan-are Irish golf club, and the clubhouse is well stocked with Guinness. We paid the winter rate—thirty-five bucks for eighteen holes, walking—and we’re going back next Friday, forecast be damned.
Just three of us showed up for Sunday Morning Group yesterday. The temperature was in the mid-thirties and there was a certain amount of wind, but none of the rain in the forecast materialized. (This is why you should never check a forecast.) Out to lunch afterward.
I have a short article in the current New Yorker about curling, a sport that most people think about only during the winter Olympics, if then. Curling is actually distantly related to golf, as you’ll see. But even if it weren’t it would still be the perfect winter game for golfers whose golf courses have been unplayable since virtually Thanksgiving, as all the ones near me have been.
I didn’t mention this in my article, but a common rookie mistake in curling is failing to anticipate that, because of the crouching position that curlers assume as they begin a throw, the middle-aged-male wardrobe malfunction known as plumber’s butt could also be called curler’s butt. Also, novices tend to fall down. But it’s a great game, and I wish my golf club would build a couple of “sheets”, ideally where the tennis courts are now. There’s a curling club next to a nine-hole golf course in a town about an hour north of here. That’s not as far away as the club I wrote about, although it’s still pretty far. Or maybe not.
Anyway, the photo below is of Aysha and Angela, the two young women I mention in the article. We took a lesson together, and when we finished they were at least thinking about signing up.
Ordinarily, I’d be playing golf right now. For many years, the Sunday Morning Group has managed to find snow-free fairways and greens somewhere within driving distance of home. Last year, we played at Pelham Bay, in the Bronx (photo below); the year before that, we played at Fairchild Wheeler, in southern Connecticut (photo above, featuring Mike B.).
We played at Fairchild Wheeler in 2015, too, and Chic brought New Year’s glasses for the entire group:
We give two extra handicap strokes to anyone who wears shorts after December 1; as you can see in the photo, only Fritz got the bonus that day. He says his legs never bother him, but that day was so cold that we had more than the usual amount of trouble getting tees into the ground:
The year before that, we played in Brooklyn, at Dyker Beach, which not only is a very good course but also has swell views of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge:
In 2012, for the first time ever, we played on our own course, which Gary, our awesome superintendent, didn’t close for the season until we were finished. (I wore shorts that year, as did Fritz and Mike A.)
One of the best was 2009, when we thought we might have to drive north, to Buffalo, to find grass, but then learned that the Bay Course at Seaview, just outside Atlantic City, was open. Gene, Hacker, and I drove down (four hours) and spent the night in the hotel, which is a lot nicer than the places we usually stay when we travel. Two days of unlimited golf plus a room cost just a hundred and seventy dollars — and we had the place to ourselves, because it was crazy cold and everything was frozen solid. Here’s Hacker (real name) and me on the Bay Course, dressed for the weather:
But this morning there’s still snow on the ground all over the Northeast, and the temperature at my house when I got up was -2. There was some talk about simply showing up at Ray’s place, in Florida, and throwing ourselves on the mercy of him and his wife, but in the end we decided to stay home, for once, and dream about spring.
The photograph above is of the clubhouse at Indian Hills Country Club, in Kansas City, in about 1950. The course was designed by A. W. Tillinghast in 1927, and the photograph was taken by my father’s father, who was a member. I came across a big box of his slides recently, and for several days I’ve been obsessed with scanning them. Here’s my grandfather himself, at about the same time, during a trip to California with my grandmother:
As the father of a friend once said of Sydney Greenstreet in Casablanca (the greatest golf movie ever made), “Those pants are a little tight under the arms.” Here’s a picture my grandfather took of my grandmother (feeding something to a chipmunk) during a car trip to Colorado in 1945:My grandparents traveled to Florida almost every winter, until my grandfather couldn’t drive anymore (my grandmother never learned). The picture below, which my grandfather took in the early fifties, goes a long way toward explaining why people who live in Florida have trouble with seawater even when the wind isn’t blowing a hundred and fifty miles an hour:
That brings me to Mike Riley, who is an occasional correspondent and a member of the Big Dogs, a regular men’s group at the World’s Second-Best Golf Club, in northwestern Florida. The Big Dogs are usually more weather-averse than the Sunday Morning Group is—fifty degrees and sunny is too wintry for most of them—but, to their credit, they’ve developed some useful weather-related clothing technology:
Even more to their credit, they didn’t evacuate their golf club this past weekend. On Sunday morning, Riley wrote to me, “It’s official. Big Dogs are going to play under hurricane warning. Not unprecedented, but first time since Opal.” (Opal was a Category Four hurricane that hammered the Gulf Coast in 1995.) Riley’s post-round report:
Our foursome finished in 2:29 no time for pictures. Gonna be hard to figure bets, clubhouse lost power while we were on the front nine. Gusts to 60. Pictures really wouldn’t have done much justice. Two pins snapped in the wind and oak tree fell as we were playing number 8. 18 players in the game today with 18 carts. We played during Hermine in 2016 but were on the west side of that storm which is the side to be on. It was only a cat 1 but it did a number on Tallahassee.
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale is kind of hard to understand, at least for me, and it isn’t a good fit with golf; Sandy, in 2012, was also just Category One, yet it wiped out several courses in my part of the world. Maybe we should measure hurricanes the way golfers have always measured wind, in terms of extra clubs required for normal shots. At Portstewart once, I hit Baby Driver on a hundred-and-thirty-yard downhill par 3 and was the only member of my foursome to reach the green, and on a couple of occasions in Scotland and Ireland I’ve played in what I would guess were seven- or eight-club winds. What’s the most a reasonably adventurous golfer could comfortably handle—a ten-club wind, gusting to twelve? Unless someone has a better idea, I’m going to call that the maximum.
I have an article in the summer issue of Links called “England’s Golf Coast.” It’s about a remarkable thirty-mile stretch of linksland that runs along the Lancashire coast between Liverpool and St. Annes, in northwestern England. The Golf Coast includes three of the ten courses on the active Open Championship Rota—Royal Liverpool, Royal Birkdale (where this year’s Open will be held), and Royal Lytham and St. Annes—but you could skip all three and still have an unforgettable trip. I’ve visited the area several times, most recently in 2013, and my friends have been talking about going back ever since our first trip there as a group, three years before that. The courses are so closely spaced that you can park yourself and your luggage in one place—no need for a coach and driver. In 2010, nine of us stayed mostly in three three-bedroom apartments in this building, in Southport:
The cost worked out to less than fifty dollars per man per night. The longest drive we had to golf was about an hour, and many of the courses we played were just a few minutes away. Here’s Barney in the living room of one of our apartments:
Below are photos of courses and people I mention in my Links article, taken during various trips over the years. First, St. Annes Old Links, which is next door to Royal Lytham and includes ground that was once part of its routing. Here are two members I played with. We wore rainsuits not because we expected rain but because the wind was blowing hard enough to shred ordinary golf clothing:
This is me in 2010 at West Lancashire Golf Club, known locally as West Lancs. It opened in 1873 and was the first Golf Coast course built north of the River Mersey. As is true of many courses in the area, you can travel to it by train from central Liverpool:A great guide to golf courses on the Lancashire coast is Links Along the Line, by Harry Foster, a retired teacher and a social historian. He rode along when I played Hesketh Golf Club, where he was a member for many years. (He died in 2014.)Hesketh isn’t my favorite course, but a couple of its oldest holes, on the second nine, are among my favorite holes. This view is back toward the clubhouse (the red-roofed white building near the center):
Hesketh has both a fascinating history (ask about the Hitler Tree) and a cool address:
The Formby course encircles a separate golf club, Formby Ladies. Don’t skip it, as I did until 2013, to my permanent regret. Among the women I played with was Anne Bromley, on the right in the photo below. Her father was once the head professional at Royal County Down:
Formby Ladies isn’t long, but if you aren’t careful it will eat you up. The club has an excellent history, which you can study over lunch in the clubhouse (known to members as the Monkey House):At a nature preserve down the road from Formby, I met a retired Merseyside policeman and his wife, who own a coffee concession. He invited me to join him and his son, an aspiring professional, for a round at Southport & Ainsdale, which hosted the Ryder Cup in 1933 and 1937 and the British Amateur in 2005.The first hole at S&A is a par 3, and it’s a corker:Right next door to S&A, on the other side of the railroad tracks, is Hillside:
In both 2010 and 2013, I spent one night in the Dormy House at Royal Lytham and St. Annes—part of a stay-and-play package that’s one of the greatest bargains in links golf. The view from my bedroom was across the practice green (and through mist) toward the clubhouse and the eighteenth hole:Here’s what the wind at Lytham—which wasn’t blowing when I took the photo below—has done to the trees. Many years ago, I wrote an article for Golf Digest whose opening line was “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.” The copy editor, who had apparently never heard of Bob Dylan, changed “weatherman” to “weather report.” I was mortified, but it turned out that none of the magazine’s readers had heard of Bob Dylan either. Anyway, leave your umbrella at home:You should play Royal Liverpool, of course, but don’t overlook Wallasey, just a few miles away:Wallasey was the home club of Dr. Frank Stableford, who in 1932 invented the round-rescuing scoring system that’s named for him. Here are the eighteenth green and the clubhouse:And, of course, if you somehow get tired of playing golf you can take any of a number of interesting side trips:
There was rain in the forecast for Memorial Day. That was good news, because the nine-hole morning mixer was canceled and we didn’t have to wait until after lunch to tee off. Nobody was in the golf shop, but that was O.K., too, because if we’d really needed to get in we could have used the hidden key.
There were five of us, and the conditions were ideal: 50 degrees and nobody else on the course. Rain is the best golf weather there is, as long as you dress for it. Or maybe you prefer to spend your holidays cleaning up your basement.
We played 10-ball. Two fighter jets and a big military transport flew over, really low, on their way to a (probably canceled) parade somewhere else. The greens had been mowed. The rough was brutal. I played even worse than I did on Sunday. Rick won all the money (two dollars from each of us.)
The round took a little over three hours. My car got a free wash. Then home for lunch and a nap.
A nearby muny reopened on the last day of February, making this past winter the shortest one ever, but then almost immediately we got a couple of feet of snow and everything shut down again. Now, finally, my home course is open for good. I missed the official first day, last Friday, because I was traveling, but I was there on Sunday for the first 2017 meeting of the Sunday Morning Group. The best thing about being home again was that we could play in less than three and a half hours, instead of the five and a half hours our last off-season round took.
Our course was in great shape, and a number of improvements had either been implemented or were under way. Our seventh hole, at 120-140 yards, has always been a surprisingly challenging par 3—in a four-man scramble once, my team’s best tee shot was short of the front bunker, which is well short of the green—but the back of the tee box is being pushed ten or fifteen yards, onto what used to be a cart path:
More important, S.M.G.’s dining-and-beer-drinking terrace is being enlarged, and will soon cover part of the executive parking lot. When the stonework is finished, we’ll have a second sitting area, a built-in grill, and a butt-high stone wall that guys who’ve had too much to drink can fall off the back of:
Opening Day lunch was provided by Keith and his father, Jim. Because Keith is a new member, he didn’t know that we have a rule against salad:
But a few guys tried it anyway, maybe figuring that if they did they wouldn’t have to eat anything green for the rest of the week. And the salad turned out to be good! Keith and Jim also brought hors and chocolate-chip cookies. So Hacker (real name) told them they have to bring Opening Day lunch from now on.