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.
In my part of the country at this time of the year, avid golfers become migratory. Some fly hundreds of miles south and don’t return until spring, but most of us circle the ground closer to home, like Canada geese searching for open water. We study the sky and the Web and the Weather Channel, and when we hear rumors of snow-free fairways we hit the phones. Quite often, the Sunday Morning Group lands at D. Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course, a muny about an hour from where we live. “The Wheel,” as regulars call it, stays open all year. Area golfers whose home courses are closed often winter there.
Twelve of us made the trip on Sunday. We had meant to go the Sunday before, but just enough snow fell to shut down all the golf courses within a hundred miles of our town. The Wheel has two eighteens, the Black and the Red. We played the Black, which most of us prefer, although when we started there was so much fog that it was hard to be sure which course we were playing. The fog lifted, then returned, then lifted again, then returned again—and I discovered that my laser rangefinder doesn’t work when a golf hole looks like this:
The fog burned away for good while we were playing the second nine. At the base of the 150-yard marker pole in the middle of one fairway, I found an owl pellet, containing the indigestible parts of whatever the owl had eaten recently (in this case, mostly mice). The owl must have been perched on the marker pole when he coughed it up:
In the grillroom after our round, we ran into some old friends: The Boys, a transplanted winter men’s group from other local courses, including H. Smith Richardson, also a muny, a couple of miles away. The Boys use two custom scorecards when they move to the Wheel: one for when the ground is frozen and one for when it’s not. (They change the stroke indexes of a few holes when the fairways are like concrete, to compensate for extra roll.) Here’s the back of their frozen card:
Their organizer is Mark Haba, who runs a machinery company in Bristol. He collects the money and makes up the day’s teams, using a system that involves printed charts, a zippered binder, and six numbered poker chips. “We count two balls,” he told me, “one gross and one net.” They also play what they call “Chicago” skins—which, as near as I could tell, are just skins. They had thirty-two players on Sunday; their complete roster, including alternates, lists a couple of dozen more:
The main difference between The Boys and the Sunday Morning Group is gastronomic: they eat pizza; we eat bacon cheeseburgers:
Also, unlike us, they don’t give extra handicap strokes for wearing shorts (as Fritz, Barney, and I did on Sunday).
Other than that, we’re basically interchangeable—as cold-weather golfers tend to be.
On New Year’s Day, fifteen of us played the Red Course at the Wheel. The temperature was 20 when I woke up and 25 when we teed off, and it never got to more than a degree or two above freezing. Our cars were virtually the only ones in the parking lot when we started, so the guy at the desk (who took the photo below) said we could play as five threesomes, three fivesomes, two seven-and-a-halfsomes, whatever. We played as three fivesomes.
The festive cardboard glasses that everyone’s wearing in the photo above were a seasonally appropriate gift from Chic, who is the chairman of our golf club:
The ground was so hard that getting tees into it was a problem. Shouldn’t there be a power tool for this?
We always award two extra handicap strokes to anyone who wears shorts after December 1. Only Fritz did on New Year’s—a seemingly reckless decision, but a profitable one, because his team won:
Fritz said later that only has face had been cold. If I’d worn shorts, I’d have gotten a handicap stroke on the Money Hole, so dressing rationally cost me ten bucks. I don’t regret that, though, because I was comfortable for the entire round. After many years of playing golf in bad weather, I’ve figured out what I need to wear to stay warm. As always, I dressed in layers, so that I could take stuff off if I got hot and put it back on if I got cold again—although on New Year’s I didn’t take anything off until we were finished.
I wore three long-sleeve shirts, the first of which was very thin and two of which were turtlenecks. All three were made of synthetic stuff. Here’s the one I wore on top, by Under Armour:
On top of that, I wore my brand-new Sun Mountain Tour Series Rain Jacket, which I love. There was no rain in the forecast, but rainsuits are good for wind, too, and we had plenty of that: 20 miles per hour all day:
My Sun Mountain rain jacket reminds me of my Galvin Green rain jacket, which I also love, but the Sun Mountain jacket sells for less than half as much. One of its best features is that it’s extra long, so that it can’t ride up, We’ve had a fair amount of rain so far this winter, in addition to the other stuff, and I’ve happily worn the jacket many times. I like everything about it:
On top of the rain jacket, I wore a Uniqlo Ultra Light down vest. Wearing a down vest over three shirts and a jacket made me look like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, but the vest really is ultra light, and because it doesn’t have sleeves it doesn’t get in the way of a golf swing. I keep it in a Ziploc bag in my golf bag all winter, for emergencies. It squishes down to such a tiny package that last year I forgot to take it out when the weather got warm again:
I own long johns in three different “weights.” On New Year’s Day, I wore the mediums. They aren’t really long johns; they’re actually running pants, or something, for men who don’t mind being seen in public in tights. They work like long johns, though:
On top of those, I wore rain pants. One of the keys to successful rain-pants-wearing, I think, is to wear them as pants—over bare legs if it’s warm, over long johns if it’s not. Another key: suspenders. Wearing suspenders with rain pants keeps the pants from sliding down when you stuff a gloved hand into your pocket to retrieve a tee or a ball marker. In fact, rain pants should have built-in straps. My suspenders have plastic grippers, which I think are gentler on expensive waterproof fabric than metal grippers are. They also supposedly won’t set off airport security equipment, should you choose to adopt a totally suspenders-based lifestyle:
On my neck and part of my head, I wore a Gore-Tex Buff, which may be my single favorite cold-weather accessory. A Buff is a tube of fabric. You can wear it in a million different ways, and if you get really cold you can pull it up (or down) over your face. The guy who invented it got the idea after wearing a pair of underpants on his head to keep his ears from freezing while he rode his motorcycle:
On top of my head I wore a regular golf cap, and on top of that I wore a bright orange knit cap from Cabela’s, which sells stuff to hunters:
On my feet, I wore two pairs of wool socks, one of which was pretty thick. The kind I like best are made by SmartWool. The great thing about wool, whether it’s smart or not, is that it keeps you warm even if it gets wet:
I had room for both pairs of socks because I was also wearing my super-comfortable True Linkswear Chukka golf shoes — a style the company seems to have dropped, I’m sorry to say. (True Gent Chukkas, which the company does sell, are not the same.) I now own eight or ten pairs of True golf shoes. I love them all, and the Chukkas are among my favorites, except when I’m wearing shorts:
On my hands I wore two pairs of golf gloves: a pair of FootJoy Rain Grips, which are thin, and, on top of those, my favorite winter golf gloves ever, HJ Winter Xtremes.
You might think that wearing two pairs of gloves would reduce your so-called “touch,” especially on the greens, but if it does anything it probably has the opposite effect. Debbie Crews, who is the sports-psychology consultant for the women’s golf team at Arizona State University and the chair of the World Scientific Conference of Golf, sometimes tells golfers with the yips to try putting (in her lab) with ski gloves on. They usually putt so much better that it’s amazing,” she told me, “because they can’t manipulate.” I wrote about Crews and her research last year, in an article about the yips for The New Yorker. You can read it here.
Afterwards, lunch, of course.
My golf course closed for the season on the Monday before Thanksgiving. The day before that, thirteen guys showed up for the final 2014 home-course meeting of the Sunday Morning Group. I wasn’t there, because I was on my way home from a non-golf reporting assignment in Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California—poor life-management on my part. The following Sunday, though, Hacker (real name), Mike B., Gary, Ray, three of Ray’s friends from other clubs, and I played at Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course, a 36-hole facility owned by the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut:
The Wheel (as it’s known to friends) is the main winter golf hangout for a lot of guys in our region, because it’s so close to the coast that it doesn’t get much snow. It’s where S.M.G. played last year on New Year’s Day:
The Wheel is also the home of an extremely successful chapter of The First Tee, which served more than 600 kids last summer:
One of the volunteer coaches is Richard Hunt, an honorary S.M.G. member. That’s him at the far left in the photo below, which was taken at Twisted Dune during S.M.G.’s fifteenth annual golf trip to Atlantic City, in October:
Each summer for the past ten years, Richard has spent his Saturday afternoons at the Wheel introducing youngsters to golf. This year, his First Tee chapter named a trophy after him: the Coach Rick Award, which goes to the scoring champions in the Ace/Birdie division. (He’s also pretty good at teaching grownups; he’s a marketing consultant in Manhattan, and he oversees the Venture Creation Program at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, where he is a mentor-in-residence.)
A couple of weeks ago, Richard attended the U.S.G.A.’s Pace of Play Symposium, at which two dozen speakers spent two days talking about how to make golf go faster. “I thought the event was quite valuable,” Richard (who took the photo below) told me. “This is exactly the kind of thing they need to do ‘for the good of the game.'”
Turns out, there are way more problems than your buddy plumb-bobbing his third putt. A major culprit is tee-time spacing, which is way too short at most public courses, and even in professional events. The L.P.G.A. did a test this year, and was able to reduce playing times an average of fourteen minutes per round just by moving tee times slightly farther apart, from ten minutes to eleven, and asking players to keep up with the group in front of them. Easy stuff. In addition, course setup, design, and facility management policies are all either part of the problem or part of the solution.
When I was in Arizona, I had dinner with my old friend Shelby Futch, the world’s greatest golf teacher, whose company owns several courses in the Scottsdale area. At one of them, Shelby reduced playing times by offering forty dollars in grill-room credit to each day’s first group if they finished in less than four hours, and by asking the groups behind them to keep up. Easy stuff.
I asked Richard whether the kids he teaches play quickly—and, sad to say, he said they don’t:
Trust me—we don’t teach them to play slow. Yet on late summer Saturday afternoons, during our team matches, my young charges struggle to beat darkness every week. I myself blame CBS, NBC, and the Golf Channel. Maybe Fox will only show golfers in action next year, instead of repose.
My friends and I celebrated the first day of spring the same way we celebrated the last day of 2013 and the first day of 2014: by playing a round at D. Fairchild Wheeler Golf Course, a muny about an hour from where we live. As you can see by comparing the photo above with the photo below, playing conditions had improved dramatically in just eleven weeks:
There were still a few lingering signs of winter, including a large patch of non-liquid casual water along the left side of the ninth fairway:
Overall, though, the course was in decent shape. The gates were closed when we arrived, a little before nine, but the parking lot had begun to fill by time we finished, and the temperature had climbed to the mid-forties.
The past few months have been truly horrible around here, golf-wise. It’s been so cold that a small herd of local Lyme-disease vectors began spending the night in my backyard:
But in the past few days things have finally started to turn. Last Sunday, Hacker (real name), Doug, Mike A., and Tim played at Pelham Bay Golf Course, in the Bronx—the only open course within a hundred miles of where we live:
I couldn’t join them, because I had a work deadline I couldn’t put off, but I did take time out for lunch with nine other members of the Sunday Morning Group. There are six artificial knees in the photo below, if you count all three of Frank’s (one of his had to be redone):
That’s March Madness on the big screen behind them. If we hadn’t needed to get home for our naps, we could have hung around all day.