Playing Golf in the Snow

Weather Forecast screenshotThe weather was grim this past weekend, and the Sunday Morning Group didn’t meet. I paid bills, watched golf and football on TV, and thought about my poor, poor clubs, which were entombed in the trunk of my car:

IMG_3483Six or seven of us used to play golf in the snow almost every weekend through the winter. We each carried just one club, usually a 7-iron, and if the snow was deep enough we wore snowshoes. In the photo below, which is from 1996, those dark things sticking up near our feet are the tops of the posts of a split-rail fence that used to stand behind our first tee:

George and I, in snowshoes, with 7-irons.

George and I, in snowshoes, with 7-irons.

Carrying just a single club is good for shot-making: You learn how to hit it long and short, high and low, hooking and slicing. We used orange or pink balls—unless the snow was so deep that color was irrelevant.

George, me, Michael J.

George, me, Michael J.

It was while playing snow golf that I learned the first principle of the golf swing: the key to power is not effort but ease. Facing a hundred-yard shot and having only a 7-iron to hit it with, I swung easy and launched my ball on a gorgeous left-bending arc into the woods beyond the green.

Snow golf 1996

We walked in single file, to keep footprints to a minimum, and aimed for unspoiled patches, so that the holes our balls made when they landed would be easier to find. I learned that the surest way to track a ball is sometimes with your ears. Even in very deep snow, though, we seldom lost more than one or two.

snow golf 2 1996

According to the U.S. Golf Association, snow golf was invented by Rudyard Kipling, who lived in Dummerston, Vermont, for a few years in the late eighteen-hundreds. Kipling used to paint balls red and hit them into tin cans buried in snow in front of his house, which was called Naulhaka.

Kipling's house in Vermont. He used to hit red golf balls down that snow-covered hill.

Kipling’s house in Vermont. He used to hit red golf balls down that snow-covered hill.

Kipling learned about golf from Arthur Conan Doyle, who visited Naulhaka in November, 1894. “I had brought up my golf-clubs and gave him lessons in a field while the New England rustics watched us from afar, wondering what on earth we were at, for golf was unknown in America at that time.” Conan Doyle wrote later. (Golf wasn’t quite unknown; my own club, two states to the south, was already five years old.)

Kipling's clubs and the rack he stored them in, on display at Naulhaka.

Kipling’s clubs and the rack he stored them in, on display at Naulhaka.

I myself haven’t played snow golf since my friends and I discovered that the golf courses in New York City almost never close. But if the weather stays like this through the end of the year I’ll have to take my snowshoes out of storage.

Rudyard Kipling at Naulhaka, where he created both snow golf and The Jungle Book.

Rudyard Kipling at Naulhaka, where he both invented snow golf and wrote The Jungle Book.

A December Golf Story

Jim in December, 2007, fifteen years after the rounds described below. Split Rock Golf Course, Pelham Bay Park, Bronx, New York.

Jim in December, 2007, fifteen years after the rounds described below. The green in the photo is the eighteenth at Split Rock Golf Course, Pelham Bay Park, Bronx, New York.

On the first day of December twenty years ago, my friend Jim and I played our final round of the season. The temperature was in the low fifties, but heavy clouds were moving in from the north. The rain was supposed to begin that afternoon, and it was supposed to turn to sleet the following day, and the temperature was supposed to drop below freezing and stay there. It was the last real golf day we would have on our home course for months.

We had the place to ourselves, and we both played well. I hit almost every fairway, and Jim sank two chips. After eighteen holes we were even. The temperature was dropping, but the rain hadn’t come yet, so we decided to go around again. I was one down after eight, but I birdied the last hole and pulled back to level. The wind was picking up. We decided to stop there.

I felt sad that the golf year was over, but not terribly sad. My swing felt solid, and I figured it would keep till spring. We stood on the first tee for quite a while, just looking at the course. “A good finish to a good season,” Jim said, and I agreed. I was reluctant to leave, so I dug a few old balls out of my bag, and we hit them into the woods. We cleaned our stuff out of the bag room. I found an old hat of mine in the lost-and-found box. Then Jim and I shook hands, and we went home.

The rain came down so hard that night it woke me. A couple of hours later, my son, who was three, woke me again. He had had a bad dream. As I got him a drink of water and put him back to bed, I noticed that the rain had stopped. There was still no rain at six, when the kids and I got up for good. We had breakfast, and I read them some books. As I did, I kept glancing at the window. The sky was dark gray, and the clouds were churning. The temperature was in the low forties, but there was no rain and no frost. At nine, I called Jim.

Ten minutes later, we were back on the first tee. “The first round of the new season,” Jim said. And we teed off.

Jim took this picture of me a a month or two later, after our course really had closed. I'll have something to say about snow golf at some point. All I'll say now is that I own a pair of snow shoes that I've never used for anything but golf.

Jim took this picture of me a month or two after the rounds described above. I’ll write something about snow golf at some point. All I’ll say now is that I own a pair of snowshoes that I’ve never used for anything but golf.