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Letter from St. Andrews: Winter Wonderland

On the noble joys of frozen fairways and taking it to the mat

By: George Peper

Appeared in November/December 2005 LINKS

It’s November in the Auld Grey Toon, and the silly season has set in. 

Why silly? Well, here we are on a remote tip of the Scottish coast—on the same latitude as Moscow. Rain pelts us about one day in three, wind whistles almost constantly at 20–40 mph, and daylight lasts barely eight hours (and that’s daylight, not sunlight—you want sunlight, figure on about two hours). Yet there is golf—unremitting, indomitable, exuberant golf. Look at the current ballot for the Old Course and you’d think it was midsummer—virtually every tee time is taken. The parade of the intrepid is constant, not just on the Old but on the New, the Jubilee, the Eden, the Strathtyrum and the Balgove as well.

When I arrived here, I smirked in disbelief at this procession of fools—heads down, hands in pockets, bundled like Eskimos, trudging doggedly into the gale. Where I’d come from (suburban New York) the probability of my playing winter golf was about the same as my playing Othello at the Met or middle linebacker for the Giants. But here, I’ve learned, things are different. Today I am one of those fools—a confirmed silly winter golfer.

First of all, it’s not quite as idiotic as it looks. Rain, wind, and darkness notwithstanding, the winter conditions in St. Andrews are pretty darned golfable. It’s a dozen degrees or so warmer here than in the U.S. northeast and the average snowfall is only an inch or two per year, as opposed to a foot or several. The courses stay open (with green fees at half price) and the blessed sand-based fairways and greens remain in remarkably good nick. So there is no Labor Day letdown, no hibernation—everyone just keeps on swinging. If you don’t join in, you’re dismissed as a dilettante, a wimp, or both.

Since most of the daily play comes from locals—rather hearty locals at that—there’s no mucking about. Four-ball rounds finish in three and a half hours or less. Indeed, on some days only the swift survive—slackers may freeze in place, blow out to sea, or run out of light. Such conditions also breed a special camaraderie, similar, I’d suspect, to the bond shared by Siberian letter carriers.

The Old Course plays both easier and harder than in summer. Easier because many of the tees are moved up and the ground is so hard that, even on a windless day, a player of moderate power can drive a par four or two. And you may deduct at least one additional stroke from your score as, during any given winter, a large number of the course’s vaunted bunkers become Hallowed Ground Under Repair, as part of the ongoing maintenance program. Thus, when you hit into the Cottage or Cartgate or Strath or Principal’s Nose or Hell, instead of wading sadly into the abyss, you simply pluck the ball out, no penalty. Harder because the bone-hard ground and brisk winds combine to pose relentless strategic challenges. Before every shot, you must stop and say “Wait a moment now, just exactly what is it that I want to do here?”

There are, however, a couple of tribal rituals that must be learned, beginning with the matter of apparel. I’d always assumed you couldn’t play winter golf without five layers of clothing. Now I know you can’t play winter golf with five layers of clothing. My sartorial epiphany came on the day I learned it’s okay for guys to wear silk underwear. 

But the ultimate challenge—and the silliest aspect of the St. Andrews silly season—is the business of taking it to the mat. On November 1, a large wire trash can appears next to the first tee of the Old Course. It’s filled with dozens of slabs of artificial turf, each the approximate size and shape of a haddock. This is the signal that, in the interest of protecting the hallowed ground, over the next five months all iron and wood shots from the fairway will be played off a mat.

My mat and I got off to a poor start. There was a white string attached to it which I assumed was intended to be looped around some appendage of my bag. So I slipped it over my umbrella handle. By the time I reached my tee shot the string had twisted itself into a braid that Heidi would have been proud of—two long minutes later it was unraveled, but so was I.

Most of the wily veterans, I noticed, shoved the mats into pockets of their bags. At least two guys dragged them along the ground behind them, like haddocks on a leash, and one rather corpulent bloke shoved it down the back of his rain pants, an abrasive butt warmer. I settled on a bag pocket.

When your golf ball sits on a mat, it’s approximately a half-inch closer to your hands. Naturally, I failed to compensate, with the result that on my first few swings I made excellent contact with the mat but horrible contact with the ball, propelling both about the same distance. After four mighty swipes at the opening hole I was a yard short of the Swilcan Burn, about to learn that the toughest of all mat shots is the soft wedge. When both ball and mat flopped lazily into the drink I nearly turned back for the warm sanctity of my home.

My debut day with the mat produced a score of 94. My second attempt was marginally more successfully only because I hit every shot of less than 80 yards with a putter. It was nearly a month before I broke the code. But once I did, my mat and I quickly became fast friends. By pointing it to the right of my target, I realized, I could induce the more inside-out swing path I’d been working on for over a year. By positioning the ball at the very back edge of the mat, I was able to hit a driver into the wind when needed. By flipping the mat on its back, and hitting off the corrugated rubber bottom, I could get some check on my pitch shots. One day I actually slapped the mat down on the upper tier of the 17th green and instead of putting used a wedge to flop the ball down to the pin on the lower level. I saved par that blessed day and then parred the home hole for a 72—on January 18th.

And so, along with my Scottish neighbors, I’ve come to love winter golf. For five months a year we play in gales, in hail, and in sleet. We play on days when balls blow off tees and flagsticks blow out of cups, when 300-yard par fours can be reached with 4-irons and 150-yard par threes can’t be reached at all. Our eyes water, our noses run, our ears burn, and our joints ache, but our passion never wavers.

Yes, to walk a brisk 18 holes in winter with three good friends, the wind lashing against your cheek, the turf crunching beneath your feet, is to know a noble sort of joy. Golf just doesn’t get any sweeter.

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