Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 6, 2015

An Unexpected Good Walk, Decidedly Not Spoiled

The calendar has flipped to its final page, but here in New England it’s as if no one told Mother Nature. Meteorologists tell us that the unseasonably warm weather is a product of a particularly strong El Niño, the periodic development of warm ocean water in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean near the equator. The idea that ocean temperatures 3,000 or more miles away lead to fifty degree temperatures on the first weekend in December on the New Hampshire seacoast is science at a level that’s hard for a layperson to fathom. So rather than attempt to understand it we simply accept our good fortune and head for the first tee. It’s time for that rarest of outdoor activities in this part of the country, December golf.

For years the rule of thumb for measuring the local golf season was that play generally could begin by the time tax returns were due, and in a good year might extend until about Thanksgiving. Better course maintenance, even at public links, has gradually pushed the start of the season back a bit. Now if circumstances are just right the first courses might even open in late March. Of course when they do one needs to be prepared to lose a few golf balls.

For the amateur golfer who has been confined indoors throughout a harsh New England winter, nothing quite matches that opening drive of a new spring. Struck cleanly by the high-tech face of an oversized driver, one’s Titleist soars off the tee. Straight and true the ball flies down the fairway, seemingly suspended against the cerulean sky. At last gravity takes hold and the ball begins its descent. As the duffer twirls his club and reaches down to pick up his tee, the ball plummets at last into the soggy fairway, throwing up a splash of water and plugging several inches deep, never to be seen again.

While its start has gradually moved earlier in most years, the other end of our short golf season is usually more resistant to change. Once nightly frost becomes a regular occurrence, course superintendents have no choice but to call an end to play in order to protect the fragile po annua grass that is found on most of the region’s putting surfaces. A daily cycle of hard freeze and slow thaw accompanied by dozens of golf balls landing from high above and an equal number of golfers tromping upon it can quickly cause lasting damage to a green that far outweighs the joys of one last round for either the players or the course’s cash register.

But this year the thermometer has refused so far to plummet with regularity into the nightly teens and twenties that one would expect. So many courses remain open and when the Sunday forecast promises a temperature that feels more like October than December along with nary a hint of wind, the tee sheets fill up quickly. Two friends rendezvous at the chosen course, while a third compatriot is attending to some family obligations, but has promised to make it out for the second nine. This December bonus golf will be played at a public links with a front nine that sits hard against I-95 and a back that wanders into nearby woodland. The only nod the superintendent has made to the calendar is to suspend the use of motorized carts. For whatever remains of this golf season all players will walk the course.

The starter sends the pair off with two singles who have been waiting for the chance to join a game, and so the foursome head down the first fairway. It’s a relatively short par-4, but the downhill second shot is tricky because the green pitches sharply away from the golfers. The only sure way to hold the putting surface is to land the approach shot short and hope that it bounces on. One of the two is able to execute the shot, and so the pair’s scorecard shows one opening par.

From the second tee the players can see two-thirds of the front nine, and it is immediately apparent that the fine day has drawn a full field. It is just past noon, but the crowded course will make for slow play, and with sunset scheduled for just past four getting in a full eighteen is suddenly doubtful.

But then to be playing at all is the greatest surprise, and so the friends continue on, chatting about subjects of mutual interest as they stride along the fairways. Not every shot is true of course; the two are but weekend duffers who are as likely to slice or hook a drive, and skull or chunk a chip as they are to hit a shot pure. But while the score on each hole is not unimportant, golf at this level among friends of forty years is equally about the time together.

One player runs into particular difficulty on the par-3 fourth hole when his iron off the tee falls far short of the green. By the time he extricates himself from trouble his score would be listed in a graphic shown during a weekend telecast of a PGA Tour event after the number of eagles, birdies, pars and bogeys, under the dreaded heading “Other.” Then even greater calamity strikes on the narrow par-4 that is next in line.

But just when it seems the round may be getting out of hand, he strikes a perfect drive down the heart of the sixth fairway. His second on the par-5 hole settles equally well, and his third soars into the sky before coming to rest on the back of the green. Two putts later the ship has been righted by a par. He follows that with a perfect chip shot from well off the green at the lengthy downhill par-3 seventh hole, the ball coming to rest within tap-in distance for yet another par. Not every shot may be true, but some are truly sublime.

They come at last to the ninth, a par-3 running back to the clubhouse. In the distance the pair spy their friend waiting to join them. One tee shot is a well-struck 6-iron that lands on the front fringe and bounces onto the putting surface. A few minutes later the golfer looks over a putt of perhaps eighteen feet. In his mind’s eye he can see it running downhill and curling from right to left. He makes a final adjustment to aim further outside the hole, then sends the Titleist on its way. It trundles down the hill, curls to the left over the final yard, and falls in for a birdie.

The two strangers depart, and seeing that there is a backup on the tenth tee, the three friends head back out the front nine even as the sun slips toward the horizon. As they do so stories are retold for the benefit of the late arriving colleague, and he shares the news of his recent activities. The third hole proves treacherous for two members of the threesome, but other than that play is steady.

Finally they stand on the tee of the par-5 sixth hole, two of them for the second time in the afternoon. The far horizon is ablaze in orange, the setting sun’s final display. The light is already fading quickly, and they tee off into the gloaming. Several minutes later, at the other end of the fairway, two of the three save par with delicate chip shots; while the third is just one stroke adrift.

The short December day has brought an end to this bonus round of golf, and the three begin the uphill trek back to the clubhouse. Perhaps this is it for the 2015 season.  If so it has been as enjoyable as every such afternoon for these three. Yet improbably enough, perhaps there is more to come. The long-range weather forecast for next weekend is even better than today. He may be living in the Pacific, but El Niño must be a New England golfer.

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