Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 3, 2017

The Solitary Golfer, Staving Off Winter

The calendar turns to December. Mornings are increasingly accompanied by frost. While there have been some recent days when the temperature climbed above fifty, their number has steadily dwindled, replaced by ones that are raw and damp. The forecast for the next ten days includes none of the former, and more than a few of the latter. Winter is coming.

But it is not here yet. And while many golf courses have shuttered for the season, a handful remain open to those hardy hackers willing to bundle up and brave the elements for a late season round. That is the plan on this Sunday. At daybreak the thermometer has dipped below freezing, but by the scheduled 10:30 tee time it will be in the mid-thirties, on the way to a high a degree or two on the plus side of forty.

The key of course, as mothers have told children for decades, is to dress in layers. The golf polo is covered by a sweatshirt which in turn is covered by a zippered fleece vest, allowing some freedom of movement underneath the bulk. Add a thick pair of corduroy pants and a knit stocking cap to warm the head and ears, and the golfer is as ready as he can be for a long walk on a cold day.

It’s a short drive down Route 1 from downtown Portsmouth to the public course in North Hampton. It’s been fifty-five years since the family run Sagamore Hampton Golf Club was laid out over 130 acres of farmland and woodlands adjacent to what was then the still new Interstate 95. The course plays to a par of 71, with a mostly open front nine that is toured with the constant hum of the speeding highway traffic as backdrop. The back nine provides a sterner test, with some holes wandering into the woods, thus putting a premium on accuracy. The inward half is also more than 300 yards longer than the front, but the par of 36 is just one stroke higher than the first nine.

The parking lot, across North Road from the course, is mostly empty pavement as the golfer pulls in. In midsummer it would be packed on a weekend morning, but those days are now gone, not to be seen again for more than half a year. The usual threesome, who have known one another since the sharp and misty mornings of long-ago college days, will not be present for this round. The vagaries of life and family have interceded; a minor medical issue in one case, weekend company in the other, mean that today the golfer will play alone.

The air is cold but there is not a breath of wind as the solitary golfer stands on the first tee. A few practice swings to loosen the aging joints, and the first shot of the day is launched into the air. He slings the carry bag onto his right shoulder, and the round is underway. The opening drive has gone to the right, well off the desired line. It winds up with a birch tree, one of only a handful on an otherwise wide-open hole, blocking a direct path to the green. A low punch shot beneath the tree limbs doesn’t have enough steam to roll all the way to the green, and a lengthy chip rolls across the putting surface, which is canted sharply from front to back. Soon enough the solitary golfer is writing a “6” on his scorecard, an opening double-bogey. Was the unfortunately placed drive an ominous portent for how the round will play out?

But after the next two holes the answer looks to be no, it was just a bit of bad luck. His shots are not perfect; age-diminished skills and the weather combine to ensure that. But the ball is going generally in the intended direction, and that first double is not repeated.

Sagamore may be a daily fee course, but it is not without amenities, albeit ones unique to the environment. Next to the fourth tee the grounds crew has built a low circle of large rocks. It’s a fire pit, with logs from the nearby woods glowing bright orange. Perhaps inspired by the homemade warming station, the solitary golfer puts his tee shot on the par-3 hole just short of the green. From there a nice chip leaves him with a tap-in for his first par of the round.

Several minutes later, standing on the elevated tee of the par-3 seventh hole, he can see almost all the holes on the front nine. While they are mostly deserted, he is not entirely alone. A threesome on their way to the third green is the closest group behind him. In the distance another single striking his second shot from the eighth fairway is next in front of him. Another pair, just starting out, are hitting their approaches on number one.

Turning to the business at hand, he selects a four hybrid for the downhill shot, knowing that club selection is meaningless on this hole. Over the years he has hit everything from three wood down to five iron on the long par-3, and he is always short. The Titleist is teed up, the swing is made, and the ball comes to rest ten yards short of the green. Had time been pressing, he could have just walked down and placed it there.

Another par is had on the dogleg left par-5 eighth. It’s a hole that the long hitters can sometimes reach in two. Those days, if they ever existed, are in the solitary golfer’s past. But a solid drive to a flat portion of the fairway is followed by an equally good five wood over the hill and towards the green. A soft sand wedge finds the putting surface, though par is not yet assured. The green, the most heavily tilted of all eighteen at Sagamore, is the main defense on this hole. Putts that catch the slope can end up further from the hole than when they started. But today the first left to right slider slips just below the cup, barely moving as it does so. It stops after rolling another two feet, and the stroke back up the hill is straight and true.

Bodies acclimate to their conditions. The late autumn sun is trying to make its presence felt through the thin, milky, overcast. Though the temperature tops out at forty-two, by the turn the fleece vest is unzipped. As the round nears its end, the stocking cap, deemed so essential three hours earlier, is stuffed in the bag for the final two holes.

That end is a stern test, for Sagamore does not offer the golfer a gentle coda at the end of his long walk. The penultimate hole is a lengthy par-3, and the finish is by far the longest par-4 on the course. More than a few rounds that made it to the seventeenth tee in reasonably good shape have gone to seed over the course’s final 650 yards.

But today the same four hybrid that couldn’t reach the seventh hole is perfect ten holes later as his tee shot finds the putting surface, stopping hole high and twenty feet right of the cup. Two putts later the golfer can scrawl a “3” on the scorecard, and head for the last.

The home hole is always a challenge. A hazard left and fairway bunker right threaten the tee shot, a narrow stream wanders from left to right down the length of the fairway, and the hole’s considerable distance all combine to give the eighteenth a nasty bite. Today is no exception, but at last the solitary golfer finds his ball on the green, thirty feet above the hole. Two putts will give him a total score in the eighties, which for him remains the mark of a good day on the links.

But his first effort is woefully short, leaving a left to right downhill breaker of nearly ten feet. He marks his ball as always and goes through his regular routine. The line is left edge, the thought is don’t leave it short. The Ping putter is back and through, the ball on its way. It trundles down the slope, refusing to turn. Was it struck too firmly to take the break? At the last possible instant, even as it looks to be rolling by the left edge, the Titleist takes a peek at the abyss to its right, and falls in.

The parking lot is even more deserted as the golfer stows his bag in the trunk and changes his shoes. By next weekend, if the forecast is correct, it will be closed. If indeed this marks the end of golf for this year, the last putt was a good way to conclude it. But this is New England, where forecasts are notoriously unreliable. Hope springs eternal in the heart of every devoted hacker. It will take some luck, but perhaps the usual threesome is not done for the year just yet.

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