Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 6, 2020

Trying To Keep Winter At Bay

The length of the golf season in New Hampshire is never certain. Sure, there are dates on the calendar. The New Hampshire Golf Association, the USGA’s local affiliate, sets the season as running from April Fool’s to the last day of October. But that just means rounds played on New Hampshire courses outside of that seven-month window can’t count toward one’s handicap. Many golfers play regularly without benefit of an official index, and even those who carry a card and post every score want to play as soon as they can as spring approaches and for as long as possible when winter nears.

The real control is exercised by Mother Nature. Often the first sign that a new season is underway is the sudden sight, on a sunny and brisk March morning, of pins in the cups at Sagamore, the old public course that abuts Interstate 95. At the other end of the year, after spring’s rains and summer’s heat and the eventual return to early darkness amid the growing chill of autumn, the private clubs and some public courses announce closing dates in advance and shutter for the winter in an orderly fashion. But there are always a handful of public venues that squeeze every playable day out of November and, in good years, December, with starters juggling frost delays and intrepid golfers walking the fairways dressed in multiple layers.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the Golfer was one of that dwindling number of hardy souls, out for an afternoon nine at Pease, a public course that began life many decades ago as the Portsmouth Country Club. In the early days of the Cold War, the Air Force saw the adjacent property as a prime location for a new base, and along with those thousands of acres requisitioned the land used by the eighteen holes as well, giving generations of officers at Pease AFB a ready-made diversion until the Base was targeted in one of the first rounds of military installation closings in the late ‘80s. Once in sad shape following years of neglect, major investments over the past several years have turned Pease into a well-maintained and managed public layout.

By the final days of November, the routing has been reduced to a composite nine holes that begins on the 1st tee and after three holes from the front nine, jumps to the 10th and skips around holes on the back side before finishing on the 18th. The air is cold but at least the wind is calm, and with three layers of clothing the Golfer is comfortable enough, even if the bundling doesn’t allow for the freest flowing golf swing ever witnessed. Still, if his play has not been spectacular, as the Golfer and the pleasant stranger with whom he has been paired come to the 17th tee, at least he has done nothing to embarrass himself.

But this is golf, which means as long as there are still shots to be struck, the opportunity for abject humiliation is extant. The Golfer’s drive on the penultimate hole, an uphill par-4, is poor. The Titleist flies low and short, tailing off well to the right before it lands. The weak tee shot leaves a lengthy approach up the hill, and despite a so-so lie in light rough, the Golfer pulls a 5-wood from his bag. Predictably, the clubhead becomes entangled in the grass, and the fat shot lands well short of the green. Still, the Golfer tries to remain positive as he walks up the slope preparing to hit his third. That attitude is sorely tested when a lob wedge from 40 yards is bladed. Never more than three feet off the ground, it flies like a bullet for 60 yards, coming to rest in heavy rough behind the putting surface. From there a chip barely climbs onto the green, and two putts later the Golfer gets to mark a double-bogey 6 on his scorecard.

The 18th tee at Pease is so close to the 17th green one must be wary of errant approach shots from players down in the fairway. It’s also the highest spot on the course, and just off the approach line for the airport’s runway. The challenge is always to not be distracted by any of that. In this case the Golfer must also put the shoddy play of the past few minutes out of his mind, for the home hole is worthy of its place in the rotation. It’s a long par-4 with a tee shot back down the hill followed by an approach that will run away from the green either left or right if hit offline.

His drive is only slightly better than the previous one. It doesn’t tail, but it’s blocked out to the right, thankfully missing a small stand of trees but finishing off the fairway. The blue flag waving gently in the distance means the pin is in the back third of the green. Fortunately, the Golfer has drawn a clean lie, but the hole is more than 200 yards away. A 3-wood is the choice, but now he must wait for the group ahead to finish its business. How many bad thoughts can run through his mind while he stands there?

Yet when at last he addresses the ball, his mind is blessedly blank. A little forward press with the right knee to get the swing started, a full turn, down and through to a high finish, and the ball is on its way. It sails through the air as if guided by a laser. With the sun lowering in the west, the Golfer can’t see exactly where the shot has ended, but he begins the walk to the green knowing he can’t hit a 3-wood any better than the shot he has just struck.

And there it is, pin high, six feet right of the hole! He waits while his playing partner overcomes some difficulty, then finally he lines up the putt, which he sees breaking to the left. The Ping putter sends the sphere on its way, the curve is just as expected, and a beautiful birdie 3 goes on the scorecard right next to the ugly 6.

The old line is that a birdie at the last is the golf gods giving something to a player as enticement to return. The Golfer needs no such encouragement, instead marveling at a game that can, in the space of minutes, go from extraordinarily difficult and frustrating to sublimely simple and rewarding. He’s already looking forward to a scheduled round the following Saturday. But that next weekend begins with heavy rain and ends with two inches of snow and ice on the ground. While the temperature is expected to slowly moderate, the forecast for the following weekend is also wet.

If there is another chance, the Golfer will of course take it. But perhaps that 3-wood was the last full swing of the year, the six-footer that fell in the heart of the cup the final putt of the season. If so, they will be remembered and valued, but then so will the bad swings and poor shots that came just before, for like good and bad times away from the course, at least the Golfer got to experience them. In sports, as in life, the admonition of the songwriter rings true – “try to treat each day with the same devotion, ‘cuz you never know just how long you’re gonna be around.”

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