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The delusion of the winter golfer

Winter rules, temporary greens and thinned iron shots that travel up your arms like an electric shock... Richard Pennell salutes the resilience of the winter golfer.

The delusion of the winter golfer

"People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy."

Anton Chekhov

Let’s face it, to even consider scheduling golf in the bleak midwinter is an act of hope, at best. We might pretend that this time we’ll work hard in the off-season; rebuild our swings and shattered golfing nerves like pre-’87 Faldo, shovelling aside the snow to make room for practice. But what we end up practising is perhaps the muscle we need most to keep playing, the one that maintains the sort of blind optimism that this game demands. We sharpen the delusional mindset that got us here in the first place.

Planning winter golf feels like something akin to those Himalayan expeditions you used to read about. Layer upon layer of fabrics make you look like the Michelin Man, although with a little less Gallic style. A snood into which you can safely swear, releasing your verbal reaction to golf’s many crimes into the soft fleece. A beanie, some mittens. The same hand warmer you’ve been carrying round since the turn of the century. 

You’ve all the gear, but the instant you leave the clubhouse you remember that the issue is not with your equipment, but the climate. Wainwright talked about there being “no so such thing as bad weather; only unsuitable clothing” but I’ve not spotted him out here playing winter golf yet. Although under all this clothing, we hardly recognise ourselves, so I could be wrong. 

An icy wind batters you before you can even find a tee peg to snap on the surface of the frozen turf, and if your playing partners were to look closely, they’d spot the first of your tears sliding down your cheek within a minute of emerging from the clubhouse, rather than after the second thinned five iron as they will later assume. And understand. But they too are taken aback by the ferocious misery of the temperature, and are battling their own chills, tears and growing sense of futility. 

If you think you’re miserable, spare a thought for the course and its caretakers. The trees are laid bare and the unimaginable tedium of leaf-collecting is now complete, bar the one spot where your wild snap-hook off the third hibernates, hunkering down in the frosty vegetation. Now and then the low sun struggles through this blanket of grey cloud, and peers through the bare branches, and in the crisp light you are gifted an inkling of the sort of simple delight that awaits in spring. But this moment of peaceful reflection is shattered by a duffed pitch, and in the replacement of a divot consisting entirely of compacted mud, there is a torment familiar only to the golfer.

The course is fragile at this point in the year; badly in need of a rest. Here and there, the little roped fences display the impact of this winter footfall on the turf - bare on one side while the grass is pristine on the other. In some spots, the worm casting has you wondering why they come to the surface at all - can it be any colder than this underground? 

Only the bunkers you go in are plagued by drainage issues, it seems, and though you are afforded relief, you manage to flood your right shoe with what feels more like liquid nitrogen than casual water. You think again about those intrepid explorers, and wonder if any golfers have ever lost body parts through frostbite. And you wonder if perhaps you have already done so, and will only discover it in a couple of hours, when you can at least remove this arctic chamber at the end of your aching leg.

On the back nine, a couple of muddy mats protect the tees of the short holes, and a particularly heavy contact with the second of these sends damaging vibrations throughout your body, and you want to drop to the ground and sob, only the ball has somehow - eventually - flown straight, and so you bite your lip and pretend it was sweet after all. 

But the others aren’t concerned with your plight; survival has become their singular purpose since the warming half-way snifter from the hip-flask wore off. The scorecard is already in tatters, and the only thing anyone is keeping count of is the number of holes until they can stagger inside again, and order a double, and stand beneath boiling water for what seems like hours.

When you drain the putt, the ball tumbling into the vast canyon of the temporary hole like a drop of water into an ocean, you consider whether golf would be more enjoyable if the hole was always more like a bucket than a pinhole. Or whether “more enjoyable” is the right phrase at all, for “more” suggests that some enjoyment is available, and you’ve not noticed any so far today. 

By the time you reach safe refuge, your cheeks are bright red and your dripping nostrils have caused an area of chafing that offers unimaginable suffering. There is more chafing further down, but you promise to buy some cream for that as some scant reward for your bravery - or idiocy - out there playing winter golf. The faint, damp aroma that your many clothes now carry will survive several washes, and your locker, golf bag, car and possibly even your entire body will retain some vestige of this stale odour for all eternity. 

Your loved ones will welcome you back, and try not to recoil at the sight of this weary traveller, for though they cannot understand why you play that game in the height of summer - let alone in the depths of winter - they at least accept by now that you are a better person after playing golf. They’ve no idea why, and neither have you, but if that’s what it takes, they will put up with a musty aroma through the off-season. Your right shoe, though, is positively fetid, so that stays in the locker for another year or two, before finding the bin.

But before you leave, you gather again in the bar, and share your reflections on another daft outing. You toast each other’s failures and foolishness, and laugh at these thin slices of despair as you recall them, already legendary in the storybook of this foursome. This small beverage is hot enough to melt the icecaps, but you can’t wait any longer and so you burn your lips and scold your throat with it, and then do it again a few minutes later, as your limbs slowly regain feeling in front of the primal appeal of a crackling fire. 

Almost nothing in your morning round will stick in your memory in a week from now, let alone a year. This winter practice has done nothing positive for your golf, and somehow you know that the body never forgets this stuff, and will one day wreak a terrible revenge on you for venturing out when it is minus two. But even in the farcical ceremony of this pale imitation of golf, the game lets out one little hook near the bitter end; something to cling on to. 

And so, warmed by the memory of the final eight iron that soared above the trees like an arrow, and plugged within a foot of the water-filled seventeenth hole, you pull out your diary and agree a time for Monday, rain or shine. But more likely rain.

For you hit a great shot today, and that is what makes a golfer happy, regardless of the ignominious acts that flanked it. And Chekhov (who I’ve also never spotted out here on the course, though I think he’d have understood golf’s beguiling charms) was right:  "People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy"

Richard Pennell is the author of Grass Routes, a collection of essays about his travels around the golfing heartlands of the UK.

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