Cold Clubbing

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Cold Clubbing

You don’t need to travel south to golf this winter. Play a round in the snow instead.

On a cold January morning, on a golf course 50 kilometres from downtown Chicago, Jeff Brinkman fashions a tee out of freshly fallen snow. The tee, which is hard like a snowball from all the packed powder, holds his ball steady as he looks up to find the green. He finally takes a swing and the ball soars. He knows he made a good shot, but whether he’ll be able to find his ball in the snow is another question. “Try not to emphasize all the lost balls in your article,” he says with a laugh.

Brinkman, along with a few friends, is playing a round at the Cog Hill Golf and Country Club in Lemont, Illinois. He loves the sport so much that he plays all year long, even in the dead of winter. “We enjoy the solitude,” he says.

A number of courses in Canada and the United States offer winter golf where snowfalls and swings go hand in hand.

In winter, most golfers prefer to head south, where the weather is warm and the greens are still green, but others simply can’t satisfy their cravings with the occasional trip. For those people, a number of courses in Canada and the United States offer winter golf where snowfalls and swings go hand in hand.

Winter golf used to be for diehards only, says Jeff Rimsnider, who’s been head professional at Cog Hill for 27 years. His course used to be the only one in the area that offered cold-climate golfing, but now there are several to choose from. Cog Hill has four championship golf courses, and two of them remain open year-round. Greens fees, he says, are based on fall prices.

On the first Sunday in January, the club hosts the Eskimo Open, a tournament that takes place rain or shine – or sleet or snow. No matter the weather, they always get a good group, says Rimsnider. Last year, 185 golfers teed up and a news crew came to document the game. “We always have a nice chili lunch afterwards,” he says. While the weather was pleasant during the 2013 tournament, there have been years where people were playing in a foot or more of snow. Not surprisingly, the more snow there is, the harder it is to play. “Golfers often don’t finish because they’ve gone through every ball in their bag,” he says.

The Rules

Naturally, the snow and cold make it more difficult to follow all of golf’s official rules. Two-stroke penalties, for instance, do not apply. “Winter golf rules are pretty lenient,” Rimsnider explains. There are also no penalties for losing your ball, and once you’re on the green, you only have to take two putts before it’s considered in the hole.

Golfers often have to get creative, too. Rimsnider recalls a player who brought a yardstick to the course. Players didn’t actually have to get the ball in the hole, they just had to get close enough to the stick.

The Players

So, who’s crazy enough to golf when temperatures are below zero? It’s often people who love the calm of the outdoors, says Rimsnider. One Cog Hill foursome plays every Sunday before Chicago Bears games, because it’s so quiet, he says. In fact, it’s unlikely you’ll ever outpace another foursome on the course, adds Brinkman, because there’s usually no one else playing.

While he likes the privacy, he also enjoys the camaraderie and the extra challenge that cold conditions present. He and three friends play every week for a bottle of Scotch. Unlike in the summer, every match is close. “Winter is a great equalizer,” he explains.

The Game

There are some key differences between summer and winter golf. First of all, don’t expect the ball to make it to the green on your first swing. Because of the snow, balls don’t roll, so they don’t go as far. It’s also harder to find balls in certain conditions, such as on grey days.

Putts need to be adjusted, too. A putt that might require a firm stroke in the summer could require a light one in the winter, as the ball often zooms along the ice that covers the green.

Keeping score is also a challenge, since balls often fail to make it into the hole. “It’s closest to the pin, lowest number of balls hit for the team, lowest team putts taken,” says Brinkman. There are times when the weather is so bad that it’s impossible to play. Four Seasons Country Club in Claremont, Ontario, opens only when management thinks enough golfers will come out. In the winter of 2012, it was open for one week in January, but then shut down in February and March after big dumps of snow.

When it is open, though, people come from all over Ontario. “They come from Ottawa or even North Bay to play the course in the winter,” says general manager Karen Simpson. “Many come just for the sake of being able to say they played golf in the winter.”

Brinkman admits that a lot of people tell him he’s nuts for playing winter golf, but no amount of snow or drop in temperature will keep him away from the links. “When people tell me I’m crazy, I tell them they should try it,” he says. “You can’t know, until you do it, how much fun it is.”

Equipment Matters

Don’t venture out on the course without the right winter golf equipment.

Seven clubs
Pack half the clubs you would normally carry in the summer. Why? If it’s too icy to take a cart, you’ll be carrying your bag or pulling it on a sled, so the less weight you’re lugging the better.

Rubber tees
You can’t stick wooden or plastic tees into the frozen ground, but tees made of rubber seem to do the trick. Buy black ones that contrast with the snow.

Lightweight gloves
Leave the traditional golf glove in your bag. Find gloves that are warm, but make sure they aren’t too heavy or you’ll hinder your swing.

Winter boots
No golf shoes here. Warm boots are a given, but choose ones that are fairly light to avoid getting tired while trudging through the snow. Wear snowshoes when the snow is more than about 15 centimetres deep.

A warm tuque
You lose most of your heat through your head, and hey, golf is a mental game, so keep your noggin warm.

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