An hour north of Boston, the golf shops hold their end-of-season sales in early October, and by the end of the month, the club pros have flown south to Florida, to begin all over again. The courses remain open, however, for a month or so—at first, with flags in fresh-cut cups, and then without flags but with unlined holes cut in the middle of the green, and finally with no holes in the green but perhaps temporary greens set up some yards in front, on patches of fairway where putting is as chancy as bowling across cobblestones. Nevertheless, a devoted few play on, through Indian summer and Thanksgiving, into December, until the first snowfall puts a decisive end to the golfing year.
Just as a day may come at sunset into its most glorious hour, or a life toward the gray-bearded end enter a halcyon happiness, December golf, as long as it lasts, can seem the sweetest golf of the year. The unkind winds and muddy plugged lies of April and May, the deepening rough of June, the hot, eager crowds of July and August, the obfuscating goose feathers and fallen leaves of the autumn are all gone, gone, and golf feels, on the frost-stiffened fairways, reduced to its austere and innocent essence.
December always holds some mild-enough days. Sunshine glints like a thin shell of ice on the upper sides of the bare, gray twigs, the sky is striped like blue bacon, a tardy line of Canada geese wobbles its way south, and the air is delighted to be providing oxygen to some plucky sportsmen. The foursome, thinned perhaps to a mere threesome or twosome, meets by the boarded-up clubhouse exhilarated to have an entire golf course to itself—fairway upon fairway visible through the naked trees, zigzagging back and forth in the view from the first tee. There are no tee markers, no starting times, no scorecards, no gasoline carts—just golf-mad men and women, wearing wool hats and two sweaters each, moving on their feet. The season’s handicap computer has been disconnected, so the sole spur to good play is rudimentary human competition—a simple best-ball nassau or 50-cent game of skins, its running tally carried in the head of the accountant or retired banker in the group. You seem to be, in December golf, reinventing the game, in some rough realm predating 15th-century Scotland.
The ball, even smartly struck, has a deadish sound, and stops 20 yards short of where a summer swing would have placed it. The balls themselves are apt to be those at the bottom of the golf-bag pocket, the scarred and dirty orphans of the season. The clubs, too, with the caddies all gone south or back to college, still bear September’s grassy residue unscoured from their grooves, and impart but a smudge of backspin. Excuses abound, in short, for not playing very well, and the well-struck shot has a heightened luster as it climbs through the heavy air and loses itself in the dazzle of the low winter sun. Winter rules, of course, legitimize generous relocations on the fairway, and with the grass all dead and matted, who can say where the fairway ends? It possibly extends, in some circumstances, even into the bunkers, where the puddling weather, lack of sand rakes and foraging raccoons have created conditions any reasonable golfer must take it upon himself to adjust with his foot.
A lovely leniency, in short, prevails in December golf, as a reward for our being out there at all. The course itself—its ice-edged water hazards, its newly erected snow fences—seems grateful to be visited, to have golfers tickling with their cleats and divots the shapely slopes and expanses that in another month will be useful only to cross-country skiers and snowmobiles, scrawling their tracks idiotically across the logic of the layout. There is a misty wood-smoke feeling to the round, the savor of last things.
We are not quite alone. A distant dogwalker ambulates along the seventh fairway. Two urchins armed with sawed-off 5-irons have sneaked onto the course at the par-3 11th, where the fence needs repairing. Three members of the green crew are out with the pick-up truck on the 15th, clearing away that clump of sumac and oak that has swallowed many a foozled drive. In winter, thickets that in summer seem impenetrable jungle, virulent with poison ivy and greenbrier, become a few sticks and stalks, cleared easily, in an atmosphere of crisp transparency. The rasp of chainsaws carries across the course, a distinct distraction on the 16th tee, fading to a dim and friendly buzzing when the 17th green is reached.
A lovely leniency, in short, prevails in December golf, as a reward for our being out there at all.
Something about December golf—the bulky clothes, perhaps, or the bare lies, or a fear that the chilly ball might shatter— cramps my swing, I have noticed. The shortening days impose a shorter backswing. I find myself trying to steer the ball, and the shots grow increasingly stunted, and pulled, and displeasing to me and my partner. It is with a great effort of imagination—a long reach back into the airy warmth of summer—that I remind myself that golf is a game of letting go, of a motion that is big and free. “Throw your hands at the hole,” I tell myself, or, “Turn, you dummy,” and perhaps the shots do begin to click again and climb in the air that fraction of a second extra, before settling to descend.
But by then the nassau has been decided, and dusk has crept out of the woods into the fairways. The happy flow of banter has cooled and focuses on the 19th hole, the warm bar. Ice has found its way into your golf shoes; the fingers of your right hand have no feel; your face hurts. Time to pack it in. The radio calls for snow tomorrow. “Throw your hands at the hole.” The last swing feels effortless, and the ball vanishes dead ahead, gray lost in the gray, right where the 18th flag would be. The secret of golf has been found at last, after eight months of futilely chasing it. Now, the trick is to hold it in mind, all the indoor months ahead, without its melting away.