Golftown Journal

Winter Rules

And the golfers play on

By Lee Pace

“The unkind winds and muddy, plugged lies of April and May, the deepening rough of June, the thronging summer folk of July and August, the obfuscating goose feathers and fallen leaves of autumn are all gone, gone, and golf feels, on the frost-stiffed fairways, reduced to its austere and innocent essence.” — John Updike

In early January 1919, the Pinehurst Outlook celebrated the riches of the local golf experience, writing of the annual Mid-Winter Tournament and of a Tin Whistles competition. It previewed the upcoming St. Valentine’s Day Tournament, listed hundreds of arrivals at the Carolina Hotel, and advertised an antiseptic powder for the feet just used by troops in World War I as perfect for golfers because it “takes the friction from the shoe and freshens the foot.” The newspaper also espoused the appeal of the Sandhills: “As the winter golf centre of the two hemispheres, Pinehurst is now thoroughly established, its unequalled equipment embracing three distinct six-thousand-yard courses and an additional nine-hole course.”

Many of you wearing wool, eating stew and checking the Delta schedule to Palm Beach here in the numb of January have forgotten, or were never even aware, that Pinehurst was created as a wintertime resort. The Carolina Hotel one century ago was open Nov. 10 to May 1, and Richard Tufts of the founding family once noted that the aesthetics of the area soon after being cleared for timber in the late 1890s weren’t very high, but “The one thing Pinehurst had to offer in these early days was its climate.”

Which is all the more reason to celebrate golf in the off-months.

Others across the land do so with imagination and great élan. The Jemsek family, longtime owners of Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in the Chicago suburbs, created the Eskimo Open in 1963, and it’s been played every year since on the first Saturday of January with from two dozen to several hundred players. Golfers bring orange balls (the easier to find them in the snow), hammers (the easier to get your tee in the ground), and an appetite (gallons of chili are downed after the golf). 

“It’s a little bit crazy, just like people who go dip themselves in Lake Michigan every year,” Frank Jemsek says.

Golfers numbering up to 1,700 have flocked to Lake Minnetonka just west of Minneapolis each February for 34 years for the Wayzata Chilly Open, where golf “architects” lay out three nine-hole courses on the frozen lake and participants crack tennis balls with golf clubs — or even hockey sticks. Up in Alaska, golfers afflicted with cabin fever wear ice skates and aim their balls toward holes carved with ice augers into the hardened lake surfaces.

The average daily high in Kansas City is 39 degrees in January and 44 in February, so native Tom Watson was nonplussed during the second round of the 1979 Memorial Tournament in Ohio when he hit 16 greens and shot a 69 while battling 30 mph wind, sideways rain and wind-chill factors of 13 degrees. Some say it’s the finest bad-weather round on American soil in history.

“The key was keeping my hands warm,” Watson said. “I guess I’m used to playing in this kind of weather. It’s good Kansas City weather.”

Before air travel began whisking snowbound New Englanders and Manhattanites to Florida, the Sandhills were a Mecca for cold-weather golf. Golfers in Pinehurst have always had it lucky. So what if it rains in January? The water seeps quickly through the sandy loam.

“They came by train all winter long, from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania — places that had been covered by snow for a month,” remembered the late Peggy Kirk Bell, who bought the Pine Needles golf course with husband, Warren, in 1953. “We’d have short cold snaps but soon it would be warm enough to play. They would ride the train all night on Thursday and we’d pick them up early Friday morning. They played golf all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then we’d give them an early dinner and put them back on the train. They were back in New York for work Monday morning.”

Pinehurst was literally turning guests away during the popular winter months in the early 1920s, which is one reason a private club with a lodging component (Mid Pines in 1921), and a resort club with a real estate component (Pine Needles in 1928) were conceived and built. But then came the Depression and the Second World War, turning all the pre-existing travel and leisure trends on their ear. The advent of air conditioning in the mid-1900s opened Pinehurst and all its hotel properties to a 12-month market, and the area had lost its mark as a wintertime resort forever.

Peter deYoung’s roots growing up in Rochester, New York, and living three decades in Chicago adapted him to the ways and means of harsh weather golf. Twenty-five years ago, he suggested to then-Pinehurst CEO Pat Corso that he could put some traffic in empty hotel rooms and on golf courses if Corso would give him a price cut for junior golfers in what deYoung would call the Winternational Junior Series. The program still exists and in 2018-19 will host nine tournaments from late November through early March.

“If I had known it would last 25 years, I’m not sure I would have done it,” deYoung says with a laugh. “But we’ve had a lot of fun with it and brought a lot of kids from the North down here in the winter. We’ve had all kinds of weather stories.

“I remember one year standing on the fifth green watching the first group walk down the fairway. By the time they got to the green, we’d had an inch and a half of snow. Obviously we postponed the round.”

The Donald Ross Memorial Junior Championship has been organized for the week at the end of December every year since 1948 at Pinehurst, with players like Leonard Thompson, David Thore, David Eger and Chip Beck among the winners.

“We see the parents covered in blankets and wearing gloves, but the kids don’t seem to mind the cold,” says tournament director Brian Fahey. “The kids are pretty resilient. They just go play. The cold doesn’t bother them.”

Kelly Mitchum of the Pinehurst teaching staff was pitched on the idea in December of 2017 of playing the resort’s new short course, The Cradle, on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice of Dec. 21, from sunup to sundown, perhaps as a charity enterprise. Mitchum played 26 rounds from 7:20 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. on something of a lark and a test run for a more organized event in December 2018 to raise money for Young Life of the Sandhills and the Sandhills Food Bank.

“I was pretty sore at the end of it, but it was a lot of fun,” Mitchum says of the 2017 marathon. “It was 50 degrees or so, pretty comfortable. The thing about winter golf is the wind. If the wind blows, it’s tough. But even if it’s 45 degrees and there’s no wind, it’s pretty comfortable.”

Each year I pledge to myself to remain engaged with my golf through the winter. You don’t need a tee time and you can play quickly. Dormant Bermuda is actually a terrific playing surface. Walking and lugging — my preferred style of golf — keeps the inner furnace roaring. The late afternoon winter sun yields a burnish on the sepia fairways you can’t find any other time. You can play winter rules — lift, clean and cheat. And playing the game beats watching it on television.

“As long as golf is an outdoor game, we’re going to play in all kind of conditions,” deYoung says.  PS

Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace has chronicled many winters worth of Pinehurst golf lore in three of his books — Pinehurst Stories (1991), The Spirit of Pinehurst (2004) and The Golden Age of Pinehurst (2012).

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