The signs have been removed from the parking lot. Rather than grab your bag from the rack, you lift it from your trunk and lug it across the parking-lot yourself. It hasn’t rained in a week or so, yet the pavement is tinted dark-gray and the sparse and yellow grass surrounding it is sodden. It’s chillier out than you’d anticipated, and the breeze running down your neck makes you wish that you’d worn another layer.
The event board has been whipped clean. The starter’s shack is unmanned. There are no lollygagging bag-shop attendants around, making small talk with members in between washing carts and scrubbing clubheads.
Inside of the clubhouse, most of the clothing and clubs have been removed from the pro-shop floor, and the desk is unoccupied. There are merely a few unwanted club-logoed LevelWear polos hanging from a circular for-sale rack out in the hallway, along with a handful of Footjoy rain-jackets, for which no one in their right mind would ever pay the mortgaged-priced fee to take home.
The brackets chronicling the unfoldings of the season’s various two-ball, four-ball, individual, and captain’s cup matches have been taken down from the walls of the locker-room, which sits empty and hushed. There remains only a handful of discolored and wrinkled shoes crowning the tops of the rows. You tell yourself that you’ll come back later in the week to clean out yours, but you know that you probably won’t. You’re joining against next season, so what’s the harm with leaving your rain-gear and a few balls in it over the winter?
Although you’d be more than happy to just sit at the bar and drink the afternoon away, you know that your buddy is already out at the range, searching for the secret in the dirt that has eluded him all season. The grass-deck is closed and the now-badly worn range balls aren’t stacked. You’re the only two golfers at the range, in fact the only two golfers you’ve seen so far today, but the handful of cars in the parking-lot assures you that there are others who are just as crazy, who are just as dumb as you two, for being out here today.
Your hands, despite only having been out of their black and red Titleist mittens for a few minutes now, already feel puffy and numb, as you fight the four layers of clothing restricting you from making a proper backswing. Even when struck flush, the ball seems to fly lower and heavier and slower than it did hardly two weeks ago, when a hint of summer still lingered, when the club was still alive.
Ten feet away, your regular playing-partner, who is also sporting a tuque and dressed in various shades of gray and black, is grinding through his warm-up routine; you curse him mentally for having dragged you out here, on such a winter’s day. “You’ve played one-hundred-and-thirty-two rounds already this year,” you want to scream at him, “do you really need to play one more? I could be at home, lying on the couch, with a beer in front of me, and a blanket over my feet, watching college football or an afternoon hockey game instead.”
“Shall we go?” he turns and proposes.
“May as well,” you answer curtly, shooting him a glance of disdain.
“Let’s play a tee forward,” he offers and you accept.
It seems a chore to bend down to tee-up the golf ball, and your lower back screams as you make your two practice swings. The whole of the limbering progress you’d accomplished on the range seems to have rescinded during the two-minute walk to the first-tee.
It feels a lot like the start of the season again. You’re unsure on your feet as you address the ball; you can’t really feel where the clubhead is at the top of your backswing; and the strike provides you with next to no feedback. However, the ball goes straight and plugs, which is about all you can ask for today.
Like soldiers marching to the front, you and your partner walk side by side, not exchanging a word, head down and out of the headwind that stings your cheeks and waters your eyes, merely focused on getting to the next task. The game seems a veritable task, a station to station trudge. The clanking of the clubs seems sharper than usual.
These are the days, these gruesome times, you remind yourself, that you need to remember whenever you complain about the stifling heat and sweltering humidity in July or August.
Usually, you hit a short iron into this opening green, but today you’re debating between a 5 and a 6 iron. The 6 iron seems the better play, for you simply can’t convince yourself to hit a 5 iron from where you’d summerly select an 8 iron.
“Alright not bad,” you console your buddy, who’s come up well short with his approach, his ball having been swatted out of the air like a feather by the sturdy breeze.
It seems to kick up even more as you wipe the splotch of mud from your Callaway Chrome Soft, which you opted to play today because it’s softer than a ProV1 and you’ve heard that that helps at this time of year.
“Nah I gotta hit a five.”
The collar of your wind-breaker rubs the bottom of your unshaven chin and the whooshing sound of synthetic material rubbing against synthetic material slightly annoys you as you make your second backswing, which somehow feels even more bothersome than the one that you made back on the tee.
Fearful of taking too big of a divot out of the muddy turf, you come out of it a tad and a jolt runs through your tender and red hands, up your arms, and into your shoulders. Your right hand flies off of your grip a nanosecond after impact.
That stinging feeling, which nearly sends you to your knees, harkens back to when you used to hit a baseball off of the tip of an aluminum Easton baseball bat on the ball-diamonds of the quiet backstreets of your hometown. When your father, tired and weary from a long day’s toil, would stand on the mound and mechanically pitch to you for hours, nurturing your dreams of fame and glory without complaint. Or when you and your friends would bike through town together, play ball until your shoulders and elbows screamed for mercy and Tommy John’s, and then stop for slushies or freezies at the local corner store, with nothing more important on your minds than the seemingly endless summer weeks ahead and what your girl crushes were up to instead. Those pre-taxed, pre-car-paymented, pre-credit-card-billed, pre-deadlined halcyon days that seemed inexhaustible, when you believed that you’d never be as old as your father, but now you are, in the blink of an eye.
“Man I thought I gave that plenty,” you tell your partner, after hitting a pitch that you thought was stone-dead, but somehow stopped ten feet short. The green still faintly bears its now three-week old aeration marks, and the cup seems not to have been moved in a few days at least.
Unable to convince yourself that the ball won’t break at this speed, you naturally over-borrow and your bashed putt misses by a couple of inches.
“No need to grind over those in this weather,” your partner concedes and knocks the ball back to your right golf shoes, the rims of which are already littered with clumps of mud and blades of grass. Of course, he’s never seen a forecast during which he’d hesitate to give himself one of those, the cheeky bastard, you tell yourself.
You really need to change your grips this winter, you realize as you grab your driver again; in this cold, the white and black, one-hundred-and-four round worn multi-compound feels more like gripping an icicle than a Golf Pride. Suddenly, though, the short par 5, 2nd, which normally gives you the fits off the tee, looks inviting and forgiving with the surrounding trees no longer bearing their full canopies. Moreover, the color of the evergreens seems buoyant and vital amidst the desolate landscape, where, otherwise, there remains merely a few scattered yellow and orange leaves, dehydrated and crumpled and clinging for a few more days before falling sadly to the grass.
“Not a bad one there,” your partner says, eyeing your bunted cut that plods its way towards the right edge of the fairway.
Walking off the tee, you think that you should probably check your IPhone to see if everything is alright on the home-front; however, your hands are too cold to perform delicate maneuvers such as typing on a six-by-four inch screen, so you omit to do so and continue on instead. Your wife has got it under control.
Rather than be concerned with technique and flight and from where you’d prefer to hit your third shot, as you would during the summer, you simply do your best to strike your 3 wood solidly, which you do. Turn back and turn through, good tempo, and hold your finish.
“Good birdie partner,” you’re told by your partner a chip-shot from just short of the green and a kick-in later. “Brought us a little something, something to warm up the spirits,” he then says, removing from his bag a flask of Jack Daniels, from which he takes a hearty gulp and then passes it to you.
“Should’ve told me sooner, partner,” you say and mimic him. “That’s the good stuff, eh,” you add, thumping your chest lightly and relishing the soothing trail of Tennessee warmth running from the back of your mouth, down your throat and into your lungs.
You’re in the mood now; you’re glad, all of a sudden, that he dragged you out here, against your will. In three months’ time, when you’ve spent the last hour and twenty minutes shoveling your laneway for the third time already that day and hear the snowplow approaching again, you’d trade a kidney to be playing golf instead.
As you continue on, passing the flask back and forth, not concerned with your score and the speed and smoothness of the greens, nor if the cart-girl is coming soon, nor whether the flower beds by the tee-box have been manicured to the members’ satisfaction, nor whether the bunkers have been raked, you realize that this is how golf is meant to be played. You’re reminded of those wonderful clubs you visited on your last trip to the U.K. and France, where the golf course is all that matters, where play is stripped to its bare essentials, where golf feels a legitimate sport played by two sportsmen out for exercise and diversion from the meanness of life outside of the entrance to the parking-lot for three hours or so.
By the tail end of the round, with the sunlight fading, the temperature having dipped a handful of degrees since the turn and the wind kicking up even more ferociously, all things considered, you’re amazed at how well you’re hitting your irons, which have been wonky all season. You earnestly believe that you’ve finally found something lasting; of course, though, you then remember that your clubs are going into storage for the next four months. That any progress you’ve made today will effectively be for nil, that you’ll be starting from scratch again next season, as you do each new season after the winter.
But you’re excited for the new season already, to be back out here with your mates. Maybe, though, just maybe, you’ll be able to sneak south to Florida or Pinehurst for a few weeks this winter.
“One last pint?” your partner asks you while heading towards the illuminated clubhouse.
You look up from your phone, on which there are fifteen unread text messages, two missed calls, and eight emails lingering in your inbox, and say, “I’ll have two, in fact.” You’ve got six months to deal with the rest of life’s slings and arrows.