Thursday 5 December 2019

We dream again as winter's grip loosens

Golf can be played in the harshest environments, but we must be wary of the damage frost can do

Winter can scupper a golfer’s ambitions to keep sharp – as frost, snow and ice render the ground unplayable
Winter can scupper a golfer’s ambitions to keep sharp – as frost, snow and ice render the ground unplayable

Dermot Gilleece

Typically perceptive, PG Wodehouse famously lamented that golf was like some capricious goddess who bestowed her favours "with what would appear an almost fat-headed lack of method and discrimination".

So it is that we carry our deeply flawed game into another year, more in hope than expectation.

Still, there is much reason to be grateful, not least for weather that has been remarkably benign for the depths of winter. Which should make us more accepting of those mornings when the dreaded notice 'Course Closed' comes as a crushing blow to eager practitioners of the royal and ancient game.

Indeed I have found myself unfairly berating greenkeepers for being over-protective of their beloved frost-affected terrain. That is when, as a penance, I reluctantly review the words of Declan Branigan, whose expertise in soil structure makes him eminently qualified to pronounce on such matters.

"Golfers may claim to have played frozen greens where no damage has occurred, but since basic science doesn't lie, this can be attributed simply to luck," he said. "The fact is that a few hours' golf could do sufficient, serious damage to put greens out of play for months.

"Water comprises between 75 and 85 per cent of the total weight of grass, maintaining, among other things, the structure of plant cells, which is where frost becomes a problem. With little if any anti-freeze protection, water within the grass plant is likely to freeze during severe frosts, especially on closely-cut greens.

"This of itself is rarely enough to kill the grass species, which are quite hardy. However, grasses are left very brittle, causing them to break quite easily. Which means that downward pressure from vehicles or pedestrian traffic is sufficient to fracture the stems which have a high water content. And when broken completely, the grass plant dies, having been shattered irreversibly."

Branigan concluded: "Members who think they're taking a harmless walk on a frost-affected course, could find their brown or blackish footprints still visible in a week or two. In my opinion, they should be warned to this effect in a club newsletter every autumn."

Irish contact with such matters is as nothing, however, compared with the extremely hostile conditions which some enthusiasts are prepared to tackle for the love of placing club on ball. In idle moments at the beginning of 1997, I learned of the existence of Norway's Harstad Golf Club, which was set to have its nine-hole layout completed later that year.

It was especially interesting for its claim of being the world's most northerly course, situated in a peaceful settlement among the islands dotting the coast of the Norwegian and Barents Seas, where its fairways slope severely towards the shore. Roughly 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it is exactly 1,474 miles from the North Pole and can draw on a population of 70,000 within a two-hour drive.

To give Harstad's location some perspective, it has a latitude of 68 degrees 46 minutes. This compares with 55-4 for Ballyliffin, Ireland's most northerly course which, incidentally, is 2,380 miles from the North Pole. St Andrews is somewhat closer at 2,335 miles.

Being situated in Lapland makes Harstad GC the sort of place where one might see the ubiquitous San Takloss display his golfing skills these days, now that his Christmas chores have been completed. Or he might be found even further north.

Remarkably, since its completion 20 years ago, Harstad has been outstripped - and not just the once. Norway's Tromso Golf Park's 18-hole layout, where guests are welcome from May to October and around the clock from June, was launched in 2002 at a latitude of 69 degrees, 39 minutes and 30 seconds.

Even further north, at 70-44, is Canada's Billy Joss GC in the Northwest Territories. We're told practitioners there can savour its shale fairways and artificial greens from June to September and perhaps compete in an annual 72-hole Celebrity Tournament in July, when there's 24 hours of daylight.

The six-hole layout of Nordkapp (North Cape) GC on the island of Mageroya in Norway, however, is at the most northerly point in continental Europe - latitude 70-66-4.

The par is 20 which you negotiate three times for a full 18 and, most surprisingly, we're told that there's the rather discomforting prospect of being eaten alive by mosquitoes breeding in the muddy ground.

Meanwhile, the emphasis on tradition at this time of year has me revisiting the timeless writings of Bernard Darwin whose particularly charming essay, 'Green Christmases', has appeared in these columns.

It has to do with an annual trip he and some golfing colleagues made by train in the immediate aftermath of Christmas to delightful Aberdovey in Wales.

Which is why the headline, 'Secretary for Aberdovey', in an old December issue of Golf Illustrated, caught my eye. And the piece became all the more interesting in the context of the impending appointment of a new general manager at a North Dublin club to which I have a particular attachment.

The piece read: "Recently we had the temerity to publish in our columns the fact that a golf club wanted a secretary who would be content with an honorarium and a free house.

"The reaction was quite staggering. Phone calls and letters simply crashed in on us from every quarter and every hour of the day. Of course, all but one of the people who contacted us were disappointed.

"Now we have to report that the famous old club of Aberdovey seeks a secretary who would like to work in seaside conditions. In this instance, there is no mention of a free house. We would say that if anyone is interested, please write to the Aberdovey Club and not to us, because we want to enjoy our Christmas holiday."

What a gentle world golfers inhabited back in 1953!

Back to Wodehouse and his delightfully evocative musings in 'The Heart of a Goof', helpfully described by the Oldest Member as "one of those unfortunate beings who have allowed this noblest of sports to get too great a grip upon them".

While dreaming of the wonderfully precious gift of a repeating swing, we may ponder the truly magical picture created by the master.

"It was a morning," wrote Wodehouse, "when all nature shouted 'Fore!' The breeze as it blew gently up from the valley, seemed to bring a message of hope and cheer, whispering of chip shots holed and brassies landing squarely on the meat.

"The fairway . . . smiled greenly up at the azure sky; and the sun, peeping above the trees, looked like a giant golf ball perfectly lofted by the mashie of some unseen god and about to drop dead by the pin on the 18th.

"It was the day of the opening of the course after the long winter, and a crowd of considerable dimensions had collected at the first tee. Plus-fours gleamed in the sunshine and the air was charged with happy anticipation."

Through the wonders of modern agronomy, most of our courses, parkland and links alike, now remain open and playable for 12 months of the year, in sharp contrast to those in the forbidding extremes of Lapland. We can still share the sense of excitement, however, which even the Oldest Member must have experienced at the advent of a new golfing year.

So with 2017 upon us, my wish for you is that birdies may abound and pars proliferate, and that the spoils of a great game may be more equitably divided. Happy New Year!

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