From the Golf Journal Archives - Ice Follies

Dec 02, 2011

Too cold to play golf? Not for these hardy Northerners. From Snobirds to the Bering Sea
they tee it up – no matter the temperature.

By Ron Crowley

(Note: This article originally appeared in the November/December 1990 issue of Golf Journal.)

AN UTTERLY OBNOXIOUS sage once suggested that the only way to beat Old Man Winter was to get out and enjoy him. Most northern golfers nimbly side-step that advice, but not the Snobirds at the Siwanoy Golf Club, in Bronxville, N.Y.

Ever since 1907, they have begun their annual competition on the last weekend in October. Over the next eight weeks, in ever shorter and colder days, they amass points in weekly medal competitions hoping to qualify for the match-play portion of the tournament. Only 16 do, and they play weekly 18-hole matches, with the two survivors fighting out a 36-hole final on a chilly weekend late in January.

The Snobirds use the regular course at Siwanoy, but once the greens become unplayable, the action switches to the nine temporary sand greens set out on the front nine in early November. Twenty feet in diameter, each is fitted with a broom instead of a flagstick so that it may be swept into tidy condition.

Handicaps are adjusted downward to entice better players to enter, and the Rules are relaxed to increase everyone’s fun: A ball may be cleaned at any time, a lie may be improved anywhere through the green, and “lost” balls reappear by simply dropping without penalty.

“It is believed to be the oldest continual winter golf activity in the country,” says Joel Parker, the current tournament chairman. “And while we play for the camaraderie, the competition is real.”

Although restricted to club members, the Snobirds do host a member-guest tournament on the morning of New Year’s Eve. Less adventurous club members, known as the “Rocking-Chair Snobirds,” even earn prizes for expert card-playing. The whole affair culminates with a gala awards banquet; by then, winter is half over.

A SIMILAR TRADITION of winter golf has existed in England ever since the Oxford and Cambridge Golfing Society inaugurated its members-only President’s Putter in 1920. A January fixture, the four-day match-play event usually takes place at the Rye Golf Club, in Camber.

In season, the superb links of rolling sandhills and wondrous seaside vistas is a truly magnificent venue. In January, however, one’s attention is quickly diverted by the horrendous showers of snow, sleet, and freezing rain that whip in off the ocean.

The area’s abundant charm led venerable British golf writer Bernard Darwin to retire there. Darwin treasured the “Putter” for its spirited competition and convivial atmosphere. Late in life, he described it grandiosely: “Golf on a big seaside course, in the weather we have sometimes had, is of an eminently testing quality, trying alike the heart and skill, favouring those built to stand four-square to all the winds that blow; but we would never exchange it and the traditions that have grown up round it for any more balmy and enervating game.”

The Putter has been won by British Amateur champions and Walker Cup players, each being presented with the hickory-shafted putter used by Hugh Kirkaldy to win the 1891 British Open. The club was donated by the Society’s first Captain, John Low, who himself had used it to win the British Amateur in 1897. Each winner marks his conquest by affixing a ball to it, but the Putter resides permanently in a glass case at the Rye clubhouse. The champion receives a medal engraved with Primus inter paras, literally “first among equals,” but officially translated as “He was lucky to win.”

The Putter is often held in trying weather, but always on a golf course. The Bering Sea Ice Classic, in Nome, Alaska (64° 30' N, 165° 30' W), is a little different. One winter day in 1984, four friends sat inside the Bering Sea Saloon quaffing beer and gazing out the window at ice-locked Norton Sound. In a moment of lucidity, they decided it would be great fun to venture beyond the sea wall and play a little golf. Seven years later, their escapade had evolved into a major fund-raiser for the local Lions Club, who use the proceeds to support scholarships and other charities.

Its customary date is the Sunday closest to St. Patrick’s Day, a time when the town’s population of 4,000 doubles with the arrival of visitors awaiting the conclusion of the Iditarod dogsled race.

Eliot Staples, a tournament founder, explains that the visitors “just walk up and down the street drinking, partying, and waiting for those puppies to cross the line, so we figured we could give them some entertainment and make a little money.”

Their $50 entry fee covers play on the six-hole course laid out between the Bering Sea Saloon and the Breakers Bar. Dressed in bizarre costumes – a 400-pound leprechaun has played – they use sawed-off shotgun shells for tees, try to avoid genuine sand bunkers, and hit into Astroturf greens.

If you’re dull-willed enough to forget your clubs, some will be provided. If you’re familiar with the Rules of Golf, read the local ones anyway. No divot may be replaced. And if you hit a polar bear (an endangered species), you incur a four-shot penalty. Ah, but if you recover your ball – deduct five shots.

And who wins? Stan Sobocienski, the owner of the Bering Sea Saloon, replies with typical Alaskan aplomb, “The one with the lowest score.” A silly question, obviously, but aren’t handicaps used? An enlightened Sobocienski informs the world, “Hell, no. That’s not fair.”

Each participant receives a totally useless set of tees and ball markers as well as a Certificate of Achievement attesting to “fortitude, endurance, and somewhat retarded mentality.”

Short days and frigid temperatures limit play to 76 golfers, so other activities have been added to Nome’s “golf weekend.” Contests are held on Saturday for the longest drive, the best chip (from the seawall to a tire), and for putting (on a 35-foot artificial green; three balls for $5, enter as often as you wish).

All this is pretty amazing for a town without a regulation course. In fact, Staples journeys 550 air miles to Anchorage for a real game. “I would rather play golf than eat,” he declares. “But you don’t get to up here.”

THAT’S WITH the exception of a weekend in March when Nome hosts the most demanding tournament in the world. The community spirit fostered there is taken a step further in the Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake, Ill., where the local Park District sponsors the “Doc” Haznow Chili Open every January.

The event was the brainstorm of “Doc” Haznow, who in the early 1970s thought the combination of a round of frosty winter golf and a big bowl of steamy chili in his Chinese restaurant – yes, Chinese – was the perfect antidote for the winter “blahs.” He seems to have been right; the field quickly outgrew his establishment.

Haznow convinced his co-founder, Park Director Jim Oerkfitz, to make the fieldhouse at the town’s main beach available and to add a second nine-hole course. The subsequent radio coverage and entry of celebrities like Chicago Bear football players surprised no one. Everyone just smiled when a bride and groom brought their entire wedding reception to the festivities.

The Park District sets up the course on the 230-acre lake. It uses discarded Christmas trees to help define the holes, and “mows” the fairways with four-wheel-drive snowplows. Indoor/outdoor carpeting serves as greens.

While the course lacks bunkers, imaginative obstacles exist, such as a daunting pile of snow separating the two lanes of what would otherwise be a straightforward hole.

“Most players prefer a snow-covered course, since the fast pace of bare ice is so difficult,” explains longtime participant Jerry Shaffer. “A controlled swing is also essential. A mere flick of the wrist, or a downward punch, works best.”

The accouterments are also important. Extraordinary care goes into building club-sleds, selecting costumes (tuxedos to gorilla suits), and concocting potions to fend off the cold (mugs of hot Scandinavian “glug” predominate).

“Entry is on a first-come, first-served basis,” says Crystal Lake Superintendent of Parks Bob Lashburg. “Recently, we have drawn upwards to 400 players, from all over.”

THAT MAY SEEM a lot, but in New Paltz, N.Y., Rob Gutkin sees no end to the popularity of these tournaments. Gutkin and three friends founded The Club Shop Ltd.-Jack Frost Open, which is held simultaneously over three golf courses in Ulster County on the third Sunday in February.

“We began in 1987 on a lark,” he explains. “But we put 70 players around the New Paltz course. The second year we had to add the Stone Dock course in Accord. We had 240 players on three courses having the time of their lives.”

Gutkin initially used the customer list from his golf specialty shop in New Paltz to generate interest. A nice array of prizes, local press coverage, and countless player referrals did the rest.

“People really go for it,” he says. “What makes the tournament appealing is that by February everyone has cabin fever; they’re so anxious to get outside.

“They used to rely on the St. Patrick’s Day parade to tell them that spring was coming. Now, it’s the Jack Frost Open.

“Believe me, filling the field is simple. We could go to four, five, or six courses with more help. Four years without a complaint,” he mused. “If there’s anything like a blessed event, this is it.”

So there’s no need to put up the sticks when the thermometer falls off the scale. These tournaments, and others like them, afford golfers around the world a break from the drudgery of hibernation. Old Man Winter may be a golfer after all.

The Siwanoy Snobirds are the country’s longest-lived winter golf league. (USGA Museum)

When you play golf in the snow, any green patch is a welcome oasis – even if it’s only artificial turf, and you have to putt on it. (USGA Museum)

If it snows at the Bering Sea Ice Classic, it REALLY snows. This player has obviously found a buried lie. (USGA Museum)