Karl Lindholm: Golf musings 2020: A good walk spoiled?

NEW SNOW DUSTS the ground around the 18th hole at Ralph Myhre Golf Course in Middlebury on Tuesday, Nov. 3 — Election Day. Although temps sank to 28 degrees that day, a reprise of 60s and sun visited Addison County in the following days extending the 2020 golf season. Photo by Karl Lindholm

A FOURSOME LEAVES the 18th hole at Ralph Myhre Golf Course on Friday, Nov. 6, a beautiful sunny day, with temps in the 60s. As the other photo with this story shows, only three days earlier a seasonal dusting of snow covered the course. Photo by Karl Lindholm

I was hoping to get my pals together for one last round of golf before we shut it down for the winter.

Monday night last week, Election Eve, was cold with snow on the way, and, sure enough, the next morning, we were greeted with three inches of heavy snow.

I felt some slim hope as warm weather was predicted for the weekend. I checked the tee times page at the website of our local course (Ralph Myhre) and found no times listed for Saturday and Sunday. I figured the course must have closed for the year on Nov. 1, a reasonable end date, most years.

I called the golf shop nonetheless, expecting a recorded message, but “Don” took my call and informed me the course was indeed open. He explained that every tee time for the weekend had already been booked! Looking out my window, it seemed unimaginable we would play again.

There were two tee times available on Friday, so I grabbed one of those, and our awesome foursome got in one more round in 2020, on Nov. 6, under sunny skies, 70 degrees. Golf in Vermont: nearly a 50-degree temperature swing in a couple of days. 

November can be such a cold, damp, nasty, dark time — in my mind, the worst month of the year. This warm-weather reprieve during Election Week, when tensions were so high, was a blessing indeed. 

For years, I have pronounced the Ralph Myhre to be a golf paradise — a beautiful course in a stunning setting, lightly played: just show up, pay the reasonable green fees, and you have the course to yourself. 

“Lightly played?” Not this year! 

Golf turned out to be the perfect coronavirus activity: it’s outside and easy to social distance. Pandemic golf looks a lot like pre-pandemic golf. It was one of the few recreational and social enterprises that was relatively safe. And golfers responded enthusiastically; many non-golfers became golfers. 

“More than twice as many rounds were played this year than last year,” Derrick Cram, the business manager at Ralph Myhre Golf Course, told me this week. “I’ve been working at the golf course here for 22 years, since I was in high school, and this was the best summer in my memory, maybe the best summer ever for the golf course.”

Paul Politano, the golf pro at Ralph Myhre, echoes Derrick Cram’s assessment. “We have been really, really busy. Many days this summer we had no tee times available — the course was full.” 

That was the case this past weekend: Every tee time from last Thursday through Monday was taken. 

COVID concerns required a “Park, Play, and Go Home” approach: reserve a tee time, show up at that time, enjoy your round, and go home. “Not much mixing and milling around,” as Politano put it. 

Many of the exaggerated courtesies of golf have been eliminated or redefined in the last few years. Signs on the course encourage us to play “ready golf”: if you’re ready to hit your shot, hit the ball even if you’re not “away.” Players drive from the tee box that best suits their ability — no men’s tees and ladies’ tees anymore. One of the new mantras is “Don’t have time, play nine.” These were heresies not that long ago. 

I bought a membership this year and played more often than I have in the last 10 years combined. Paul estimates that 60-80 new members were added this year. 

Nationally, participation in golf has declined steadily for the past two decades or so. Not so this year. The National Golf Foundation has reported that golf rounds were up 25.5% in September 2020 over September 2019, up 20.6% in August 2020, 19.7% in July, 13.9 in June, 6.2% in May. 

On the other hand, rounds played in April were down 44.4% from the year before “because more than half the courses in the U.S. were shut down in parts of March and April because of the pandemic or seasonality.” 

“The neatest thing,” Politano said, “was how many new faces we saw. After Phase 1 (of COVID restrictions), all Middlebury College students were given a ‘gratis membership,’ — they played free. We had five or six times as many student rounds as we ever had before. We often ran out of rental clubs.

“The students were great. They wore their masks the whole time.”

Our foursome of old guys had an interesting experience with students one fine September day. We were chipping on the eighth green from just short of the hole when a ball plopped down next to us. We looked back and couldn’t see anyone behind us who might have hit it. A mystery.

Just a minute later, a student in a cart came roaring up to us, offering abject apologies for hitting into our group. 

“Did you hit it from the ‘Golds’ (the gold tee markers where we hit our drives)?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “the Blues (the championship tees, maybe 30 yards more distant than the Golds).” The eighth hole is 370 yards, uphill, from tee to green. He had hit his drive more than 350 yards!

I told him, “I don’t want to give you a hard time, I want your autograph.” Then I asked, “Are you on the team?” I assumed he was a member of the golf team.

“Yes,” he said, “the hockey team.”

Ah, youth. 

I have the great joy of living here in Addison County with my three best college friends, an awesome foursome (that rhymes in Boston). This spring and summer and into the fall, we played most Tuesdays and Thursdays, sometimes all four of us, sometimes in another configuration thereof. 

Just nine holes for us. Two hours. We play the front nine mostly — the back nine is too hard. We’re not great golfers, but we try to play fast, ready golf. We delight in one another’s company and we appreciate the manicured wilderness of “the Ralph.” 

We walk the course, like in the old days. I worked on a golf course in Maine for eight summers as a teen and in college (relax, friends, I’m not going to tell my caddy stories), so every time I go out and throw the bag over my shoulder I am traveling back in time to when I was a callow youth myself. 

Do you think Thoreau was a golfer? In his essay “Walking,” he wrote: “I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least, … sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.” Sounds like a golfer to me.

Twain, on the other hand, is often credited with asserting that “golf is a good walk spoiled.” I know the sentiment. Golf is a hard game to master. 

But this year, again and again, golf was a good walk indeed.

Karl Lindholm, Ph.D., is the Dean Emeritus of Advising at Middlebury College. He can be reached at lindholm@middlebury.edu

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