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Warm winter golf in Baltimore draws rugged core of duffers, pros alike

Eddie Watt looks down a fairway in the Jack Frost tournament at Pine Ridge golf course in Feb.
Eddie Watt looks down a fairway in the Jack Frost tournament at Pine Ridge golf course in Feb. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Why play golf in winter? Cheap fees. No crowds. Fast games.

Tee up in the cold, duffers say, and enjoy the perks. Icy fairways give balls more scoot. Frozen ponds send wayward shots bounding on. Find the rough? Big deal. Tall grass flattens down, come winter. Moreover, summer’s pesky insects are gone, and sunburns aren’t a worry.

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Share those merits with Bill Hottman and the Bel Air golfer frowns.

“Don’t tell too many people or it’ll get crowded out there,” said Hottman, 64.

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Eddie Watt looks down a fairway in the Jack Frost tournament at Pine Ridge golf course in Feb.
Eddie Watt looks down a fairway in the Jack Frost tournament at Pine Ridge golf course in Feb. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

It’s no secret; the game appeals to seasoned golfers year-round. Last month, Pine Ridge Golf Course held a tournament, the Jack Frost Scramble, which drew 84 hardy entrants — Hottman included — for a 9 a.m. start in 19-degree weather. A January tourney, the Chilly Willy, attracted 120 golfers to the course in Timonium. On Saturday, Mount Pleasant Golf Course, in Baltimore, will host another winter best-ball outing.

But a rugged core of golfers needs no special lure to hit the links in winter. Bundled up from head to tee, Hottman has braved Pine Ridge when the mercury read 10 degrees; Ed Watt, 64, of Towson, has played there when it was 4.

“We didn’t pull the pins on the greens that day [in 2005] for fear that our hands would stick to the poles,” Watt said.

On the same course, six years ago, Julieta Stack completed 18 holes when the wind chill index was a balmy minus-16.

“I guess we’re a little obsessive,” said Stack, 54, of Mount Washington. “You’ve got to love the game.”

The key, they say, is to check your ego in the clubhouse because golf is a different challenge, come winter.

Brian Thompson is bundled up as he rides on the back of a golf cart on the way to a tee box in the Jack Frost tournament at Pine Ridge golf course in Feb.
Brian Thompson is bundled up as he rides on the back of a golf cart on the way to a tee box in the Jack Frost tournament at Pine Ridge golf course in Feb. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Cold air makes for shorter drives. Frozen greens play like concrete. Bare hands numb quickly. And, on a slick course, carts have been known to take off on their own.

“You’ll park on a hill to go take a shot, then look behind to see the push buggy rolling away, crashing to a stop 100 yards downhill with clubs and balls flying everywhere. That has happened more than once,” said John Thompson, 56, of Towson.

The most determined golfers scoff at nature’s worst, say the club pros at a number of public courses.

“You can’t keep them away,” said Jim Deck, the pro at Pine Ridge. “There have been times [in snowstorms] when I’ve had to go out on the course and bring them in. I said, ‘Guys, I’ll give you your money back but I’ve got to protect you from yourselves.' Once there was 1-1/2 inches of snow on the ground but they wanted to go on; that’s the kind of insanity you run across.”

When it starts to snow, Lawrence Moses can’t always count on golfers to stop play, said the club pro at Clifton Park.

“Several years ago, I had to drive out there in a cart to get three different foursomes,” Moses said. “The grass was white and there were no greens to be seen. I told them I appreciated their dedication but that the course was unplayable. They came into the clubhouse, drank some beers and forgot all about it.”

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Moses understands that mindset.

“If you’re a golfer, there’s only so long you can sit indoors until cabin fever takes over and you get that trigger finger and those itchy feet,” he said. “You might not play your best golf [in winter] but you can still feed your habit and stay in shape.”

To some. the camaraderie is as important as the competition, said Ed Miller, the club pro at Forest Park.

“It’s a great excuse to go hang out with your friends for hours,” said Miller. “You finish the game, come inside, have a beverage, play some cards and go home.”

Ironically, he said, because many winter golfers choose to walk the course to keep warm, “they get more exercise than in summer when they ride a cart.”

Because cold golf balls don’t fly as far, most duffers stash them in their pants with pocket warmers, said Miller, though some have been known -- after nine holes -- to slip into the clubhouse and zap their balls in a microwave.

For 20 years, one foursome has kept a New Year’s resolution to tee off at Pine Ridge nearly an hour before dawn every January 1.

“We think we’re the first ones every year playing golf in North America, unless there’s someone in Nova Scotia beating us to it, which is unlikely,” said Thompson.

Then there is Stack, an LPGA pro who, on Jan. 6, 2014, braved 3-degree temperatures and a biting wind to play a full round. By herself. For two hours, on an otherwise empty course.

“It was spur-of-the moment,” she said. “I decided I wanted to set one record in golf, so why not be the only one in Baltimore ever to go 18 holes in weather that cold? I bundled up, covered my face with a fleecy mask with a slit for my eyes and an opening for my mouth, and played it all with one club. It was too cold to carry a bag.”

After nine holes, nearing the clubhouse, she nearly caved.

“I thought about going in and having a hot chocolate by the fireplace. But I knew if I did that, I wouldn’t come back out,” said Stack, director of instruction at Pine Ridge. “Don’t know what I shot that day but, at 3 degrees, I’d say I’ve got the record. And if anyone doubts my integrity, just wait ‘til the next time it’s that cold and I’ll go out and do it again.”

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