Novel idea for a winter golf fix

January starts another PGA Tour season, and never has the short turnaround seemed longer. For many of us in higher latitudes, the television will be our main connection to the game until the ground thaws and the azaleas bloom. Recently, with winter looming like a falling piano, I made one last desperate effort to hold back time.

Most golfers have at least one anachronistic item in their stash that is treasured despite – or maybe because of – its uselessness. Mine is a shag bag I was gifted back when my spikes were metal. It still looks new. To call the bag useless isn’t wholly fair. It has become a repository for the lost balls my wife, Lorraine, and I find on our evening walks past the 16th hole of Dinsmore Golf Course, the vintage municipal layout down the block from our New York home. Lorraine has proved as adept at finding hooks out-of-bounds as the patrons are at hitting them.

Dinsmore had closed a week earlier, absent flagsticks, the sad, telltale sign of a course in hibernation. Deer and geese already had reclaimed (and overfertilized) the fairways. I have no qualms about inactive-season rounds, but the temporary greens open elsewhere around town held little interest.

Then I was struck by nothing more than a whim: Walk left out of the driveway instead of right, and go hit balls in the open field fronting Margaret Lewis Norrie State Park.

I can’t lay claim to the original idea. A neighbor and longtime village resident once mentioned in passing that she sometimes hits balls there, as the nearest range is 15 miles away. A charming concept, but I’d been too wound up sneaking in nine holes when not on child-care duty to put it into practice.

Next to the shag bag in the closet was another favorite ceremonial item: A carrying case designed to hold a wood and three irons. The only problem was that it, too, dates to the persimmon era, and so could carry either my 460cc driver or a fistful of irons, but not both. As the field isn’t big enough (which is to say, wide enough) to contain my big dog, the irons won the day.

Striding down the road, shag bag in hand and the case slung over my shoulder like a bindle, I thought of Huck Finn heading off to the Mississippi. I fought back the urge to whistle.

I am sufficiently fearful of authority that I scanned every tree and signpost for some prohibition against hitting golf balls. Finding none, I unzipped the shag bag and dumped its contents onto the crunchy ground. The balls are a history lesson and a cautionary tale, full of once futuristic-sounding lines (XL3000, Laser Beta Ti) and brands long forgotten. (Where have you gone, Molitor?) If golf is timeless, its merchandise is as mortal as the rest of us.

A few years ago, I competed in one of those retro hickory shaft–and–gutty ball events and walked away thinking: My brassie, was Bobby Jones ever good. Two swings today, and I realized that the same could be said of those Scottish farmers on unkempt turf beating rocks with a stick, which was pretty much what contact felt like in my pasture, even with the padding of my winter golf gloves.

Ben Hogan’s shag boys purportedly never had to take more than a step to either side to field his fusillades. My imaginary shaggers would have looked like they were in a chase scene from “Benny Hill.” As a ballstriking exhibition, it was a piece of scattershot.

And it was fun.

No targets, no cares, no self-recrimination. Hit ’em, find ’em, pick ’em up, turn around and hit ’em again. No beverage carts, no 3-footers for a halve. No range-pickers clickety-clacking, no muttering in the next stall. A guy could make a habit of this.

With the sun sinking fast, I gathered my gear – a half-dozen balls lighter, gifts for the next player so inspired – and began the walk home, cheeks flushed, nose running, ready for a hot chocolate. Still feeling like a kid.

Six inches of snow fell that evening. Golf is a spectator sport again. Spring can’t come fast enough.

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