Imagine Golf Blogs

Christmas Golfing

Tales of porting goodwill, a course all to yourself, and a frosty warning

Posted Dec 26, 2013 by Dermot Gilleece

christmas golf

With England currently struggling to save face in the Ashes, it is interesting to recall another Christmas and another series on the other side of the world, where 90-degree temperatures made a small group of Britons all the more nostalgic for home.   With the Boxing Day start of the fourth test in the 1982-'83 Ashes series still a few days away, it was a time when Alec Bedser phoned Royal Melbourne Golf Club.  

Certainly, he and his colleagues could play on Christmas Day, but the course and clubhouse would be closed.  "We considered this to be quite a gesture from the snootiest club in Australia," sportswriter Graham Otway recalled to me in a recent conversation.

The golfers comprised Bedser, a longtime friend of former European Tour executive director, Ken Schofield, and then chairman of the English cricket selectors, who played off six; Otway, a seven-handicapper and cricket correspondent of the Press Association at the time; John Thicknesse of the Standard (12) and Johnny Woodcock of The Times and editor of Wisden, who played a modest game off 20.

"Having arrived by taxi with our clubs, we proceeded to climb over the boundary fence like a group of urchins," Otway went on.   "As you know, Royal Melbourne has two courses, but with no maps, no cards and not a flag in sight, we played for three and a half hours without the foggiest idea what holes we were on.  But I can remember feeling a rather special glow as we headed back to our hotel, where Christmas dinner never tasted so good."

Christmas golf for the Smyth family of Mornington, was a much more orderly affair.  "It took the form of an annual outing," recalled European Seniors Tour campaigner, Des, of their festive trips to Laytown and Bettystown.  "Having gone to midnight mass the night before, our only concern was the time my mum [Josie] would have given us for the Christmas dinner.

"Breakfast would be cooked by my dad [Paddy], who then joined my brothers Val, Pat and myself on the links.  Later, with the passing years, my dad stopped playing and my younger brother, Raphael, would take his place.  We'd play nine or maybe 12 holes and though I was too young to drink, I remember back in the car-park, someone would hand out bottles of beer from the boot of a car, by way of spreading seasonal cheer."

These festive gatherings are so precious, that the dreaded notice, "Course Closed" (because of frost) can come as a crushing blow.  Indeed seething resentment is often directed towards the unfortunate greenkeeper, especially when his counterparts elsewhere, seem to have no problem with footprints on frost-affected surfaces.

Des Smyth’s golf-course design partner and leading agronomist, Declan Branigan, is on the side of the more cautious greenkeeper. "Water accounts for 75 to 85 per cent of the total weight of grass and helps maintain the turgidity of plant cells, which is where frost becomes a problem," explained the man with a masters’s degree in soil structure.

"Though the ionic properties of the plant solutions create a lower freezing rate than for water, unfortunately they have little or no anti-freeze protection.  And in the case of very short grass on greens, our severe frosts are capable of freezing the water within the plant. Of itself, this would rarely kill the grass species, which are quite hardy, but they are reduced to a very brittle state and break quite easily. So, the downward pressure from vehicles or pedestrian traffic is sufficient to fracture stems with a high water content.  And when broken completely, the grass plant dies.

"In some cases, traffic doesn't completely kill the grass which, despite sustaining brown or blackish footprints or tyre-marks, recovers as soon as growth returns.  In other cases, however, the plant is shattered irreversibly.  Where golfers claim to have played frozen greens with no ill-effect, this can be attributed simply to luck, since basic science doesn't lie.  The fact is that a few hours' golf could do sufficient, serious damage to put greens out of play for months."  So now you know.

Branigan concluded:  "Members who think they are taking a harmless walk on a frost-affected course, could find their footprints still visible after a week or two.  In my opinion, they should be made aware of this in the club's autumn newsletter."

Finally, I offer some seasonal advice from the pen of Bernard Darwin, who, 100 years ago in 1913, cautioned against excessive zeal by golfers buoyed with the spirit of goodwill.  The distinguished scribe wrote: "When a perfect stranger shall tap me on the shoulder and say: 'Excuse me, sir, but you would play much better if you did not tie yourself into such a ridiculous and complicated knot,' then, even though it be Christmas time, I shall think that the system of promiscuous benevolence has gone too far."       

Season’s greetings!

- Dermot Gilleece

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