Out: Northern Golfers Find It Hard To Stay Sharp January 11, 2009
By David Shefter, USGA
Far Hills, N.J. – Outside a layer of snow and ice covers what once
was lush green turf. Temperatures are hovering in the teens with a
bitter northeasterly wind. Barren trees stand naked in the chilly
air, the leaves having long since fallen from the limbs. Some people
are even talking about purchasing generators for an impending storm
that could knock out power.
|Cameron Wilson's winter golf is confined to
a couple of tournaments in the south and the occasional indoor
lesson. (USGA Museum)|
Inside the North Sutton, N.H., home of 2004 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion
Austin Eaton III, a golf bag and clubs stand solemnly in a closet,
safely hibernating like a bear for the winter months. With the exception
of a Florida retreat for a wedding, the clubs have remained untouched
since the golf season ended in October. Before the spring thaw, they'll
get one more excursion to South Carolina for a pro-am at Kiawah Island,
the site of next year's Mid-Amateur (River and Cassique courses).
But Eaton isn't the only one enduring this annual ritual. Anyone living
in the Northeast, upper Midwest and any other cold-weather locale,
where the golf season lasts six months, faces such consequences. For
elite golfers such as Eaton, the 26 weeks between November and mid-April
are pure agony. While a short respite from the game often is welcomed
to avoid burnout, waiting as much as six months to rekindle the competitive
passion is about as unwanted as a Nor'easter, a weather term used
on the Atlantic seaboard for nasty blizzards that can bring metropolitan
areas to a complete standstill.
"It would be much better
if winter was only three months instead of six," said Eaton, a semifinalist
at the 2005 U.S. Amateur who also represented the USA at the '05 Copas
de las Americas event in Mexico. "I don't need this much break."
Ask any elite golfer about taking long layouts and they'll likely
provide a familiar answer. It's not healthy. Swings get out of rhythm.
Bad habits can re-emerge. The golf club often feels like a foreign
And for those who have a six-month season, the disadvantages come
right along with snow-driven weather patterns. Those who reside in
year-round golf meccas like California, Arizona, Florida, South Carolina,
Georgia, Texas, et al, don't have such worries. Thanks to warm weather,
they can always get to a course to practice or play. Tournaments can
be staged throughout the year, not just the summer months, so games
can stay sharp instead of feeling as if they just landed on Mars.
Once spring does arrive for golfers from colder climes, the rust takes
a little longer to remove itself. Some players need several months
to get into prime form and by then, the season can be half over.
"I almost always play my best golf in the fall," said Eaton.
"Sometimes I don't really play well until the fall. It takes a solid
month of practice month of practice to get into form. And then I don't
really feel right until I get a couple of tournaments under my belt."
The exception for the 39-year-old Eaton was the winter of 2004-05.
After Eaton won the U.S. Mid-Amateur at Sea Island Golf Club in Georgia,
he received an invitation to play in the 2005 Masters. To ensure his
game wasn't rusty when he arrive at Augusta (Ga.) National in early
April, Eaton traveled south every other weekend. There was a Walker
Cup practice session in Florida. There were practice rounds at Augusta.
He competed in the Azalea in Georgia. He played the Jones Cup in South
"I had plenty of practice that winter," he said. "I'd leave on Friday
afternoon, play golf on Saturday and Sunday and come home Sunday night.
I did that every other weekend from the first of December until the
Masters. It was expensive, but without two kids at home (he now has
a 2- and 1-year-old), it was a little easier than it would be now.
It's tougher now to get away."
|Austin Eaton III said his best golf is normally
reserved for the fall months. (USGA Museum)|
But Eaton knows firsthand the inherent advantages those south of the
Mason-Dixon Line have when it comes to golf, or for that matter, any
outdoor sport. For six years, he lived in Virginia and could play
golf virtually year-round.
"My game actually improved
because I could play golf 11 months a year," he said. "It definitely
helped my game tremendously because there was no rust period to really
worry about. Now I have to take a step back every year and hope I
can get back to where I was the previous year."
To keep himself occupied during the winter months, 16-year-old Cameron
Wilson of Rowayton, Conn., plays squash for his high school team.
Wilson, a left-hander who has qualified for match play at the last
two U.S. Junior Amateurs and finished fifth in the Metropolitan Golf
Association's player of the year points race (top junior), already
has received dozens of letters from Division I schools to play college
golf. For the last two years, he has been selected as the player of
the year on the U.S. Challenge Cup, a junior circuit in New England.
But like Eaton, Wilson's winter golf is confined to a couple of tournaments
in the south and the occasional indoor lesson. Squash and academics
occupy most of his time from November to April, which he says has
gotten him better physical shape for the golf season, but has hurt
his mechanics as it relates to his golf swing.
"The strokes are different," said Wilson, comparing the two
sports, which incidentally are both vying to be on the Olympics platform
for the 2016 Games. "You have to lean forward quite a bit [in squash].
I took a [golf] lesson for the first time since Thanksgiving and my
swing was all messed up. It was more like a squash swing than a golf
To keep his golf game a little sharp, Wilson traveled to Florida Thanksgiving
weekend for the American Junior Golf Association's Polo Golf Junior
Classic, the only match-play event on that circuit's schedule. Wilson
qualified for match play, but lost in the first round to Juan Pablo
Hernandez of Mexico, 2 and 1. The third week of December Wilson returned
to Florida for the annual Doral Publix as a member of Team New England,
a spot he earned with his U.S. Challenge Cup honor. But outside of
those two trips, Wilson's tournament schedule goes dark until April,
while his fellow competitors in warmer climates can compete in such
events as the Orange Bowl (a week after the Publix) and other smaller
events in January, February and March.
Even Wilson's academic itinerary takes its toll come late May and
early June. Last year he had to skip the prestigious AJGA FootJoy
Invitational in Greensboro, N.C., because it conflicted with final
"In Florida, a lot of the kids get out in early May, so that's
already a couple of weeks ahead of me," said Wilson, who played in
some 15 "big" events between the AJGA, USGA and MGA in 2008. "A lot
of big tournaments are in June. [And] the way the junior golf schedule
works, you need to play well in the spring and early summer to move
up in the rankings and get into [AJGA invitationals] at the end of
the year. It's a lot tougher for me to do that."
One look at last year's East roster for the AJGA's Canon Cup, a Ryder
Cup-style invitation-only competition held over three days each summer,
showed just two of the 20 players (male and female) resided from colder
climates (Allie White from Ohio and Luke Guthrie from Illinois). Twelve
of the 20 players on the West squad were from California and 12 members
of the East resided in Florida. A few like Kristina Wong and Marika
Lendl migrated to Florida from New York and Connecticut, respectively,
to attend a golf academy.
While Wilson doesn't fret over living in an area where golf takes
a six-month hiatus, he definitely has to adjust his preparation for
each season. For instance, he won't play any big events until at least
"Last year I played two tournaments in Texas at the end of
March and April and [finished] in the middle of the pack in both,"
said Wilson. "I should be top five or top 10 in those tournaments.
It happens to me every spring. This year I am not going to play any
important tournaments until probably May."
So it should not come as a surprise that Wilson likely won't remain
in the Northeast following high school graduation in 2010.
|Minnesota native Claudia Pilot has resorted
to traveling south twice a month during the winter to keep her
game intact. (USGA Museum)|
"I want to go south or west," he said. "Warm weather is all
I'm thinking about."
As a lifelong resident of Minnesota, Claudia Pilot has become accustomed
to nasty winters. Unless you ice fish or play a lot of pond hockey,
most leisure activities from November through the middle of April
take place indoors. Many golf-passionate Minnesotans often resort
to hitting balls in oversized domes just to keep their games sharp.
Others find time to take vacations to warmer climes.
"It's not just a lack of golf," said the 51-year-old Pilot
of Austin, a semifinalist at the 2008 USGA Senior Women's Amateur
and a member of the victorious Minnesota squad at the 2001 USGA Women's
State Team Championship. "I just don't like winter anymore. Last year
we had a horrible winter and I told my husband that I just can't handle
Since 2000 when Pilot retired from teaching full-time, she and her
husband have migrated south twice a month. Last year it was Texas.
This winter will be the Greater Phoenix area. While Pilot can travel
45 minutes to Rochester or 90 minutes to the Twin Cities to hit balls
in an indoor dome or practice her chipping with whiffle balls, it
just can't replicate the same feeling of playing outdoors. And for
Pilot to maintain an elite schedule – she routinely qualifies for
the U.S. Women's Mid-Amateur and now the Senior Women's Amateur along
with her state competitions – she can't go more than a couple of weeks
without picking up a club. Prior to 2000, Pilot could only get away
on school holidays – Christmas break and President's Day weekend –
but with more time now, she has the opportunity to travel. The proof
is in the results.
At the 2001 Women's State Team, Pilot not only helped Minnesota to
the team championship at Woodhill Country Club in Wayzata, Minn.,
but she also was the low individual. She took eventual 2008 Senior
Women's Amateur champion Diane Lang to the 18th hole in the semifinals
this past September at Tulsa (Okla.) Country Club. That event was
her last competition of the 2008 season. By the time she returned
home to Minnesota, the weather had turned nasty enough to keep Pilot
off the course.
"My competitive season is over and it's not fun," said Pilot.
"Most courses [in Minnesota] close the first of November. There were
people playing the day after Thanksgiving. It was quite cold and the
course was frozen. I don't enjoy playing golf in 35-degree weather."
A few years ago Pilot traveled to Florida for the Orange Blossom circuit
that includes such events as the Harder Hall Invitational and South-Atlantic
Ladies Amateur. While Pilot performed admirably against the hotshot
juniors and college players as well as mid-ams and seniors, she felt
it was too difficult to compete against those living in the south.
The college players were coming off the fall season and the southerners
were still in mid-season form.
"It was a great experience," said Pilot. "I didn't do so bad
"No matter what you do in the gym or anything like that, there's
nothing like hitting a real life golf ball. Even at a dome, you don't
attack [the ball] the way you do when you are on a golf course. You're
looking at a green and which side of the green you want to hit it
to. There are weather conditions [like wind]. You still can keep the
muscles strong but as far as the reaction and all that goes with the
golf swing, there's nothing like being on a course and hitting the
David Shefter is a staff writer for Digital
Media. E-mail him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.