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Golf die-hards brave winter to hit the links

Editor’s note: The author of this story has been known to hit golf balls and play a quick nine in conditions best suited to an Alaskan sled dog race.

Kevin Mullen operates a golf shop, but in the winter when it’s too cold and too snowy to play, his cozy Annapolis space doubles as a therapy center.

Pros and duffers alike linger throughout the week – debating the latest news in the sport, putting on the artificial green and sampling the latest equipment by smacking balls into a net. It’s the next best thing to actually hoofing it on the links, and builds anticipation for better weather (not to mention sales).

“The golf addicts, they’ve got to get their fix,” said Mullen, co-owner of Duke’s Golf, “if they can’t afford to travel.”

He speaks from experience, admitting he and two friends drove 21/2 hours south last winter just to find a course that was open. The first six holes were freezing, and to make matters worse, he forgot to bring gloves and had to resort to wearing the head covers for his woods on his hands.

Roughing it, though, is the name of the game when it comes to golfing this time of year. However restricted, however difficult it is to spot a white ball on holes still partially covered with snow, winter golf is still golf in some form. People still are playing in the open air, honing games and easing psyches, and that’s all that matters.

For many golfers, the threshold seems to be about 40 degrees (sans wind), although some diehards still hit any available course or the driving range when the mercury plummets. The number of players, however, is miniscule compared to a warm spring or summer day.

At Bay Hills Golf Club in Arnold, assistant pro Ray Sauser said there might only be 10 to 20 players the entire day if the temperature dips below 40. (In the summer, by contrast, the club averages 180 to 200 rounds per day).

Of course, this is assuming courses are open at all. Policies depend on the individual club and have a lot to do with the amount of snow and ice cover. The good news is that winter rates are typically cheaper than those of the rest of the year. Calling ahead for tee times is always advisable but especially important when the weather is questionable.

It’s also important to bundle up.

Mary Marinari of Edgewater, who’s been known to hit the range or play nine holes at Annapolis Golf Club in temperatures as low as 24 degrees as it is this weekend, typically battles the cold in a winter jacket, snow boots and heavy winter gloves.

“My max is three layers (of clothing),” she said with a chuckle. “I can’t move after that.”

Duke’s stocks plenty of winter golf gear, such as gloves, hand warmers and hats, and even special balls adaptable for home use. But when the wind is blowing, nothing really cuts the cold out on the course, and even the addicts are forced inside.

“You can dress for cold, but you can’t dress for the wind,” said Tom Kirby, Duke’s other owner.

Swinging a golf club when you’re bulked up like the Michelin Man is only part of the challenge of winter golf.

As if the game isn’t hard enough already, playing in freezing conditions brings on a whole new set of obstacles. The distance a ball travels is affected by the cold, for one, and clubs tend to feel stiffer.

“The key to coping is attitude,” laughed an Arctic-clad Winnie Sewell, head golf professional at Severna Park Golf Center, on a recent chilly day with a strong wind. “It’s 90 mental. I’m in Florida.”

When asked about her outfit, which included a vibrant yellow storm jacket, she quipped: “You need hunting gear, in bright colors, so that the search party can find you.”

That same day, Whitney Bayshore and her boyfriend, Clark Hayes, hit balls on the golf center’s nearby range, which features some heated bays that take a slight edge off the cold. Yet neither of the 21-year-old Annapolis residents wore a jacket, and Bayshore was sporting golf sandals – without socks.

“This is the one time of the year I regret buying golf sandals instead of shoes,” shrugged Bayshore, who admitted that her bare toes were quite chilly.

As tough, or crazy, as playing in the cold weather can be, there are some benefits to winter golf.

For instance, the ball tends to roll quite far on frozen fairways, which can turn a typical hacker into Bubba Watson, one of the PGA Tour’s longest hitters.

Plus, some hazards often aren’t hazards anymore.

Rod Irving, who works at Duke’s and is a member at Walden Golf Club in Crofton, tells of bouncing shots across ice-covered ponds instead of losing balls in the water.

Part of his strategy for coping with the cold involves using a covered golf cart with a portable heater inside. Irving said that among a group of 20 people he golfs with at Walden, about 80 percent bought the gas heaters. Of course, the warmth dissipates the moment they leave the carts and have to hit shots.

Another coping mechanism are plastic tees that sit above ground, because it’s useless trying to stick a regular tee into frozen grass. Without them, it’s impossible to use a driver on a hole, unless a player wants to risk hitting off the ground, something even pros don’t do very often.

Despite less than ideal conditions, Irving still said he’s happy to be playing.

“You get to get out there and hit the ball,” he said. “If not, (you) go crazy.”

Copyright © Capital Gazette Communications, Inc., 2011.

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