FAIRWAY GRASS is always greener on the other side of April. But for the die-hard golfer, January, February and March offer some very decent opportunities to keep the swing fluid and the putting stroke true.
Nelson Paucar, an Arlington general contractor, is one of many local linksters who partake of the game's cold-weather pleasures. Quiet, please, as we join him on the first green of Washington's East Potomac Public Golf Course on a chilly Saturday morning. Drawing back his putter, Paucar taps his ball toward the cup. The ball rolls a few feet, veers slightly left and rolls a few feet more before dropping into the hole. Birdie.
"It's a beautiful golfing day," Paucar says as he strides off the green, looking comfortable in a windbreaker-sweater-turtleneck ensemble. "I can play all day long, no problem. This doesn't bother me at all. Fifty, fifty-five degrees. Sun. Not hot, not cold. Perfect."
Brant Turner, Paucar's playing partner this morning, also is warmly dressed, but he has a different take on the weather.
"I'm not nearly as stalwart a winter golfer as Nelson," says the bearded Turner, an Arlingtonian who sells mailing lists. "This is about as cold as I can stand it."
Paucar will finish the day at one over par, a respectable tally in any season. Never mind Turner's score. He came out today mainly for the exercise.
Locally, winter golf is popular among exercisers and golfanatics alike. Public courses cater to both groups by staying open year-round, and some courses even reduce their rates by a few bucks between December and March. Generally, it costs between $10 and $15 to play 18 holes on winter weekends, and $5 to $8 to play nine.
Winter golf isn't about saving money, though. It's about crowd avoidance.
On any Saturday or Sunday in the summertime, the typical public course allows a new foursome to tee off every eight to 10 minutes. In a blink, the links get packed -- which wouldn't necessarily be a problem if every player walked fast, hit consistently straight shots, avoided sand traps and putted without undue fuss.
But golfers tend not to do those things. And so a typical weekend round in warm weather takes upwards of four and a half hours and entails a lot of standing around, waiting for the golfers ahead to play their shots.
Autumn does little to thin the golf-playing herds in this temperate area. Worse, the ubiquity of fallen leaves -- which hide golf balls with maddening efficiency -- makes heavily wooded courses particularly vexatious in October and November.
When deep winter sets in, fair-weather golfers tend to lay aside their clubs for the year, leaving local courses wide open for players like Paucar. Maybe you've considered joining these die-hards but you worry that severe nippiness would make a nightmare of the experience. Right you are -- to a degree.
The more frigid it gets, generally speaking, the less fun you're apt to have on a golf course. You needn't worry about subfreezing temperatures, as most courses close when it gets below 32. And between freezing and 40, experienced golfers say, the game offers little enjoyment to nonmasochists.
Between 40 and 60 degrees, when the ground is dry, you can have a good game if you dress in layers, wear a hat and do warm-up exercises before playing. That's all common-sense counsel applicable to any winter sport. Here are a few tips specific to golf:
Try Hothands. A 5-by-4-inch, dry, odorless pouch, Hothands is made of five natural ingredients that jointly react to air by heating up to 130 degrees when the pouch is removed from its plastic packet. Hothands is sold at most golf pro shops for $1.50 and at some discount stores for less. You tote the pad in a pocket, grasp it between golf shots and discard it after your round.
If you normally play with a golf glove, you may want to try a heftier winter version, often sold in pairs at pro shops and sporting goods stores. At East Potomac, a pair of winter golf gloves costs $17.99.
Stow your gear indoors between rounds. If you play a lot in the summer and fall, you may be accustomed to transporting your clubs and golf shoes in your car trunk. Leigh Taylor, head pro at East Potomac, notes that frozen club-handle grips reduce the essential "feel for the club" that you get with a warm, soft grip. Taylor also notes that frozen golf balls "feel like rocks" when hit.
Don't drink and drive. Or drink and putt. Or drink and blast out of sand traps. Ingested alcohol tends to reduce your coordination and ability to concentrate. It also robs you of body heat, and in very cold weather that can impose a serious handicap.
Go easy on yourself. Occasionally, hit a second drive if your first one's a clunker. Don't hesitate to improve your lie on the fairway, or even in the rough or in unraked bunkers. These particular strategies don't all conform to golf's rules -- even its winter rules -- so why do we suggest doing them?
If you guessed that the answer has more to do with enjoyment of the game than with textbook etiquette, you're definitely getting warm.