From the Golf Journal Archive - Chill Out!

Dec 24, 2008

For a few hardy souls, ice golf means it’s never too cold to tee it up.

By Rich Skyzinski

(Note: This article originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of Golf Journal.)

THIS WAS NOT A DAY FOR THE FAIR-weather golfer. On this particular Saturday along the Oregon coast, low gray clouds swirled at an altitude not much higher than the treetops. Though the calendar said spring was but six weeks away, the air still had a winter bite. Spells of intermittent rain noisily pounded piles of limp leaves.

Someone had the right idea; the smell of burning firewood could be detected in and among the neighborhoods. And nary a golfer could be seen.

“We’ve got two guys today and had three yesterday,” said assistant professional Casey McCoy from the golf shop at Portland Golf Club. “With the bad weather and the rain, we don’t get the people out. We had 30 people out earlier this week, but that’s the only double-digit day we’ve had this week.”

Seventeen hundred miles to the east, golfers would similarly curse the 45-degree day as ruinous. “We don’t want it too warm,” warns Ellie Lundborg of the Greater Wayzata (Minn.) Chamber of Commerce. “Then you wouldn’t get the full effect of what it’s like to be in Minnesota.”

Soon the snowbirds will pack up their clubs and leave the frozen climes of the north for Florida, Arizona and southern California. But there also exist golfers in New Hampshire, Michigan, Minnesota – even Alaska – who wouldn’t think of not playing every January or February, regardless of the conditions. Wind chill? Bring it on. When players in Grand Haven, Mich., make plans to play Spring Lake in late January, they don’t do so on the hopeful condition that the snow has melted and the ground has thawed. They speak in literal terms; they’re playing on Spring Lake.

THOUGH BAD BOUNCES and bumpy putting surfaces are normal characteristics of ice golf, the concept of serious competition is largely an afterthought. In the handful of organized events in the United States, fun and frivolity take precedence over bogeys and (snow)birdies.

The Polar Ice Cap Golf Tournament held near the eastern shore of Lake Michigan isn’t as much a tournament as it is one of the down-home, off-the-wall activities the Grand Haven Area Jaycees offers as part of its Winterfest celebration.

For nearly three decades the Polar, perhaps the grandaddy of all ice-golf tournaments, has taken its place on the Winterfest agenda with the family dog pull, where kids are towed along a brief parade route by virtually every breed of canine ill-suited for the purpose, the cardboard toboggan race, and the Race of Kings – for hamsters and gerbils – at the Community Center.

For much of last winter, the Grand Haven area had too much of one kind of winter and too little of another. Although four feet of snow fell in January, a spell of warm temperatures melted that and caused concern that perhaps the ice on Petty’s Bayou wasn’t as thick as it needed to be. One player going after a shot near the shoreline at the first hole put a leg through the ice, up to mid-calf, and another exhibited the ultimate in daring: inching toward the open water under the Fruitport Road bridge to determine if his ball truly was playable. To stand in the middle of a frozen lake and hear the ice crack under your feet is to know how Wile E. Coyote feels just after he’s rounded a mountaintop curve and is suspended in mid-air, in that lonely, helpless instant before he plummets to earth. Anyone who’s played ice golf on a 40-degree day realizes the decision gives new meaning to the term water hazard.

Vern Greavu, for one, wouldn’t miss the Polar. The resident of Portage, Ind., has visited his brother on Winterfest weekend for the last 18 years, and part of the fun nowadays is for orga-nizers to see how Greavu has continued to adorn his golf sled. At first, the contraption was something to carry his clubs. Then he added a spot for a small cooler of beer and a place to store extra gloves, mittens, scarves or hats. Over the years it’s been modified to hold a small bar, which is often covered by an oversized American flag snapping in the winter winds.

“If you haven’t done it before,” he said as he made his way offshore, “you don’t know how much fun you’re missing. I tell my wife I’ll spend Christmas with her, but I put the golf clubs in the car Jan. 1 and take ‘em out Dec. 15.”

Greavu undoubtedly would like south-central New Hampshire, a place that could have been lifted out of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire’s film classic, “Holiday Inn.”

The Pawtuckaway Open, contested annually since 1994, offers the quintessential New England winter wonderland as a backdrop: skaters on frozen lakes winding about the scenic New Hampshire mountains; residents of quaint villages organizing a chili cookoff as a team of cross-country skiers makes its way up a trail on the opposite shore.

Tournament organizers Eric and Donna Danis have created several local rules for their nine-hole event, held in early February, but in reality they adhere to one: “You must have fun.”

PLAYERS DON’T WALK to their balls in ice golf as much as waddle to them, keeping steps short and flat-footed so as to keep their weight balanced. And there is a whole lot of waddlin’ goin’ on one Saturday a year in suburban Minneapolis.

Since the mid-1980s, the Greater Wayzata Area Chamber of Commerce has conducted the Chilly Open, which, having drawn close to 1,200 entrants in recent years, is hands down the most popular event of its kind.

Truth be told, the Chilly Open is closer to a day-long block party with a golf motif than it is an actual competition. Players are three-deep at pubs on and around Lake Street well before the first shotgun start at 9 a.m. – and long after the final putt just before sundown. The businesses that have elected to buy hole sponsorships at any of the three nine-hole courses laid out on Lake Minnetonka dole out everything from keychains to pork chops-on-a-stick to each group that comes through.

The Chilly Open has never been threatened by inclement – warm – weather. Three-foot-thick ice is the norm, which is plenty to hold the small city that’s erected for the day.

While regular golfers tend to have stories about once-in-a-lifetime shots, tales of ice golfers generally involve the weather. “Zero or below,” Jeff Brown, a Minneapolis media executive, recalls about Chilly Open conditions a few years ago. “Snow’s fallin’, wind blowin’ about 25 miles an hour. Most times you couldn’t see the green from the tee. We’ve played in snow, sleet, wind – you name it.”

Most of the holes at the Chilly Open, played with golf clubs and tennis balls, are par 3s, but there are doglegs and waist-high snowbanks to negotiate. “Don’t worry about trying to figure out how to hit a tennis ball with a golf club,” insists Brown. “We don’t take any of this very seriously.”

THE STATESIDE EVENT that most resembles an honest to-goodness tournament is the Ice Golf Classic, held annually in conjunction with the official start of “the last great race,” the Iditarod dogsled competition that starts just down the road in Wasilla, Alaska, 15 minutes northeast of Anchorage, and a week and a half later ends 1,100 miles away, in Nome.

Don Keuler, the owner of the Mat-Su Resort, which overlooks Wasilla Lake, site of the Ice Golf Classic, thought up the idea of a mid-winter tournament two decades ago. “We’re so antsy to do something during the winter,” he explained. “I’m an avid golfer. Most of my friends and customers are avid golfers and it just seemed like a natural thing to do. The first year or so we had 40 or 50 players; now we’re up to 150 or 160.”

Preparing the 18-hole, par-71 course does not come without consequences. A week before this year’s event, Keuler and his son went out to clear three feet of snow off Wasilla Lake and broke not one, but two plows in the process. The fickle Alaska weather came to the rescue. Within two days, a relentless wind had blown away all but an inch or so of the snow, and at the end of a month-long spell in which the high temperature in Anchorage never topped 7 degrees, thus ensuring a playing surface a good six feet thick, the skies on the day of the tournament cleared to a calm, brilliantly sunny 20-degree afternoon.

“A day like today is absolutely awesome,” declared Ted Prudence, a retired locomotive engineer who moved to Alaska with his wife, Bonnie, seven years ago. “This is really good compared to what we normally get. And when you live in Alaska, you take advantage of every decent day you get, whether it’s in March or the middle of the summer.”

This year, for the first time in the Classic’s history, the playing surface finally extracted a casualty. George Bradley, a businessman from Boulder, Colo., slipped on the ice at the ninth hole and broke his right arm. “Right now,” he said, “the hardest part is going to be explaining this to my wife.”

UNTIL SEVEN MONTHS AGO, nobody could make the claim of being the world’s best ice golfer. But in March, Peter Masters, a golf writer from England, won that title by virtue of his victory in the inaugural Drambuie World Ice Golf Championship, a two-day, 36-hole event played on the remote island of Uummannaq, Greenland, one of the last vestiges of civilization before one is swept out to Baffin Bay and points beyond.

The event drew about 20 curiosity seekers, among them Mark Cannizzaro, assigned to compete in the event and write about it for his Sunday golf page at The New York Post.

“When we landed there, I looked around and felt as though I was on the moon,” Cannizzaro recalled. “We landed, there were some people waiting at the airport, they got on the same plane, it took off, and when that plane left there were no planes at the airport.

“I did find myself, sitting at dinner and looking around the room, wondering what would instill somebody to come out and do something like this. Because it is a bizarre thing.”

Playing on a fjord, amidst monstrous, glistening icebergs, Cannizzaro found the setting more memorable than the actual golf. “There was incredible curiosity about what Greenland would look like,” he said. “You have visions in your mind, but it was nothing like I could have imagined. It was that incredible. I never could have imagined such incredible beauty and such staggering views of the icebergs.”

In the five days Cannizzaro was in Greenland, the temperature never approached zero, and tournament organizers suggested that competitors not bring or-use graphite shafts, lest they shatter in the Arctic conditions.

“The first day we were there it was 15 degrees below zero, with not a breath of wind, and it never got much warmer than that,” Cannizzaro recalls. “It might have gone up to 8 below in the heat of the day. Even without the wind, you tried to make sure you had everything covered. The most, difficult thing was trying to figure out what kind of clothes you could wear and still be able to swing a club.”

Which makes you wonder: If 20 people can set aside their xenophobic fears to travel to the end of the earth to play golf in the dead of winter, the number of people who’d play in such abominable conditions is most likely greater than you’d think. On the same day Cannizzaro and his fellow World Championship competitors were loading a battered Sikorsky helicopter for the return trip back to the Greenland mainland, Barb Moore, who works the counter in the golf shop at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill., looked out over a bleak March landscape. “We have about 40 players out now,” she said, “but if there was six feet of snow, I think we’d still have some players out here.”

That’s the spirit.

Before the Ice Golf Classic, players have the chance to take in a little target practice off the deck at the Mat-Su Resort. (USGA Museum)

When it comes to costume attire, the fun and frivolity of ice golf sometimes gives way to a spirit more suited to Halloween. (USGA Museum)

Sundo Hondl went for a cool look to keep herself cozy in Alaska. (USGA Museum)