Reinventing 'The Wheel'

January 24, 2014

LEFT TO RIGHT: Casual ice; Gary and Adam Lewicki; The Boys' gear for gambling games.

In my part of the country at this time of the year, avid golfers become migratory. Some fly hundreds of miles south and don't return until spring, but most of us circle the ground closer to home, like Canada geese searching for open water. We study the sky, the Web and the Weather Channel, and when we hear rumors of snow-free fairways we hit the phones. On New Year's Day five years ago, two friends and I got up before dawn and drove to the closest course we knew of that would let us putt on real greens. The trip was four hours each way, and the temperature never climbed out of the 20s, but for two days we had a 1914 Donald Ross design and a nice old resort hotel almost entirely to ourselves. And because the turf was like concrete we Konged our drives.

This winter, we've been even luckier. On the last Saturday of 2013, four of us—Hacker (real name), Gary (our superintendent), Tim and I—joined a mixed flock at D. Fairchild Wheeler

, a muny in southwestern Connecticut, just an hour from where we live. "The Wheel," as regulars call it, stays open all year, and area golfers whose home courses are closed often winter there. We waited out a frost delay with 16 members of a men's group that consisted mainly of transplanted players from H. Smith Richardson

, another muny, a couple miles away. At the Wheel, they use one of two custom scorecards (which identify them as "The Boys"): the first for when the ground is frozen—the other for when it's not. The cards juggle handicap strokes to account for extra roll.

Mark Haba, who runs a machinery company in Bristol, was collecting wagers and making up the day's teams, using a system that involved printed charts, a zippered binder and six numbered poker chips. "We count two balls," he told me, "one gross and one net." They also play what their score sheets call "Chicago" skins—which, as near as I could tell, is just skins.

The Wheel is in the town of Fairfield but belongs to the city of Bridgeport, next door. There are two 18s—the Red and the Black courses—and for many years both had lowly reputations, like Bridgeport itself. (One recent mayor spent seven years in prison for bribery and extortion; his successor admitted to having used cocaine while in office and didn't run for re-election.) But the Wheel got a new superintendent this past summer, and both courses are in fine shape. The clubhouse was built in 1933 and enlarged in 1952, and it contains a snack bar, a grillroom and a banquet room. Bolted to one end of each bench in the men's locker room is an unusual two-tiered stand, which Stephen Roach, the head professional, told me was designed to accommodate an oversize ashtray (on top) and beers and poker hands (below). The Wheel also has a First Tee teaching center, which serves more than 1,200 kids a year.

When the frost had melted, the starter studied his tee sheet and hollered, "Is there a Hacker here?" A dozen guys loitering on or near the practice green shouted, "Me!" We played the Black Course, and we liked it so much that we came back three days later, on New Year's Eve (when only the Red was open) and the following morning (Black again). For our New Year's Day round, we had eight guys, including two new friends, from an intersecting flyway: Gary Lewicki and his son, Adam, who competed in junior tournaments with a couple of the guys we play with during the summer. Adam is 24. He was on the golf team at Davidson (N.C.) College, and he's now on the golf team at Cambridge University, in England, where he's working on a Ph.D. in mathematics. His field is category theory, which is even harder than Algebra II.

Adam told me that his Cambridge matches mostly involve older opponents and, between the morning and afternoon rounds, a fair amount of drinking. One event this past fall took place at Royal West Norfolk, a seaside course that abuts a marshy estuary and is inaccessible for a few hours each day, at high water. Four of his teammates timed the tide wrong. They had to leave a Mini Cooper on the beach road and wade the last 200 yards to the clubhouse, with their golf bags over their heads. When they reached dry land, the guy with the keys called his father to say they'd had some trouble, but that no one had been hurt.

"How's the car?"

"It's in the North Sea."

"Call me at lunch. I'm going back to sleep."