November 11, 2009

Teeing it up until the bitter end

Golfers who live in snowless parts of the country lack the concept of the bonus day, a term for which there's no equivalent in Florida. Where I live in Connecticut, bonus days first become possible in late October, when there are no pages left in the tournament calendar, and the temperature falls below freezing at night, and the water in the clubhouse bathroom has been shut off to protect the pipes. Some players simply quit at that point, content to let their golf clubs hibernate till spring, but not my golf buddies. We don thermal golf gloves and knit caps, and hang on for as long as we can.

There have been years when our superintendent, whose name is Bob, has closed our greens before Halloween, so we know the end could come at any time.

Occasionally, though, the weather takes a sudden turn for the balmy, and a predicted inch of snow falls on South Carolina instead of on us, and the thermometer at noon looks as though it got stuck in September. On these rare days, I drum my fingers on my desk, and try to keep my eyes from drifting to the window. Words swim on my computer screen. Then the phone rings, and I know before lifting the receiver that it's Jim or Rick or Hacker or Ray.

"Twelve-thirty?" the voice asks.

"Probably not." I say. "I've got a million things to do. Well, maybe, I guess.

But don't wait for me."

Of course, we all show up. "Bonus day!" someone says, inevitably, and we know there can't be many left.

Nick, who works at the post office, rushes up to the club on his lunch break, still wearing his uniform and his black ripple-sole shoes, and he plays along for four or five holes, one eye on his watch. Bill sometimes reschedules a real-estate closing. We don't dawdle; by mid-November, it's hard to see a golf ball after 3:30, and it's almost impossible after 4.

A year ago, Bob kept our greens open until the second week of December -- not a record for our club, but close. By that point, I was almost hoping for the end. Bonus days had become bonus weeks, then more than a bonus month. Confused dandelions had popped up in the fairways, and a big clump of forsythia near the pond on the fourth hole had begun to bloom. I was behind in my work, and so was everyone else. Our wives and children had begun to complain.

Winter finally did arrive, of course. On what would turn out to be the last bonus day of the year, Bob himself joined us, with just his 8-iron. There was a big storm in the forecast for that night, and Bob paused on every hole to clean leaves from its winter cup, a white plastic cylinder sunk into each fairway about 20 yards short of the green. That night, we knew, Bob would pull all the flags and put them in the winter cups, and that's where they would stay until spring.

After the last putt had fallen, we shook hands and thanked Bob for another good year. "Well," he said, "you never know. The storm might change direction overnight, and you could all be back here in the morning."

You could smell the snow in the air at that point. Still, as I drove home, my heart was brimming with irrational hope.