Christmas at the Club

By: Jeff Shelley

The golf club I belong to grinds to a halt on Christmas Day. The clubhouse, pro shop and golf course are all closed. But that doesn't prevent members from playing the course, nor does it keep an annual rite of winter from occurring: non-members who live in the surrounding neighborhoods trekking to our place for a not-so-surreptitious round of golf.

The tradition goes back decades at our 85-year-old course. Indeed, the people who play on December 25th are probably second- and third-generation participants in the tradition. It's pretty funny too, since most members could care less as long as the "invaders" maintain a reasonable pace of play, replace their divots, fix ball marks and keep the course in the shape they found it when they teed off, which is usually on the 10th hole that borders the upper parking lot and is not visible from the pro shop.

These "visitors" don't number in the hundreds, and I hope this journal entry isn't considered an open invitation. It's more of a nod to fellow lovers of golf. After all, isn't this Christmas phenomenon genetically linked to the touch-football games on Thanksgiving? Doesn't it target the same demographic: fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters and friends seeking a way to offset the effects of a fattening holiday?

These folks can be spotted fairways away by members. It's pretty easy, too, since many of them are wearing jeans (a no-no at our club) and sporting golf bags strapped to those gray-wheeled pull-carts from the 1980s and '90s. They also look askance from the actual members, bearing no gifts but plenty of furtive looks.

Our course weaves around a private community established in 1927. The timing of the development stunk, as the onset of the Great Depression reduced the prices of the 200-plus lots around the golf course to as low as $300. The developer had grandiose visions for the property, a stunning piece of real estate overlooking 30-mile-long Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountain Range. His original 600-acre parcel stretched from the towering hill upon which the golf course traverses all the way down to the lake. The plans included never-built equestrian trails and a marina, spaces later occupied by a Naval Air Station and a vast municipal park.

The poor economic times blurred the developer's vision, reducing the project to a couple hundred lots, an 18-hole golf course designed for a very tidy plot by a transplanted Scot, and a large clubhouse that was recently modernized by an extensive facelift. In the 1960s, a pool and tennis courts were added to merit the "country club" moniker initially promised by the hapless founder.

Our club's panoramic location has grown to be very attractive. Over the past 15 years home prices in our city have skyrocketed, especially those in and around the club. Situated within a community run by a homeowners association, the residences - originally modest structures on city-sized lots - have been either retrofitted and expanded to modern configurations or replaced altogether by mini-mansions. The yards are well-tended and the virtually car-less roads winding past verdant tree-lined fairways are popular with kids riding a bicycle for the first time, as well as pedestrians and joggers who enter the gated subdivision from nearby neighborhoods. Tall bumps slow the speeds on the roads, which are shared equally by cars and people on foot.

Though the majority of members pack their bags and walk the course, at the end of the 1990s we replaced the old dilapidated asphalt cart paths with nice and wide concrete paths. After the paving project was completed the folks outside the community suddenly assumed these were new routes for their daily constitutionals. It wasn't uncommon right after the new cart paths were unveiled to find husband and wife - with kids in strollers and often unleashed dogs - striding down the fairways alongside golfers.

The club opted not to put up signs warning encroachers that they were on private property and risking permanent injury by entering a place where small, hard spheres were being propelled in indeterminate directions. So we members were often the first "line of defense" in having these invaders to leave the golf course to prevent dire personal injury. I have been put in such a position several times, and more than once my polite request for the trespassers to move to the nearby street was met with outrage, their sense of entitlement rejected by some bozo wearing two-toned, rubber-cleated shoes and a salt-stained hat.

There were other encounters. During one mid-week round I heard a ruckus by the green on our par-5 sixth hole. As I neared the putting surface I observed a BMX rider - in full race regalia, including helmet and shin guards(!) - doing whoop-de-doos in a deep right-hand-side bunker. After yelling, "Get the hell out of here!" I watched as he scurried through a hole in the club's perimeter fence. He must have been a golfer at some juncture of his daring existence because he didn't etch a tire rut on our rain-softened, newly mowed green during his escape.

Another occasion came while my foursome was waiting for the green to clear on our par-3 15th hole, which borders one of the club's entry roads. As we sat on a bench catching our breaths, enjoying the view of Lake Washington and dispensing our usual palaver, a woman walking along the road veered off from her group and calmly walked down the hill to where we were sitting. Without looking at or speaking to us - like we were nondescript statues placed on the bench by the parks department, she unceremoniously dropped a dog-poop bag into the trash can next to us. We blankly stared - and for the first time in ages, wordlessly - as she nonchalantly shuffled up the slope to rejoin her friends.

Apparently, membership at our scenic and pedestrian-friendly club comes at a price. Never mind the monthly dues.

For the most part, though, the encounters with non-members are less stinky. During Seattle's rare snows, neighborhood kids flock to our hilly course with inner tubes and sleds, parents in tow, cascading down the fairways. All that's required in this wonderful scenario, played out wherever winter descends on America's golf courses, is for the kids to stay off the greens, which most generally do.

About 15 years ago there was a constant - and puzzling - problem on our 17th hole. On more than one occasion golfers would come across dozens of range balls scattered around the fairway. This was very odd since our driving range is in a forested gully far from the course. One day I discovered the source of the yellow balls littering the course. While coming down the 16th hole I saw a man - turned out he was in his 40s and suffering from acid flashbacks - standing on the tee with a bucket and smashing drives with an old persimmon driver. Instead of proceeding to the 17th hole, I walked to the pro shop and reported the situation to our head pro. He huffed in exasperation, let out an expletive, got in a cart and chased the guy off for, as it turned out, about the 45th time.

Getting back to golf on Christmas Day at our club, I'm hoping the 25th of December this year has pleasant weather. It's nice to see golfers from around our part of the city playing a course we enjoy year-round.

Happy holidays everyone!

This story originally appeared on Cybergolf in December 2007.

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