Your course may never look like Augusta National in April, but in winter, chances are you'll face a bleak landscape with grass about as common as blue states in the South. The key is learning how to adapt your game--and your expectations--to the spartan conditions.
Warm Up Your Engine
Don't make your first bogey before you even tee off. Too many golfers don't stretch on frigid days because they're anxious to get under way. "Your body is like your car--it takes longer to warm up when it's cold," says Jane Frost, a GOLF Magazine Top 100 Teacher in Sandwich, Massachusetts. Frost recommends stretching your lower back and hamstrings by gently bending forward. To stretch your shoulders, grab the cart with both hands and lean back. Do five repetitions of each, holding stretches for 15-30 seconds. A brisk walk around the parking lot will also help raise your heart rate.
Cold temperatures aren't all bad for your game -- if you use them to your advantage. "The ball doesn't travel far through the air but does go farther on the ground," says Peter Krause, a Top 100 Teacher in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. "This is one time when the optimum launch angle isn't 12 degrees. It's more like eight degrees." To maximize distance, use a driver with a lower loft and move the ball a bit back in your stance to help play for a draw. "With hard ground, you want the ball hooking," Krause says. "That's a good combination for distance."
Frozen ground helps off the tee but hurts everything else. Unless you can get approach shots to land like a moth with sore feet, short is your friend. "When the greens freeze, the ball hits and bounces 50 feet in the air," says Gerald McCullagh, a Top 100 Teacher in Maple Grove, Minnesota. And you won't get as much loft on those short-iron approach shots, so take one less club. "You have to get creative about where to land your ball," says Krause. "For the average guy, a cold course is like playing in the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock." Or any British Open, where landing the ball short of the target when you know it's not flying as far as usual is the norm.
Unless you want to shock and awe your hands and wrists, the best winter weapon is a wedge with low bounce, which won't bang into the hard turf. "That's why I sometimes take the sand wedge out of my bag," says Frost. Cold-weather conditions are conducive to a bump-and-run, links-style game, so get the ball rolling early with lower-lofted clubs around the green. That can even extend to bunker play. "If the bunkers are frozen and the lip isn't too high, you're better off putting it," she says. The lesson: Be imaginative.
The greens will more resemble a lunar surface than a putting surface, so don't expect to hole much. They also speed up when frozen, and the ball can slide as much as it rolls. But there is one less hurdle, says Frost: You can ignore the grain because the grass isn't growing. So don't overread putts--focus on the pace.
Don't expect to shoot the temperature for nine holes--there are too many obstacles. Just try to have fun. "You're not going to do as well as you would on a 75-degree day," says McCullagh, who rarely keeps score in winter. Play a scramble or any other game that prevents you from obsessing over your gross (often very gross) tally. Another reason to keep your cool: Slamming clubs into rock-hard ground brings a trip to the orthopedist into play.