Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Double Black Diamond Golf

Mars and I are flat-landers.

Connecticut, where we live, while not totally lacking geographic ups and downs is nonetheless by no means mountainous. Its high point is about 2,380, feet, and an elevation map of the state shows most of the land in the zero to six hundred foot range.

When we skied it was cross-country - relentlessly gliding across the snow neither helped nor hindered by gravity except for an occasional downhill snowplow or uphill herringbone of thirty seconds of less in duration. It's what our native terrain gives us.

Likewise golf. The course on which we have played probably ninety percent of our games is familiarly known as "the flat nine" because, other than one hole where the tee is probably twenty feet higher than the green, it is.

So when we decided to go on a golf mini-vacation to celebrate Mars' birthday and rehab-generated quick recovery from hip replacement surgery (like Jack Nicklaus she was hitting balls at eight weeks and playing at twelve), we chose the golf course at Mount Snow - one of Vermont's leading downhill ski areas.

It was a Black circle, Double black diamond course. "Difficult. This is where the [holes] start getting scary. You don't want to take off your [soft-spiked shoes] on one of these [holes] because you never know if you'll be able to stand safely on the slope without them. Usually very steep."

The degree of difficulty of a golf course is indicated by two numbers - its "rating" and its "slope". "The Course Slope value is a two- or three-digit integer, always between 55 and 155, with 113 being the average or 'standard" value.'" This course had a "slope" of 117 to 129 depending upon from which tees your were hitting. That seemed low to us until we realized that "The Slope is a measure of how much difference a course's difficulty is for the average bogey golfer compared to the scratch golfer." - i.e. it really has nothing to do with the course's "slope". If it did, Mount Snow Golf Club would have a slope somewhere north of 308 - slightly less than Mount Everest but much higher than other courses which when they are shut down for the winter can only be used for Nordic skiing. This place would be just right for the X Games hot dog snowboarding events.

At the Pro Shop, when we asked, we were told that the altitude there was "about seven thousand feet". This turned out of course to be ridiculously incorrect - it is in fact about one thousand five hundred feet - but that piece of misinformation, plus our (we assumed altitude-induced) dry lips, and the fact that you could not see over the mountain into the valley from the first tee to the first green led us to believe that we were in for our first experience with the sport of "Extreme Free-Range Golf Trekking". It was terrain more suited to a funicular or a four wheel drive ATV than a golf cart.

Since Mars and I were playing as a part of a special off-season, midweek package we were not assigned any Sherpa Guides or Llama caddies. On the first day we were playing by ourselves and stood on the first tee looking hopelessly for some target to aim at - nada, nil, zilch.

The scorecard told us that there should be a green 372 yards off in the distance. I walked as far to the left as I could without falling off the side of the earth, stood on my toes, and saw what I thought was the very top of a white flag down in a valley off in the distance. So I gave up on my quest, took aim at the center of the part of the fairway that I could see, "gripped it and ripped it!". Mars did the same. Both balls disappeared from sight. For all we knew they could have rolled fifty yards, gone over the edge, dropped straight down, and landed in the first hole located three hundred twenty-two yards immediately below the drop off point.

They didn't.

We left base camp and moved onward, expecting to find scores of abandoned oxygen tanks and left-behind rope ladders. Instead we found both of our balls. One swing apiece later and we saw the green. Six more shots each and we both heard the little rattling sound. Not the best start, but no balls had been lost, no one had fallen into a chasm or been attacked by a Yeti, and the sun was shining. On to number two. Three holes later we stopped keeping score and we started to play much better - really.

For one thing, like when you first look up at the mountain you are about to hike, we had initially been intimidated by the geography of the course. Secondly we accepted the fact that we would just never be standing on level land at all during our projected two-days / thirty-six holes of play, and adjusted our swings accordingly. And most importantly we began to enjoy the scenery. These are after all the mountains of Vermont.

Well-designed golf courses are landscaped to discompose, disconcert, disquiet, distress, and disturb. Hitting a small dimpled ball one hundred yards in the air over water is no more difficult or easy than whacking it the same distance over land - but it sure feels different when you are doing it. Objects are closer than they appear - or farther. Openings between trees are made to look narrower than they really are to discourage - or wider to seduce. You have to look very closely and analytically at all of your surroundings to realize where you really are, and where you are going.

It also seems that the relative elevations of here-to-there are fiddled around with to make one hundred forty yards uphill longer than that same distance on level land, and conversely much shorter downhill.

This concept of variable distances based on non-comparable altitudes I totally do not understand. In fact I never even thought of it until the second day of our foray. We were paired up with Lee and Dave, two really nice retired guys from Albany who were on one of their weekly golf trips to courses within two hundred miles of their home. Before and after very shot they verbalized their club and swing selection - "The scorecard says one hundred forty yards, but it's downhill so that's one less club."

Mars and I ignored their analysis, largely because we didn't understand it. Sometimes we "over-clubbed" (hit it too far), sometimes we "under-clubbed". I suspect that was more likely caused by our innate inconsistency than any esoteric aerodynamics - but who knows?

We started that second day with drives right down the middle of the fairway and celebrated with a modest terrorist knuckle tap. And we played better than we did on the first one in spite of being forced to perform in front of an audience of two better golfers.

It is possible that we might have even played within the "Course Slope" - or that may be what they call in golf "a good lie". We would know for certain if we had kept score. I lost several balls. But we did make some pars, and seemed to each hit at least two really good shots on every hole.

It was our first experience with Alpine Golf and a deliberately devious course. A good walk ruined, or an opportunity to see the natural world in a different way? Like any well-designed landscape, it all depends on how you look at it.

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