Embracing winter golf

It's time to adjust your expectations, considering how different golf is during the colder, wetter months.
A low area at the Santa Teresa Golf Club becomes a duck pond in the winter.

SAN JOSE, Calif. - I know I'm lucky.

Not everyone can play their home course in winter. January in Silicon Valley brings a whole new set of conditions to battle at my home course across the street, Santa Teresa Golf Club.

My best opportunity for a career-best round coincides with the summer heat and the conditions it brings. Every fall, I'm forced to adjust my expectations on what's a good score in the coming months. So should you ... whether you get to play your home club in a warm-weather state or for that golf vacation you've got planned. There's no reason to beat yourself up over a score shot from November to March. Consider it the silly season or off-season, just like the PGA Tour pros do. There's a reason very few clubs host major events like club championships and member-guests at this time of year.

The key to your overall golf happiness is to appreciate that you're playing golf at all. Millions of golfers would love to trade places with you.

How winter conditions change the game

Gone are the browned-out fairways at Santa Teresa that bounce for days. The added distance and the chance to run low shots onto the green play right into my game's strengths. I've flirted with career rounds a handful of times at "ST" and other local munis by taking advantage of the California drought over the past several years.

Winter changes everything. The recent onslaught of rain has turned everything green, especially the surrounding hills and the fairways. The fiery, fast conditions I enjoy have been soaked out of the fairways and the greens have softened up. Several low-lying areas that were probably permanent water hazards decades ago have filled up again. Suddenly, the tee shots on the par-4 4th and 9th are more treacherous. Any sloppy miss to the right sinks to the bottom. In summer, a ball or two from my foursome would regularly end up in the ditch on No. 9. Now a penalty stroke makes a hard hole even tougher.

I'm sure golfers around the country face similar challenges during winter, considering that the weather wherever you go is colder and wetter. The days are shorter, too, which leads to frost delays and such. Courses overseeded with rye grass in the south and the desert out West tend to be wetter and play softer than their summer Bermuda grass selves. Don't forget that colder temperatures affect ball flight. A ball hit in 100 degrees in Phoenix or Texas in the summer will go farther than the one smacked in a comfortable 75-degree winter day in either climate. We all need to adjust accordingly.

A hard look at winter rules

Just because Old Man Winter changes the game, I'm still not entirely convinced that should change the rules. I've always played the game casually among friends. If you lose the ball in the rough, free drop. If you can't find the ball among the leaves during a pleasant fall day, play on with no penalty.

With that said, I only play "winter rules" among the most extreme wet and muddy conditions. Some golfers treat winter like a chance to lift, clean and place every ball that ends up in a somewhat precarious lie. You shouldn't. That's cheating. Playing the ball as it lies is one of golf's fundamental principles. Even if there's mud on the ball or it's stuck in the divot, I'll play it as is.

Now, if it's in standing water or a really muddy spot on or near the fairway, I will take advantage of those winter rules. Move it and play on. It's okay, because in reality, the likelihood that I score well is against all odds at this time of year.

What's your approach to winter golf? Let us know in the comments below.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed and photographed more than 1,000 courses and written about golf destinations in 20 countries for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfpass and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Embracing winter golf