By: Robbie Vogel
Autumn in the Northeast is a study in contradictions. We are finally free of the scorching heat that defines most of July and August, but we pay the tax on this comfort in the form of swiftly diminishing hours of daylight. On September 1st, the Boston sun set at 7:17pm. When it falls below the horizon to close out the month, the clock will read 6:26pm, we will have lost 82 minutes of daylight and we’ll be hurtling headlong towards the depths of winter.
Most locals consider Fall their favorite season – when the tourists clear out of the beach towns, the foliage puts on a show and spending time outside requires neither three coatings of sunscreen nor three layers of flannel. What used to be harvest time in these parts – a feverish few week stretch devoted to picking and preserving the food that would see you through the winter – has turned into the ultimate relaxation point in the year. A time to savor hot coffee on a cool morning, crack an Oktoberfest during the one o’clock NFL slate and decompress from a summer that always seems a few weekends shorter than it used to be.
But Fall has also seen the Northeast battered by the two worst storms in living memory.
Everyone’s heard, or seen, the story of the so-called “Perfect Storm.” It’s known by many as either The ‘91 Storm, The No-Name Storm or The Halloween Storm. This hundred-year fury left thousands without power, Diane Lane without a seafaring boyfriend and three feet of water in my childhood living room.
But the 1938 New England Hurricane, also known as the Long Island Express, eclipsed ‘91 by an order of magnitude. It made landfall on the Autumnal Equinox as a Category 3 tempest, first chewing through Bellport, on Long Island’s south shore. The Express then drove due North across the island, and the Sound, striking New Haven and pushing miles inland, wreaking an incredible amount of havoc. Eventually becoming the region’s most powerful and deadliest storm in recorded history, killing some 700 people and destroying 57,000 homes.
One can only imagine the damage at Winged Foot Golf Club, in Mamaroneck, New York, site of this year’s postponed U.S. Open, and some 43 miles from Bellport as the Google Map line drags.
I’m thinking of contradictions, and storms, and Fall in the Northeast, and Winged Foot, as I take in the first few hours of this tournament from the comfort of my couch. In a year unlike any other, the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated adjustments to nearly every piece of our lives. It’s an undeniably overwhelming virus, the kind of global shakeup that will be taught in history books far beyond the point when history is no longer taught from books. The infection and mortality numbers are frightening and regardless of where you stand on the political or ideological spectrum, it’s an unsettling time for everyone.
Sports offer an escape. The Greeks knew it and we still gather for a version of their Olympics today. Or rather, next year. The Romans knew it and our now-empty stadia echo the shape and drama of their gladiatorial amphitheaters. If you’re like me, the gradual and eventually complete shutdown of all sports during the first few months of the pandemic offered a stark indication of the threat that COVID posed to our species. Billion-dollar sports leagues earn that B for a reason: TV deals, ticket sales, concessions, merchandise and on and on ad nauseum. Shutting all that down showed this was serious and forced us all to float in a sea of uncertainty with no sports-watching life preservers to cling to.
Now we’re back, and while life hasn’t returned to normal, it sure feels nice to spend a few hours lamenting the NBA’s ticky-tack fouls, checking your fantasy team on Sundays or following Liverpool as they attempt to repeat as Premier League champions.
But this is a golf blog, and it’s golf that keeps tearing me away from finishing this piece, as I watch Jordan Spieth pull the Texas wedge from the front of the green to cozy a putt up to a hole 60 feet away.
We were meant to get a window into this great championship venue in June, with thousands of New Yorkers lining fairways and piling 15-deep around these wild Tillinghast greens, craning their necks for a glimpse of a Tiger stinger or a patented Phil Mickelson Houdini act. Now, as summer fades into autumn, we’re voyeurs into a different sort of tournament at this venerable old club, one drastically altered, yes, but one perhaps better for the vast majority of spectators who would have been couchbound even in a non-COVID year.
Instead of furtively checking our second screen at work, many of us are comfortably ensconced in our hobbit hole, perhaps working on a second cup of coffee and absentmindedly tending to emails as we absorb the beauty and brawn of Winged Foot. We’re watching professionals play as we do – rising in the early-morning chill that portends winter, breathing into cupped fists to stay warm on the practice green, bashing through patches of rough that would usually be trampled by fans or covered by grandstands, just a handful of (now-bemasked) spectators to celebrate or commiserate a first tee ball.
Of course, DJ et al. won’t be granted a breakfast ball.
It’s the time of year where jackets are crucial on the range and stuffed into the bag by the 7th tee. Where the cold dew of the first hole’s rough can worm its way into your socks and stay there right through lunch. Where shots from the thick stuff might be handled better with a machete than a 56-degree.
And perhaps most important, as mornings and evenings cool off and the sun drips ever lower through the sky, it’s the time of year when a golfer’s thoughts grow desperate. Witness the Northeast golfer in Autumn: a procrastinating squirrel, far behind on his acorn count and willing to risk life, limb, and spousal annoyance to secure a few more loops before the snows come. The weather may be ideal, as a brisk walk can finish with nary a drop of sweat spilled, but each round is suffused by a creeping dread. Every hole brings the golfer that much closer to the end of another season, with months of biting cold and dirt-encrusted slush before the next tee balls fly.
It’s all a long-winded way of getting to an idea that’s not too profound: enjoy it while it lasts. We get to watch the world’s best golfers take on one of the nation’s most prestigious venues, a course that’s showing out on TV more than ever before thanks to the long views afforded by the lack of infrastructure. We get to have a few more mornings like this where the coffee is hot, the golf is significant and the world outside doesn’t need checking in on for a few hours.
Of course, with Fall approaching, those of us in the Northeast keep an eye to the horizon, ever wary of the next storm.