By: Robbie Vogel
When a DM comes in from Josh Beer, you know you’re in for a good time. In addition to sporting a surname which surely draws some chuckles from the high school students he teaches, Josh has one of the cooler side gigs out there – he is part-owner of Hooper Golf Course, a Golden Age 9-holer in the forests of western New Hampshire.
Josh doesn’t often reach out to me outside of golf season, so I was surprised when I saw his name pop up. But when I read his message, I knew I’d do whatever it took to be among the golf-crazed weirdos who played in Hooper’s inaugural “Arctic Open.”
Designed in 1927 by Wayne Stiles and John Van Kleek, two prominent New England golf course architects, Hooper has been lauded by everyone from Tom Doak to GOLF Magazine. Doak has been quoted as saying that the first hole, a soaring downhill short par 5 that begins just steps off the tavern’s porch, is one of his favorite openers in golf. Hooper was also rated by GOLF as the world’s 13th greatest 9-hole course. It’s a fascinating blend of uphill, downhill, and sidehill lies, with several claustrophobic two-shotters followed by a succession of wide-open, choose-your-own adventure type pasture holes. The course itself is a jewel, but its ownership situation sets it apart from many other clubs and makes it a project worth supporting.
Like many great but underappreciated Golden Age courses, Hooper hit the skids in recent years. The club went up for sale within the past decade, and was in real danger of falling off the map entirely. That’s when Josh, his cousin Patrick Neal, Patrick’s parents, local dentist Peter Bowman and a bunch of nearby Hooper supporters stepped in to do the only logical thing – they bought the damn thing themselves.
I’ve made the 2.5-hour drive from Boston to Hooper a half-dozen times, and have become close with their entrepreneurial owners. As far as I can gather, none of the ownership group has any previous experience with golf course ownership or maintenance, but with each passing year, the course keeps playing firmer and faster. It’s a special place in the New England golf scene and will only continue to get better.
Of course, all of the above was impossible to distill into a concise answer when my wife asked with incredulity, on the day before the Super Bowl, “You’re doing what tomorrow?!”
Hooper is what every local golf course should be. And when you’re a local golf course in a state whose best golf course plays second fiddle to the ski resort that owns it, you get creative. Enter the First Annual Hooper Arctic Open, brainchild of Josh and local barman (Hooper co-owner) David Howell. My first notice of the event came via DM from Josh, as I mentioned, and its tone speaks to the fervent following that Hooper has grown:
Maybe I’m underestimating the pull that golf has on people, but I’m not sure many other courses could draw 50 players for a scramble, in FOOT-DEEP snow, on Super Bowl Sunday.
The event sold out in less than 12 hours…
So at 7:30 in the morning on the day that Tom Brady would wind up further cementing his legacy as the greatest team sports athlete of all time, I piled myself, five clubs, three layers of clothing and a flask full of scotch into @SLAG08’s SUV for the drive.
At this point, I feel it’s important to clarify a few things. First of all, we had absolutely no idea what we were getting into, despite multiple emails from David urging us to bring positive attitudes, warm clothes and an enormous amount of brightly colored golf balls. Secondly, we RSVP’d weeks before the event, so we really couldn’t back out despite the furious winter storm that decided to crash through our neck of the woods while we were up at Hooper. Lastly, as a follow-up to the second one, even if we had known about that storm? We would have gone ahead anyway. [Editors Note: see below]
Josh told me that during the planning phases of the event, Hooper had been playing perfectly. That is, perfectly for snow golf – the kind of snow that’s super packed down, kind of icy-bouncy, and ideal for sledding. After a big storm, the course had had a few weeks to get fully tubed out by the local kids, and the hills and valleys were ripe to accept low, skipping, pink Top-Flites.
Then, two days before the event, the course got another 8 inches of snow.
The organizers ripped a few laps on their snowmobiles (of course they have snowmobiles) to marginally pack down the middle of some fairways, which almost did more to hurt than help in the search for our impact locations. Fortunately, these intrepid New Hampshirites came up with a few ingenious rules to keep things fun (and relatively fast). They were:
- The Patrick Reed: No real explanation necessary here: this rule allowed you to take a free drop in the area where you were reasonably sure that your ball embedded into the snow. Each team was allotted 5 Patrick Reeds.
- The Adoption Option: This rhyming rule stated that if you found a golf ball, even if it wasn’t yours, you could play it like it was yours. It seemed like they made this one up on the day of the event when they got to the course and saw how impossible it would be to find balls.
The organizers also suggested that players feel free to play different balls – like, tennis balls, racquetballs, etc. – but we forged ahead with about 50 highlighter-colored golf balls, and enjoyed one of the most memorable golf experiences of our lives.
We quickly figured out that the best strategy was for someone to knock one out there, then have that person trudge ahead to forecaddie. If they found their ball in a good position, we packed up and headed out to our new forward operating base, from which we’d repeat the process. If they didn’t, it was time to put a few rounds down-range. Despite our best yells and gesticulations, I’d say our forecaddies collectively found about one in four shots that came their way.
In order to finish a hole, you didn’t putt a ball into a cup. In fact, you didn’t putt at all. Small goalposts were set up on the “green” to chip your ball through, rather apropos given that evenings upcoming game.
The snow that was supposed to hit Walpole for just an hour lasted all day, which only made the atmosphere that much more special. We got to meet CJ and Eric, the two 20-somethings who took over the Watkins Tavern and are working to make it a community restaurant and meeting place. Our complimentary IPAs turned into beer slushes after half an hour. Dave, our oldest team member, channeled the spirit of his elementary school daughter and full-out dove into a snow-filled bunker to rescue a wayward ball. We learned that Kevin is at least a +4 handicap in the snow. And after grinding out a par on our first hole, we made eight straight birdies.
We left right after our round ended, sometime around 4 PM. After a brief dalliance with a snowbank, we plodded through a proper New England snowglobe for the better part of four hours. Plows, sand trucks, darkness, and slushy conditions all conspired to slow our return. We watched the first half of the Super Bowl on Patrick’s iPhone while inching along Route 2, and finally arrived back at my doorstep a little after 8:30.
Thirteen hours for nine snowy holes, a few great friends, a million laughs, and memories that will last a lifetime.