Friday, November 15, 2013

A Guide to... Winter Golf, Part 1: Layering

If you are a golfer who happens to live in a semi-temperate climate, where courses stay open through winter, and your temperatures hover around the freezing point of water, you should consider yourself lucky once November rolls around.

Apologies to those of you in year-round temperate zones, you Californians and Floridians and the like, but in golf terms you are not as lucky as you think. With no offseason, you get no break from the epidemic of slow play or the mind-numbing douchebaggery of the super-casual set. In a lot of warm places the "offseason" is arguably among the worst times to play golf, with "Canadians" and other weirdos migrating in from the upper latitudes, clogging up courses and inflating greens fees.

Also let's face it, living in a winter-less climate dulls the senses. One of the great joys of life on Earth is experiencing that first flush of spring after a long dark winter, getting back on the course and feeling in one's bones the redemptive power of the sun awakening you and every other living organism around. Another of life's unlikely pleasures is that of coming back inside to a hot beverage, after a few hours of chasing pars in the cold. It is these such contrasts that remind you that you are alive, right?

So really, those of us who don't get encased in snow but still have the opportunity to play golf in the freezing cold... we are the lucky ones. Once that mercury drops below 45 degrees, slow play becomes the exception and not the norm. Insanely cheap tee-time bargains abound. Weekends once again become a safe time for civilized golfers to be on the course. And even if a few douchebags do find their way to the course, the cold tends to take the edge off people's most annoying qualities.

You simply have to take advantage of such a situation. I mean, how could you not? is the question. This past week I played two rounds of golf in a total of about four and a half hours. I didn't wait on a single shot. How can one leave that much good stuff on the table? I cannot.

You see, normal people all over the world routinely brave icy temperatures so they can enjoy their outdoor sports--their skiing, snowboarding and what have you. No one ever says, "We can't hit the slopes today, it's too cold!" Hell no---winter sports-people know how to dress. Why shouldn't we? Perhaps, just by borrowing from the layering fundamentals developed by other outdoorsmen, we may never again have to whine about it being too cold to play golf.

In 2013 staying warm without a thick pile of clothing is easier than ever. By now, centuries of technological progress have left us with all these innovative, lightweight synthetic fleeces, nylons, microfibers... a cornucopia of so-called tech-fabrics. But despite the abundance of all these useful materials, there is still a science, and an art to selecting your components, to mixing and matching the various fabrics to construct a system that provides the optimal combo of warmth, freedom of movement not to mention rakish style.

These days it just won't do to pile on a couple of flannel shirts, a parka, a pair of 501s and wool mittens and try to go about our normal golf business. If that's your M.O. then I can understand why you wouldn't play golf when it's cold. But no, in 2013 we can both stay warm and swing our swings, enabling us to enjoy all the wondrous benefits of winter golf.

The Base Layer

The base layer is the first line of defense. As the layer that lies against your skin, it must be both comfortable to the touch and able to wick away moisture. Thin, lightweight thermals make for a good base layer. Splurge a little on the silk kind--they're comfortable, paper-thin, almost weightless and they trap in surprising amounts of heat.

The thick cotton waffle-fabric "long-johns" of yesteryear are simply not a good idea in the 21st century. They might keep you warm but they are too bulky to be of much use to the golfer. And moisture wicking? Forget about it. If you happen to work up a sweat while wearing cotton thermals, you are toast. You might as well just lay down and hope that help finds you before the bears do.

The effects of a good base layer.
In order to do its work effectively, the heat-trapping and the sweat-wicking and what not, the base layer needs to be worn tight. Worn by themselves, your base layer garments should resemble gay nightclub wear: thin, close-fitting, slightly sheer perhaps. You will probably feel a little queer walking around the house in just your base layer, and this is normal.

If you want to get real fancy, synthetic compression-type shirts made specifically for cold weather, such as those made by Under Armour (unsolicited, unpaid advertisement--sorry) make especially effective base layers; the feeling of being compressed by one's own shirt might take some getting used to though.

The Insulation Layer

Insulation is all about trapping heat, so for this layer you want to think like an animal: soft, furry, fleecy fabrics. Cashmere is especially good for its gossamer weight, breathability and oh-so luxurious feel.

However modern-day performance fleeces weigh almost nothing while imparting unbelievable warmth, which makes them a great choice for golfers, especially for extreme cold. Certain fleeces are so warm that you have to use some caution, because they will send you into an overheated frenzy if worn at the wrong time.

For this insulation layer, vests are recommended because a) they allow freer swingin' and 2) long as you keep your core warm, you can get away with a little less insulation on the limbs. If you do go sleeveless, you can even get away with a down-insulated vest, long as it's not too puffy.

The Outer Layer

If the insulation layer is meant to retain precious body heat, the outer layer functions to keep the cold elements out of your personal business, out of the toasty interior you've established. (The trapping of warm air between layers is a fundamental premise of layering it seems.)

Since we've already insulated ourselves, the outer layer needs only to be some kind of wind jacket, windbreaker or even a rain jacket--nothing bulky, just a shell really. Any kind of insulated jacket or parka here is only going to mess up our whole layering system. You're just looking for a barrier here, so it can be a thin and light piece, as long as it offers some wind resistance.

Just the right kind of loose fit is what you're looking for in an outer layer, to allow for our usual violent lashing at the ball.


In anything but the most extreme conditions, a lot of insulation on the legs is not really necessary, especially if you'll be walking. If it is cold enough outside that you do need to insulate your lower limbs, then it's probably physically impossible to stick a tee into the ground without using a hammer, which means it's probably too cold to play normal golf at this point. So two bottom layers is usually enough.

(Okay, while there are freaks out there who will try to play golf on glaciers, wearing crampons, hitting fluorescent colored balls, etc., we are talking about normal people playing in normal winter conditions here for god's sake.)

After a lot of experimentation I've found that a base layer of thermal bottoms together with rain pants (which are usually also wind-resistant) on top provides plenty of warmth, serious comfort and glorious freedom of movement. Conventional cotton pants just don't jive well with a thermal base layer--they cling together and make you feel bulky. Rain pants on the other hand are roomy, and their slick interior lining makes for smooth interaction with your base layer.

(It's common to see denim during winter golf, and while that might seem pragmatic on one level, it's actually not all that effective or efficient. Don't do it. Many would argue against denim on the golf course on the basis of decency and civility, but for us it's simply not a pragmatic cold-weather clothing choice. You can do way better than denim's heft and bulky stiffness.)

So you see, layering for winter golf is not so complicated. Base layer, insulation layer and outer layer. Okay maybe it does require some thought, and maybe some specific apparel items, but it is entirely worth the trouble.

In the next edition, we'll discuss extremities.


  1. That's the way it is for us in the mid atlantic Beef. But I would rather it not get below 50 all year.


  2. A most enjoyable read... and a good laugh at that SNL bit you dug up. Well done, and stay warm!

    Here in CA, I only need a long-sleeve undershirt, normal golf pants (or rain pants) and a wind-breaker shell or even a rain jacket (also breaks the wind), as the temps dip into the upper 40s sometimes. Not yet though: it is still in the low-60s now. :)

  3. I am not sure I am ready for the Under Armour compression short. I tried one on a while ago and I felt like a 150 pound sausage in a casing designed for 125 pounds.

    Good call on the rain gear as outwear. Perfect for stopping the wind and breathable, at least at the higher endn of such equipment. Plus if it starts to rain you are all set.

  4. Picked up a Nike compressed cold weather shirt the other day and wore it today. Allows free motion without the bulkiness of looser cloths. 45* was comfortable but I think any lower would feel it.



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