Jason Thomspon stands on the tee box, looks down the fairway, adjusts his parka hood, straightens his toque, uses the tip of his winter boot to pound the tee into the frozen ground, and tees up a bright red golf ball — so he can see it if it rolls into a patch of lingering snow. It's Jan. 3 — two weeks after the official start of the Alberta winter — and the avid golfer from the Kikino Metis Settlement is teeing off at the Terrae Pines Golf Club near St. Albert. It's just at the freezing point, but the chilly temperature is offset by the big, warm grin on Thompson's face as he swings.
For most golfers in Alberta, getting a few rounds in after the leaves fall and the October winds blow is a bonus. But thanks to a lack of significant snow and above-normal temperatures at the end of 2023 golfers had several more weeks on the links at many locations around the province. At Terrae Pines, a family-run 18-hole Par 72 course just north of St. Albert, the 2023 season stretched into 2024 — to Jan. 5 to be exact. The late closing set a record for the course.
"We opened on April 16," said club manager Mark Cassidy, explaining that aside from a short 10-day closure due to some snowfall at the end of October, the course was open for more than 250 days, stretching through all four Alberta seasons. "We broke our own record this year. The last record was in '97 when the course was open until New Year's Eve.
Terrae Pines has a reputation for staying open later than other courses in the Edmonton area, and the extra swing-time has brought a growing roster of golfers from near and far for the unique experience.
"We get people from all over and further. We had a couple who came in from Saskatchewan because they heard about our winter golf, and we just had a group from Slave Lake that drove through a blizzard just to play golf in the winter."
For Thompson and his group from Kikino, driving about 200 kilometres for a round of golf was a unique way to celebrate a Jan. 3 birthday.
"We knew it was open, so me and the girlfriend and a couple of friends decided to try it," he said, adding that it was good to get out — and good for a chuckle.
Thompson's final score was a two-over-par 74. Aside from playing in more clothing layers than they normally would in a summer-time round at their home course in Lac La Biche, the frozen foursome had a few other unique challenges to overcome. Just getting off the first tee box requires a bit of extra effort, said Cassidy with a laugh, recalling the Thompson group.
"It can be a struggle to get the tee into the frozen ground. Some people might bring some other apparatus to help get the tee in — maybe a hammer," he joked.
Clubbing up a few times was also a tip the course manager offered to players who ventured out. He also said that brightly-coloured golf balls and 'hot-shot' hand warmers were big sellers in the clubhouse for the extended season.
"We were selling quite a few of those in the pro-shop," he said, explaining that some days in November and December drew more golfers than some days in the summer season. "People loved that they could still play — even though it was colder."
But it wasn't just the novelty of playing in the winter; the frozen features of the course might have actually helped some players with their scores.
"The ground is quite hard, so even a poor shot will bounce quite far, so people might feel the winter golf improved their game," Cassidy said, again with a grin, adding that water hazards are also not as much of a worry when things get chilly. "People aren't too worried about the water hazards because the balls just bounce off the ice."
With weather conditions in constant flux, Cassidy and his brother Matt say the extended season might mean a relatively short "down-time" for the family-owned course before the next tee-time.
"Two years ago, we opened on April 1, so yes, it might not be that long of a wait for the next round," he said.
For Thompson, the wintertime outing was a memorable one.
"Only in Alberta, eh. Birthday golfing on Jan. 3."