Playing golf at night may be the most fun you can legally have in America. I’ve always had a love for the golf that happens after sunset and there is something about chasing a glowing golf ball that I can’t get enough of. Perhaps it’s the way that a lack of light makes the ground game so enjoyable or maybe it’s simply doing something that feels against the rules. Either way, I’m addicted to the sight of neon pellets flying through the darkness and the best place that I’ve found to enjoy this variety of golf is Winter Park, Florida.
Winter Park is an idyllic city with brick streets, charming restaurants, and timeless homes. It’s also a city with a golf course that plays through its streets and defies everything you know about the game. The Winter Park Golf Course embodies all that is right with golf. The course is short but challenging and the holes play out in the most entertaining of ways. It’s open to anyone, fun for all ages, and interesting at every skill level. Winter Park has become one of my favorite places in golf and after my latest trip there I’m now convinced that the best way to play it may just be under the moonlight.
Like many in the golfing world, I recently visited the greater Orlando area for the annual PGA Merchandise Show. While the cold winds of winter were blowing across the country, those in the golf industry were gathered under the sunny skies of Florida for a week of meetings and showcases. The show brings together club professionals, product purveyors, and other personalities from all corners of the golf business to make plans and deals for the year ahead. During this annual gathering, the Winter Park Golf Course is a favored hang for many of the golfers who descend upon Central Florida. It was the perfect place to make my encampment while in Orlando.
I spent two days playing golf at Winter Park before the show started. The second day was part of a large event that I was invited to participate in. There were nearly one hundred golfers there that afternoon and for many, it was their first time seeing the course. Players made their way around the charming nine holes and then there was a large happy hour to close out the event. Cold beer, good golf, and a crowd of golfers telling tall tales always make for a great time.
For most of the crowd gathered that evening, the sinking sun served as a reason to leave, but a few of us happened to notice an opportunity to extend the festivities. We saw that as night fell over us the golf staff were going back out to the course with a cart full of glowing golf paraphernalia. By some stroke of luck, there was night golf was on the menu that evening and we happened to have no other plans. When the golf staff returned to the shop, three of us walked in to see what the details were.
Standing at the counter we made proper introductions. Joe is a caddie from Pinehurst. Andrew is in golf sales on the West Coast. I am still figuring it out but I know it involves golf. Three golfers who hardly knew each other signing up to play golf together under the cover of darkness.
A fine gentleman named Anthony was tending the shop that night and he gladly gave us the rundown. He showed us how to use the rechargeable glow balls and handed some to each of us. The purchase of a few beers was made and we turned out the door to walk our way through the night.
I grabbed my golf bag and walked to the tee box which was marked by orange glow sticks. I wondered how I might get along with these gents until I noticed that each of us was carrying a MacKenzie golf bag. Any worry that I had about this walk subsided when I saw that the tastes of these lads were in keeping with my own. To own a MacKenzie is to own a sense of adventure and we were now embarking on something far from the ordinary.
Our opening shots screamed across the night sky like tracer rounds from an F16. We found our balls lying in the grass like lightning bugs. There was a thrill to what we were doing. Not only was it golf and at night, but we were waltzing across the middle of the city. Smash a shot across the course, dodge the traffic, and then go hunt for a radiant orb. Night golf feels like staying up past your bedtime and the rush of the taboo is intoxicating.
When I made my first birdie of the night I howled at the brilliant moon. Joe yelled, “That guy is a night wolf!” We laughed as we marched around like some gang of hooligan golfers in the night. There were more birdies to come for our group and the howls would only get louder.
The course at Winter Park takes on another form when darkness covers its subtleties. The moonlight beams create shadows on the rippled fairways and the course looks like a rolling ocean of short grass. You have to trust your way around each golf hole knowing that only your instincts can keep the ball in play. Shots bounce along the ground in unexpected ways and the only way to read a putt is to feel the sloping ground with your feet. This is how Shivas Irons played the game while searching for Seamus MacDuff.
“Awwwwooooooollll” was the sound I made as another birdie dropped. We might as well have been teenagers out past curfew. When a car light shined upon us we almost felt compelled to run. Instead, we chuckled at the whole idea of what we were doing and just ripped another drive. Winter Park plays even shorter in the night. Every hole can be driven in a single shot and even the most cautious of player is compelled to give it a go. When your golf ball is glowing there is no glory in a par.
We crept past the cemetery with our MacKenzies in tow and listened as the train whistle howled back at us. The streetlights acted like beacons there to guide our swings and we could see the clubhouse shining in the distance. Gas lanterns flickered on porches while we pitched our way around the greens. We were all having the time of our lives. Golf is such a peculiar game.
The final hole looked like the runway of an airport. All the lights in town seemed to point toward the final pin. I sent my shot towards the patio off the pro shop and tried to work the fading neon ball back to the green. We all had birdie putts at the end. One last opportunity to howl at the night sky. I struck my putt and let out a primeval yell.
The game is alive in Winter Park, Florida and for that night so were we. Only golf can create moments like the ones we had hitting glowing balls through the city at night. We leaned our MacKenzie bags against a picnic table and enjoyed a brief celebration. It’s hard not to smile when you find yourself in love with golf and in the presence of kindred spirits.
Should you make your way to Winter Park, be sure to leave a night open for some golf. You haven’t lived until you howl at the moon with a MacKenzie on your shoulder.