Stanley Park’s best kept secret: winter pitch and putt

A good walk unspoiled

January 25, 2016

By Chris Koentges

The pitch and putt at Stanley Park is often listed among the city’s hidden gems. It’s fitting, then, that it shines the brightest when nobody’s actually looking at it. In the winter the grounds are nominally maintained, the old stone clubhouse left unstaffed. You can simply walk on with your putter and what the old golfers called a niblick and play it as is. In these conditions, the pitch and putt reveals its true self.

With no driving range or practice greens, the first hole is a cold open. It would feel a little too much like real golf except for the emphatic sign that reminds you to “enjoy your game!” And another that tells you how to co-exist with coyotes. And also the fact that the fairway has a square footage barely larger than your condo.

It’s not until the third hole that the golf course begins to melt away and you enter the shire. The bench is set back deep into the bushes, behind the tee box. In the summer, this is where most of us crack our first cold tin. In the winter—with nobody on your tail—you can pour mulled wine and linger. The hole runs down a gentle slope. You suck the scent of the Ted and Mary Greig Rhododendron Garden into your lungs and take your first big swing of the day. You’ll land, but the declivity will carry you onto the green. Even if you’re in the heavy grass, you’re putting for birdie.

Avoid the prehistoric-looking ferns to the right of the fourth green. Should the rain pick up, the bench before the fifth is a good place to fix yourself a bowl of instant ramen, under the tall cedars. There are no sand traps or water hazards anywhere in the course’s 1,200 yards. I like to play with a junior golfing phenom, who gave the game up as an adult. He seldom even removes his backpack, which contains a veritable mini-bar, before hitting the ball—almost ashamed of his swing, which, to this day, is pure as quince paste. It’s this kind of creature that you spy in the January mist in Stanley Park, who has found some truth, playing for the skunks and spotted towhees, drenched in the rain.

Rupert Park, by contrast, is a fever dream. If you want to emasculate a golfer who thinks they’re too good for pitch and putt, take them, on a wet, windy day, to Rupert, with its ponds and tiny greens atop the knolls. The only mean hole you find at Stanley Park is the seventh, which runs up a hill before the green breaks back down in different directions. Those who play regular golf have a tendency to overthink the seventh hole.

They also have a tendency—not having paid green fees—to simply walk off at the ninth. However, the tenth, which looks out to Second Beach, where the air is a little saltier, feels like an entirely new round. Here, you feel the human history as much as the flow of the West Coast. In a park where Warren Harding’s memorial co-exists with Frances E. Willard’s camellia bush, it’s the little plaque on the bench at the 13th hole, dedicated to Elizabeth (Bessie) Shaw, that kind of gets you. You’ll be soaked to the bone here, early in February, when the blossoms begin to open. The plaque says: “HOLDER OF 20 HOLE-IN-ONE CERTIFICATES.” It says: “HER FAVORITE PLACE.” My friend calls this hole the rapture.

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