It's hovering at about 38 degrees, the course is brown and muddy, the sky is overcast and Kenai's Joe Lyons is standing next to his golf clubs and beaming.
What's not to be happy about? It's April 15, and Lyons has just completed his first round of golf this year.
"Conditions don't make a bit of difference to me," Lyons said. "At this time of the year, I'm happy just to hit the balls and go chase them."
Lyons is one of an increasing horde of area golfers taking advantage of an unusually early opening at Birch Ridge Golf Course caused by the winter that wasn't.
Pat Cowan, who owns the course along with his wife, Myrna, said this is the earliest opening he knows of in the course's history. The course opened in 1973. Cowan has been at least a part owner since 1988, and he knew the previous owner well enough to be pretty sure that there's never been an earlier opening.
The course has been open since April 7. Even before that, a few golfers were slipping in a few rounds.
Birch Ridge pro and assistant superintendent Tom Walsh played his first round Feb. 27 when there was still a bit of snow on the ground. As of Wednesday, Walsh had already gotten in over 10 rounds this year.
Cowan said the course typically opens around May 1. Prior to this year, Cowan said the earliest opening was April 15. However, that opening didn't last long because a foot of snow blanketed the course shortly thereafter.
A caribou mows the grass on a fenced-off green at Birch Ridge last week. Although the course is open, it will be a while before humans will need to do any additional mowing.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The latest opening Cowan can remember is May 8. That's a far cry from this year, when Cowan said over 50 golfers took advantage of splendid weather on April 13 to get in at least nine holes.
"I'm thinking of this kind of like a gardener would," said wife-described golf nut Bill Davis of Kasilof as he played his second round of the year Wednesday. "It's nice just to get out and stretch the legs and know that winter is over with."
Davis' legs, which have been living on the peninsula the last 15 years, probably didn't have much time to get stiff. That's because Davis took advantage of another Birch Ridge first and played golf until last November.
Cowan said the slow-, or even never-, arriving winter allowed the course to stay officially open until Nov. 7, the latest closing date in course history.
Cowan even opened the course up for a day on Dec. 6, but snow chased golfers off the next day.
Because golfers are so happy to be back on the course so quickly this spring, they are willing to put up with less-than-ideal conditions.
"We're kind of playing on the greens," Cowan said. "There's no temporary greens, but there might as well be.
"It really doesn't matter to the golfers what the conditions are like right now. If it were July 15, that'd be a different story."
Surrounded by brown foliage, Bobby Lewis makes his way around the course last week.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The course also is so wet that carts are not allowed.
"We were using carts before (April 11 and 12) when the ground was still frozen," Walsh said. "Then the frost broke out, and the course got all wet."
Some rain in the middle of the week added moisture to the course, but in the long run that rain will be beneficial.
"As long as the rain doesn't freeze, it will help thaw the ground out," said Ron Carlson, an assistant superintendent at the course. "We're two or three weeks ahead of where we'd normally be.
"We're just hoping it doesn't snow."
In the summer of 2001, greens at area golf courses suffered after a low-snow winter allowed ice to damage them.
Cowan and Walsh both said they think the greens will come in fine this year.
However, Walsh said it's going to be at least a week before the greens are able to be mowed into respectable shape. Until the greens are mowed, Birch Ridge is charging $10 per day for unlimited play.
"This isn't going to happen again, probably, in my lifetime," Cowan said of the early opening. "Everybody might as well enjoy it and get out and play."
Birch Ridge isn't the only course in Alaska opening early. Walsh said he played at Settlers Bay in Anchorage in early April.
He added the Palmer Golf Course has been open since mid-February.
Carol Morgan, the manager of the Kenai Golf Course, said she is hoping the course will be open before the end of April. The course opened in 1986, and Morgan said its earliest opening date thus far is May 4.
"People are calling and ready to go," Morgan said. "They also know that if they get on there too early, they're going to ruin their playground.
"They don't want to do that."
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