Golfers and course operators are getting an early holiday gift.
The forecast for Thursday, the first day of Hanukkah and slightly more than two weeks from Christmas, calls for 50 degrees and sunny skies. Golf courses from Annandale to Hastings and beyond opened their tee sheets for Thursday, Friday and perhaps into the weekend — and sold out in hours.
Oak Marsh in Oakdale booked times on Monday for Thursday and days after. So did other courses that are mostly privately owned, public daily-fee operations that put their faith in meteorologists and the sun and wind's melting power.
"I wish I had two more 18-hole courses, I would have filled them all," said Steve Whillock, Oak Marsh's GM/director of golf. "I turned them away right and left all day on Tuesday, and everybody who calls today."
Oak Marsh filled its tee sheet with 100 golfers each day — all walking, no motorized carts — then said sorry to more golfers who had hoped to get out for some rare December play. It will send groups off two tees from 11 a.m. to 12:40 p.m. That allows time in the morning Thursday for any remaining snow on greens to melt and frost to thaw. It also allows time for golfers with later tee times to finish before dark.
"People who play this time of year are avid golfers," Whillock said. "These are not beginners playing in the winter. They move fast."
Pioneer Creek in Independence closed in late October, reopened before Thanksgiving when the weather improved and then closed again until this week's forecasts. It organized "shotgun" starts Wednesday through Friday in which golfers start on all 18 holes to ensure everyone finishes on time. It sold out fast for Thursday and Friday.
One golfer wore shorts Wednesday on a 45-degree day.
"Believe it or not," said Pioneer Creek general manager Marcia Kreklow, "people get very excited to be playing golf in 50 degrees, in Minnesota, in December."
The Ponds Golf Course, a 27-hole layout in St. Francis, sold out with 150 golfers set to play Thursday if the snow melts and for sure Friday. It'll stay open as long as the weather cooperates, until golfers retreat to indoor simulators for the winter.
One of those avid Minnesota golfers, Paul Howard from Eden Prairie, has an 11:30 a.m. shotgun start for himself and a buddy Thursday at Kilkarney Hills in River Falls, Wis.
Howard is traveling that far, about 50 miles, because that's where he could get a tee time. He said he has played in December the last three years and once played in January some 20 years ago. Thursday's 50-degree forecast is almost balmy for a golfer who has played in cold wearing winter gloves and all layered up.
"The good thing is, you don't have to worry about water hazards," he said. "They're frozen."
Whillock said Oak Marsh "really doesn't ever close" until the snow accumulates. There just are some days you can play and some you can't.
Every day open is worth it financially.
"We need every penny we can get with the high cost of running a business," said Whillock, who has worked at Oak Marsh for all of its 27 years. "My motto is if there's no snow on the ground, we're going to go. And if people pay us, we're definitely going to go. We're doing our best to make a fair profit. It's definitely needed. In this business, you make hay in the summer and hold on tight in the winter."
Oak Marsh's clubhouse caters events, and its grill is open in winter when the course isn't.
"It's good promotion to get our name out there," Whillock said. "A lot of people might come by who haven't been here before. It's good marketing. Everyone that leaves usually says, 'Thank you for being open. This is so cool.' People who play golf in December are all excited, but we can only fit so many on."