Take a look at the summer brochures around Mammoth and it’s hard to miss those bucolic images of golfers on the town’s two golf courses.
But don’t be fooled.
With the highest-elevation golf courses in California, the altitude can play hell with anyone’s game. Oh, and there’s the wind, too. And the arid atmosphere that offers no humidity.
“Altitude does not create problems in playing golf,” said Snowcreek instructor Dennis Hurlburt, who over the years has advised hundreds of sea-level golfers on the peculiarities of playing the game in Mammoth.
“It simply requires adjustments,” he said.
“Playing at sea level and low altitude shortens ball flight. Heavy air with moisture adds lift but also creates resistance. High altitude with the light air and lack of moisture lessens lift but with less resistance.”
Hurlburt, and his counterpart at Sierra Star, teaching pro Dave Schacht, might want to advise newbies to bring along an aerodynamic engineer, if not with whom to play alongside, then at least as caddie.
Up here, with the backdrop of majestic mountains and warm—not hot—air temperatures, there is no better place to keep in mind the old adage that “Golf is a good walk spoiled.”
“I’m a little bit confused on the distance I’m hitting the ball,” said Tom Watson when the Hall of Fame golfer played Colorado Springs’ Broadmoor (7,000 feet) in the PGA Senior Championship. Speaking in an interview with Golf Digest magazine, he said, “It’s not very consistent.”
Another Hall of Famer and U.S. Open champion Bernhard Langer said about the same thing.
“I know I hit my 8-iron 154 yards plus or minus two, but in altitude you’re not so sure anymore.
“Early in the morning, when it’s cool, the ball might not go as far and then in the afternoon when it’s hot and less humid, the ball goes a lot farther. It changes quite a bit.”
Hurlburt, who has been teaching golf in Mammoth for decades and who used to write a golf column for the Mammoth Times, said it takes a little imagination, but overcoming the obstacles shouldn’t take more than a round or two.
“Think of putting back spin on a hula hoop,” he said. “Throw it out 10 feet and it will retreat less than if it were spun right next to you out where the 10-foot throw landed.
“The forward momentum of the throw negates some of retreating ability. It’s the same with a spinning golf ball that is hit at altitude, with less lift and a more horizontal landing.
“The main adjustment is to play a ball with higher spin rates. A 13 to 14 percent addition of distance at 8,000 feet also must be factored in when choosing a club.”
Anecdotal evidence of trying to play sea-level golf is easy to find at Sierra Star No. 1, which abuts Meridian Boulevard. With the green nestled almost up to the street, residents at the Summit Condominiums across the street routinely find golf balls that have flown the green badly, taken one hop on Meridian and land in a cluster of pines.
Since it is the first hole on the course, the golf balls are invariably brand new, with one scuff (Meridian Boulevard). People who park on the street across the street from the green do so at their own peril.
The short rule of thumb, said Hurlburt, is to drop one club length, then go from there.
Of course it’s more complicated than that, which is why you can see a few sea-level scratch golfers on our fairways, reduced to a puddle of tears.