Cold Weather Seems to Grow Duffers

QUESTION: What state has the most golfers per capita? Florida? South Carolina? Maybe California?

Nope. It's Minnesota.

Well, to be fair, it was Minnesota. After four years at the top of the heap, Minnesota has dropped to No. 3, according to the annual survey of the National Golf Foundation. But don't jump to any conclusions. The two states that edged it out were North Dakota and Wisconsin.

It seems that when it comes to golf, the colder the climate, the more popular the game. Rounding out the top nine are such golfing hotbeds as Utah, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, Michigan, and Illinois. You have to drop to No. 10 Arizona before a warm-weather state pops up. California is 30th, just ahead of Florida and South Carolina. Only 11.3 percent of South Carolinians play the game. In Minnesota, it's 19 percent; in No. 1 North Dakota, it's 20.2 percent.

Why is golf so popular here?

"We only have six months to play golf," says Don Kortus, who's just finished whacking away on the driving range of a suburban St. Paul, Minn., course. Minnesotans - especially senior citizens - take every opportunity to play, he adds. "You will see those guys playing out there when it's really cold."

Uh, how cold is "really cold"?

"Forty-five degrees. If it's 60 degrees, like today, it's perfect."

I can't help noticing the clouds that hang low and dark above Mr. Kortus. His jacket is zipped up tight. A few raindrops fall. Tom Cunnien, an avid golfer who's also out on the driving range, dismisses it with a wave of his hand. "The rain doesn't stop anybody," he says.

"In Minnesota, golf is almost the forbidden fruit," says Bev Vanstrum, who has won 17 state titles and four state senior titles. The winters are so long that people just chomp at the bit to get outdoors at the first hint of spring. Golf is one way to enjoy it. Sort of.

Mrs. Vanstrum has played tournaments in Duluth, Minn., where it was sunny on one side of the course and snowing on the other. She's very adept at plucking golf balls out of snow drifts. Like any other experienced Minnesota golfer, she always packs mittens, a stocking cap, and other foul-weather gear, just in case the weather changes.

"Do you know who created golf? The Scots," she says. "I don't think they intended it to be fun."

Accessibility is another factor, says Brian Delgado, spokesman for the Minnesota Golf Association. Eighty-one percent of Minnesota's golf courses are public rather than private. The national average is only 62 percent.

Don't forget culture, adds John Rooney, author of the new "Atlas of American Sport." "The Upper Midwest ... is a sports-for-sports'-sake region." Unlike other parts of the United States, which stress winning or teamwork, Minnesota emphasizes participation. That's a big reason why more Minnesotans play golf, while Mississippi and Texas turn out 10 times as many professional and top-flight college players per capita, he says.

"Maybe it's ethnic," says Rod Magnuson, a three-time state senior player of the year. "It just suits the people in Minnesota. We always refer to `Minnesota nice.' Maybe golf is a genteel game that we all can understand."

Genteel!? In June, maybe, but not during a Minnesota November. That's when Mr. Magnuson heads out to suburban St. Paul to play the "Diehard" tournament. His worst golfing experience was at the Diehard four years ago.

"The sleet was coming sideways," he recalls. "We played anyhow."

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