Solstice Survival

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Solstice Odyssey



2 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

The Solstice Survival was born at the intersection of Passion and Stupidity: Seven guys playing 54 holes on three courses in triple-bogey heat on the longest day of 1994. It was fun. Plain and simple. We blew off work, outlawed cell phones, played golf all day and whatever happened, happened. We’d deal with it tomorrow.

As with all good golf experiences, this one was recounted time and again. We regaled one guy’s 11 on a tricky par 5 for days; another’s three-putt from two feet for weeks; and another’s 14-yard shank out of bounds for months. And then someone said, “Hey, why don’t we turn this into a tournament?”

And the Solstice Survival was born. Now, as many as 2,000 golfers in the Midwest, Northeast and Middle Atlantic have participated in Solstice Survival events throughout the month of June. We have even held Solstice Survivals across the pond in the historic bump-and-run districts of Scotland and Ireland.The Solstice has developed a cult-like following. Foursomes sign up in January for a event still half a year away. One guy who has become a Solstice regular postponed his honeymoon to play in the Solstice Survival. With players like that, is it any wonder that the Solstice has become the most looked-forward to day of the golf season? To get an outsider’s view on this coolest of unique tournaments, we asked the prolific and talented Tom Chiarella to chronicle one of the few events on the planet that consumes an entire bucket of daylight. We were, of course, referring to Tom’s writing ability, but you can decide on the golfing part for yourself.

on’t fool yourself. Length matters. In golf anyway. Face it. It helps to be long off the tee. And you have to be able to drop a lengthy putt every once in a while to nail good scores. It’s even good to be long with those irons. Yes, hit it straight, and, sure, make good contact. Take pride in the short game. But be prepared to deal with length.

Still, you don’t know what real length is until you play an event in the Solstice Survival, where rounds meld into days, loops pile upon themselves, and your path across a simple 18-hole course becomes a sort of arcing trek towards the horizon, an odyssey worthy of Greek theater. Animals make their way across your path, but you press on. Simple ponds become whirlpools, swallowing your best efforts again and again.

Every once in awhile, girls appear as distant sirens. The clubhouse is the traveler’s mirage, coming closer, closer, closer, before fading as you set out once again. OK, so call it Greek dinner theater.

Three tournament-quality rounds in one day. Not just any day either, but the longest day of the year – the solstice – this is golf played from the moment the sun pierces the horizon until it finally drops wearily westward some 15 hours later, holing every putt, recording every swing. You thought 320 yards off the tee was long. That was before you played 54 holes in one half spin of the mother planet. Let me tell you friend, you don’t know “long” until you play the Solstice Survival. Missing the same putt on the same green three times in one day. That’s long. Taking a two on a hole, then coming back to make a seven, only to return hours later for the rubber match with that single flagstick. That’s long. Using up an entire tube of sunscreen. Drinking your way


through the better part of a case of water. Long. Slipping behind in your match, finding yourself down 5 with 33 to go. Long. Long. Long.

A day is a fairly simple thing. The world turns. The sun pierces the darkness, then pervades, before drizzling away into the dark once again. You might think it contains a finite number of possibilities on the golf course. Play the Solstice Survival and you come to understand that every nine holes is a lifetime unto itself and every hole is a chance for redemption. Depending on how you start, you may feel that there isn’t enough redemption in the world for you.

longest day of the year.

I was looking for the course, and I’ll be damned if a golf course you’ve never been to is easy to find at night. I passed it once, then missed it again, stopped for directions and missed it yet again on my next trip. When I finally located the turn, I realized this represented a first. It was 4:20 in the morning and I was running late.

On my first trip through the Solstice series, I found myself at 3:55 in the morning, driving a rental car through the jet-black countryside looking for a simple turnoff, a little white sign in all that darkness. I wish I could report that the sun was up. I wish I could say that I had the sense that daylight was on its way, that the planet was circling, that birds were stirring and lights were flickering to life in the windows of the fast food restaurants and gas stations. But let me tell you that 3:55 a.m. is the dead of night, even on the

A little while later, I clink my way towards a tee box I can barely see, thinking, for a half a moment, that I might walk the first nine holes, just to get loosened up. The grass is wet, as in so wet that you might be walking through a field of drenched mop heads. I shake hands, newly introduced to the three strangers I’ll be playing with that day. These guys are solstice veterans – slathering on the sun block hours before it barely even makes sense to assume there is a sun, let alone one that will burn you, carrying extra shirts, piling bottles of water into the cart baskets. One of them, a guy named Richard, wears wide terry cloth armbands across the middle of his forearms, in the manner of an NBA point guard. As they urge me to the tee box, I ask, “What’s with the arm bands?”

4 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

He shrugs. “I’m expecting to sweat.”

Sweat, I think, as I tee up. The air is cool and damp. It’s hard to imagine sweating. As I look down at the ball, I can see that my shoes are wet, and I cringe. These are old shoes, my most comfortable shoes really, but the waterproofing long ago wore off. My swing thought is, “I should have waterproofed these dogs.”

Now, a first swing at the very crack of dawn, can be a lovely thing. The day looms. I am playing in a first-class event. A bagel sits on the seat of my golf cart, a cup of coffee steaming in the cup holder. I don’t know these guys, but I’m told they’re all three nearly scratch golfers. For a moment, I’m unsure why I’m there. Me with my 12 handicap. Me with my worn out shoes. My feet are damp even now. Never mind, I tell myself. Just hit the ball. The problem is, I can’t.

I chop the ball on my first swing. Then I whack it out of its buried lie in the weeds, hack one up near the green, chili-dip one a few feet, somehow chip the next one close and tap-in for a double. Jitters, nerves, whatever. I tell myself it could have been worse. I try to make small talk. On the second tee, I whiff the ball. Then, buried in a heavy, wet lie, I slash again and come up with nothing. Then again, dribbling the ball. Then again. The guy with the armbands sits in his cart.

“Take your time,” he says.

To a man stricken with the chops, lying four not 75 yards off the tee on a tough par 4, a man facing 53 more holes of golf, knowing that he’s essentially played himself out of contention in 10 easy swings, there is no crueler phrase than “take your time.” What else would I take? I can’t take a swing that’s for sure.

Richard is trying to be nice. But it is going to get worse. I cannot get off the tee. I open 6-8-5-9. My golf self has chosen this moment, here at the opening of the Solstice Survival tournament, to unveil the worst case of the shanks I have ever suffered. Standing on the fifth tee, no one is speaking to me. My partners are silent. I can’t blame them. I keep telling myself that later, that very night in fact, we’ll be sitting around laughing at this. But night has never seemed so far away.

By the fifth hole, I hate the game and myself so thoroughly that I am considering walking off. The

fifth hole is an elevated tee. It’s a little before 7 in the morning when we get there. The view is remarkable, especially in the morning light. It’s about then I realize why I’m playing. I enjoy this. I used to anyway. I like the views, the little peeks at the world that a golf course offers you. That’s when I realize that, in golf, the trip starts over again and again – on every tee. I make myself swing slowly. I force myself to swing through it. It is a half swing, nothing really, but I make contact and the ball rises. I have vanquished the shanks, fought my first battle with myself, with the course, with the game itself and had my first epiphany even.

But the first nine goes ugly, with me carding a 51. But things do loosen up and my group starts to warm to me when I shoot an indifferent 43 on the back. At 10:15, we circle back around to the first tee, and I decide I am going to abuse those first five holes the way they abused me the first time through. I play angry. I play focused. I par all five and never look back. This time I get through the first side with a 39. And so the day has swung, and I have moved from the depths of misery to the brink of success in the course of a few hours. This, I learn, is the essence of the Solstice Survival. Failure and redemption. What more does golf offer except the chance to test yourself against these very possibilities?

As we make the turn on our second round, one of my playing partners, a big lunk named Jeff, slaps me on the shoulder.

“From 51 to 39,” he says. “There’s something you can tell your grandkids about.” He looks at his watch. “We have to hustle.” And he’s right. We’ve only played 27 holes after all.

For non-golfers, it is often the time commitment to golf that puzzles them most. After all, one round can take five hours, soup-tonuts. “I don’t have time to play,” they’ll tell you, implying that anyone who would give five hours over to any single activity doesn’t really understand the essential post-modern nature of the Daytimer.

You can really get under the skin of the tribe by telling them you played twice in one day. “36 holes?” they say, “Don’t you have better things to do?” Tell them you played three rounds and the non-golfer will lose connection. You either


become a threat to the continued success of the Western world or you cease to exist. In either case, you are marginalized – as a lout or a wingnut. But you learn to ignore their harping. You don’t need their permission. You play on.

The halfway point of a Solstice Survival gives you a moment to contemplate. You tick off the list – what you have done well, what to keep in mind as you try again. Life in this tournament is like being in a barber’s chair, sitting between the two massive mirrors, regarding an image of yourself inside another, then another. A chance, inside another chance, inside another. Optimism abounds. Play a hole poorly, and everyone reminds you that you get to do it again. Play it well, and you can’t wait to birdie it twice. “There aren’t a lot of coulda’s and shoulda’s in the Solstice,” one of my partners tells me as we thrash around in the tall grass looking for his ball. “The Solstice is all about the moment. You play and you don’t have time for regret.”

6 GOLFSTYLES Playing Through

The last real discovery of the Solstice Survival is that there are lots of discoveries to be made. You might assume you know the world pretty well. Surely you think you understand the game. But at 4:55 a.m., at the edge of a golf course, all bets are off. The world is steamy at these dim hours. The grass is wet. The light is slow in rising. Same thing is true at the end of the day. Greens are harder than you could have ever imagined. Wind blows hot. The grass feels heavier at your feet. When you are headed to the clubhouse, bearing down hole No. 54, you start to take inventory of your aches.

Feet, knee, hands, lower back, neck. I was a mess. I ate my plate of food, I drank my beer, and as I sat on the deck of the clubhouse, my partners wandered in and, yes, we laughed about my case of the morning shanks. The lessons had fallen into place the way they always seem to when I play golf. Orange sunlight needled through the trees. Somewhere around here my day had begun. It seemed to me a long lifetime ago. n



olfStyles’ Solstice Survival earned instant fame in 1995 when 89 players finished three competitive rounds in a 96-degree cooker at Old South Country Club in Lothian, Maryland. Some dude with one of the best golf names ever – Creed Wack – won that day and hasn’t been heard from since. Five years after Creed won the wackiest golf event ever, more than 700 players had signed up in one season for the by-then coolest golf tournament ever – 54 competitive holes from sunup to sundown. With the graying of the game, the Solstice now attracts only about 300 players, but six or seven from Old South are still in attendance.

The most famous Solstice Survivor is Patrick Wills from Woodbridge, Virginia.

Many, including those who have never played in a Solstice Survival, or even played golf, have heard of Wills. He played his first Solstice at Royal New Kent in 1998, shot one-over par the first round and didn’t shoot above par again, before retiring from the Solsice in 2019. He claimed 21 victories over 61 rounds. He was only been beaten in any given round twice, and my claim to Solstice fame is being one of those players, but it took a miraculous 64 to do it, and he still dusted me by 15 shots overall.

Wills’ feats are so astounding that they are now recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records. The odds of accomplishing what Wills did? Think being struck by lightning after buying the winning billion-dollar Powerball ticket, survive the lightning strike, then being struck again – and surving again – after buying the winning Mega Millions ticket.

Having previously shot a 13-under 58 in a Laurel Hill Solstice, Wills went one better in 2017 with a 57 at Laurel Hill Golf Club in Lorton, Virginia. There was some commotion heard during that middle white-tee round and the reason remains as unbelievable today as it was to the weary 100 golfers hearing the news that night. The round included three holes-in-one, including two on drivable par 4s. A year later, Guinness officially recognized the record for most aces in a round, but, amazingly, the two albatrosses only tied the world record. The round of 57 is two shots shy of the record.

Getting an achievement cited in the Guinness book is a painstaking process. Its vetting is thorough and rigorous. “I am overwhelmed and feel quite humbled,” Wills, 61, says of the award. “My thoughts are with my father who taught me the game and I wish he could have shared in this accomplishment with me.”

And what about the naysayers, even those unmoved by Guinness’ seal of authenticity?

“I am a glass three quarters full kind of person,” says Wills, a United States Marine Corps veteran, former dean of the Defense Acquisition University, and now retired and living in Myrtle Beach. “People will choose to believe what they want to believe. I knew what I had accomplished. I was positive the truth would prevail and that the incredible feats I had accomplished would be recognized,” says Wills. “Every competition has meaning to me. I get nervous, pumped up and feed off the energy. It heightens my awareness and ability to perform. Competitions are unlike casual rounds with friends.”

More than 2,000 players have survived the Solstice event over the past quarter century. None has beaten Wills, but plenty have been happy to hang within 100 shots of his three-round score.


he famous (many would say infamous) Solstice Survival is an arduous day, to say the least. It starts between 2 and 4 a.m after a restless night, then you drive to the golf course in total darkness, plod through 14 hours of some truly bad and sometimes remarkably good play, have a couple of beers and dinner, and then, with darkness returned, call it a day. Having repeated this ritual more than 100 times, I still wasn’t sure what to expect in this Solstice Survival – 54 holes at Ushuaia Golf Club, at the end of the world in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.

Well, why would it be any different?

When Aerolineas Argentinas flight 1854 landed at 5 a.m., the dawn of the summer solstice in the southern hemisphere had already arrived, but there were still nearly 18 hours left to traverse a short, flat and, shall we say, interesting course (think your local scraggy muni with halfsized greens and majestic mountain views). What the 25-year-old layout lacks by American standards is countered with its setting in a valley at the edge of the stunning snow-capped peaks of the Chilean Andes. It is the planet’s southernmost golf course, 1,257 miles latitudinally under Sydney in Down Under.

The nine-hole, cartless Ushuaia Golf Club is so interesting that the third hole is a 188-yard par 3 blocked by a trio of 50-foot spruces. The par-5 second offers a blind approach to a green the width of an average driveway. The par-4 fifth features no fairway, leaving the

option of going over a thicket of trees left or right. The other option is to go for the obscured, downwind green, but hitting the miniscule putting surface from 60 yards was nigh impossible for the 2- and 22-handicapper alike, so why not try from 280? The course is only 2,526 yards, par 35, with the longest par 4 measuring just 341 yards, making the walk along the valley floor suprisingly easy. It took just a little over 11 hours to play six loops.

With weather that is influenced by Antarctica, 50 degrees, 15-mph winds and no rain heralded a nice day for the Challenge of the Brave, as it is known at Ushuaia. The locals are in short sleeves and vests; I have two layers of long, both top and bottom. The previous summer day in Buenos Aires was 94 degrees.

Golf is a universal language, so it was no problem that my three playing partners – Mario the school teacher, Julio the policeman and Marcelo the watchmaker – know about as much English as I know Spanish, which is very little, but enough to communicate just fine on the course. The trio of 20-something handicappers greeted me with firm handshakes and bade farewell with kisses. In between was the usual menu of good, bad and sad golf. Julio and I tied for 20th net, so that was something to talk about. The 19th hole, too, is universal, and slightly more than a few cervezas Quilmes put an end to a surreal day at el fin del mundo – the end of the world.


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