Welcome to the brave new world of night golf. It's a pastime recently made possible—though some might say just barely—by the Nitelite Golfball, an invention of the Newcombs, a father-and-son team from Mirror Lake, N.H.
"It's primarily for twilight play," says 61-year-old Nelson F. Newcomb. "It's for the golfer who wants to sneak in nine holes after a day's work."
About a year and a half ago Newcomb and his son, Corky, 35, figured out a way to make a golf ball glow in the dark. They call their invention the Nitelite. It's a translucent, hard plastic sphere that has a thin cylindrical hole molded into it, and into that the golfer inserts a small light-stick made of Cyalume, a luminescent material used in the production of emergency highway markers and disco jewelry. Each lightstick glows coolly for about six hours.
The ball has been on the market for two months. "It's regulation size and weight," says Corky. "The lightstick does not affect the ball's flight, and it putts beautifully." To help golfers locate the green in the failing light, the Newcombs also sell larger lightsticks, to be placed at the 150-yard mark on the fairway and tied onto the flags at each hole.
Ingenious? Perhaps. But during the last decade the Newcombs have also marketed Nitelite footballs, plastic softballs, tennis balls and fishing lures—not to mention the flat-sided baseball that enables anyone to throw a curve, screwball, sinker or slider.
"People kept calling and asking why we didn't have a golf ball," says Corky. The ball, which sells for $4.95 plus $1 for each lightstick refill, was first turned on at the PGA convention, and it was voted most innovative new product by Golf Industry magazine. Despite its popularity, it is unlikely that the United States Golf Association will declare the Nitelite legal for regulation play. According to Frank Thomas, the USGA's technical director, the ball seems to be the right weight and size but runs afoul of Section 14-3 of the Rules of Golf concerning "artificial devices and unusual equipment" to help the golfer track down errant shots. "What if two golfers are playing at dusk and one player pulls this ball out?" says Thomas. "He would have an unfair advantage; he would be able to find his ball when the other fellow couldn't. We turned down a ball with a little radio transmitter in it for the same reason."
Still, concedes Thomas, as a novelty the Nitelite won't damage the game.
"We've been going crazy over this thing," says Claude Pardue, co-owner of the Hyland Hills Golf Resort near Pinehurst, N.C. The course staffers, too busy to play during the day, have been holding grudge matches after sundown. "Darkness is a great equalizer," says Pardue, a 12-handicapper who claims to have regularly beaten better players after dark. "For one thing, reading the green is absolutely impossible," he says. "And that gets your good golfer fairly frustrated." In April, Pardue enticed 35 course regulars to sign up for a tournament, the first annual Hyland Hills Night Classic. "We had cocktails at 7:30 p.m. and a shotgun start at 8:00. We played 12 holes before midnight, and not a single ball was lost." Pardue doesn't plan to open the course to unsupervised night play, though. "Somebody could fall into a sand trap," he says, "or get lost."
Jeff Short, teaching pro at Los Angeles' Rancho Park, agrees. "You really have to know the course," he said on a test round. Doglegs tend to be fairly unfathomable in total darkness, and one ball hit into the trees required an antique reliance on the ear to narrow the search.
Short found the hard plastic Nitelite traveled about 40 yards less than a regular ball on drives. "That's bad for the golfer's ego," he said. On the plus side, however, his ball was visible from at least 100 yards away, its light undimmed by even the heaviest rough. Short also recommended placing a lightstick in the hole before putting. "It makes the hole look twice as big. You can't miss."
Can the same be said for night golf? Will dawn starting times become simply an unpleasant memory? Probably not. "It was fun," said Short, as he headed toward the clubhouse at 10 p.m. "But after this round, I feel a lot more tired than usual."
Andy Meisler is a freelance writer and freestyle golf enthusiast living in Los Angeles.