The Wall Street Journal reports, “Golf courses, wide expanses where people don’t need to come into close contact, are seen as a rare escape.” This article is from the March 19, 2020 edition.
Andrew Beaton of WSJ reports:
This week, the members at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club received a disturbing email: it told them to break some of golf’s most sacred traditions.
At this prestigious venue in Pinehurst, N.C., that has hosted the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup, members received a set of instructions that amounted to 18 holes of heresy. Players were told to stop shaking hands at the end of rounds. They were asked to play without removing the flagsticks. And, in the most blasphemous act, they were instructed to rake the bunkers with their feet.
These are the safety measures golf courses around the world are taking to adjust to its peculiar place in the coronavirus landscape. “It’s one of the last things you can do in wide open spaces and enjoy nature,” said Tom Pashley, the president of Pinehurst.
People in the U.S. and around the world are increasingly pinned indoors because of the novel coronavirus, making socially acceptable forms of exercise and outdoor activity harder and harder to come by. Gyms have been closed. So have recreational sports leagues. Fitness classes are off the table. People have been forced to work from home and putter around with their spouses and children to avoid crowded, outdoor spaces.
This has left golf courses—wide expanses where people don’t need to come into close contact—as a rare escape during this unprecedented moment. The sport that has worried about how its aging demographic threatens its future is oddly all the rage.
“Every single call is, ‘Oh thank god, we’re so happy to be able to get out of the house, the kids are driving us insane,’” said Seth Balasny, general manager of New York Country Club in New Hempstead. “People are so happy to be able to come out and be able to play golf.”
Mr. Balasny says the club’s numbers this year are actually up—though that can’t necessarily be attributed to eager golfers looking to escape their children. Golf is also weather dependent, and in prior years, these months had been bogged down by snow, with courses hardly open. Meanwhile, as coronavirus concerns have ramped up and sent people indoors, it has been cruelly nice outside in some places.
A spokesman for GolfNow, a popular online booking site, says it is too early to determine any true impact on the industry as a whole but recent data shows “the number of rounds of golf booked through our distribution channels remains strong.”
That has made golf courses an outlier during this unprecedented moment. People are looking for things to do, to fill the time that’s not spent chasing after kids or working remotely. They’re desperate to get exercise. They’re desperate to simply have a place to be outdoors.
Golf doesn’t have the same problems as so many of the options that have closed their doors. People don’t have to share equipment or cram into closely confined spaces. They play in small groups, typically foursomes, and spread out over the span of hundreds of yards.
Which is why this isn’t a case of weekend warriors inventing excuses to get in 18 holes while their bosses think they’re working from home.
“I believe that adequate social distancing can be performed with golfing,” said Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “If people can remain 6 feet apart and not touch common surfaces the game is likely safe.”
Courses around the world are taking steps to ensure that. Some of these steps, such as increased sanitization efforts to clean golf carts after every round, are standard. It just so happens that some of the others might make Ben Hogan snap a pitching wedge over his knee in disgust.
In its email to members, Pinehurst told players to completely skip the main golf shop and instead check in at the starters shack. It also instructed players to manicure bunkers with their feet, so a bunch of dirty hands don’t keep touching the same rake. To golf sticklers, this is roughly the equivalent of driving a cart onto the green.
The memo added that Pinehurst patrons could replace hand shakes with a “head nod” or “club tap.” Playing with the flagstick in the hole used to be a penalty, but the USGA changed that rule not long ago. In traditional circles, though, it is still as taboo as playing in sweatpants.
Other courses have devised an even bolder solution: they have raised the cups an inch out of the ground on the greens, telling golfers to putt until their ball simply knocks into the elevated cup.
Some golf clubs have also closed their dining rooms or scaled back their food options. Playing 18 might still be available, but the 19th hole—the bar—is now off limits.
There are courses, including the famous Augusta National Golf Club, that have closed down out of precaution because of the virus. Professional golf has seen its calendar torpedoed by the coronavirus. Augusta National postponed perhaps the game’s most prominent major, The Masters, which was set for April.
That hasn’t stopped duffers like Jim Damron, a 72-year-old who admits his handicap is pretty high. “I’m working on it, though,” he says.
Mr. Damron retired a year-and-a-half ago and now works part-time at a golf course in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. He also plays two-to-three days a week, and he feels the proper steps have been taken to ensure it remains a healthy outlet. In the clubhouse at Northwest Golf Course in Silver Spring, Md., there is a sign pointing toward marks on the floor that show people how “to keep safe social distance.” People also have to pay with credit card, to avoid the transfer of cash, and the jugs of water between holes are gone.
By his judgement, the measures are working. “People are just really grateful to have a place to get out and be in contact – but not too close contact,” he says.
Alan Kelly can empathize, because he feels the same way all across the Atlantic Ocean. Mr. Kelly is the communications manager with the Golfing Union of Ireland, the country’s governing body for the sport. And just like almost everyone else right now, he is working from home. His wife is a teacher, and schools there are closed which means the family is stuck pent up together.
When they get stir-crazy, Kelly knows exactly what he’s going to do. “I’m hoping to drag them down to the golf course,” he says.