Golf world putts along, with new social distancing regulations

Golf courses have mostly stayed open amid the coronavirus outbreak, arguing that the nature of the sport makes it a low-risk escape. Additional sanitation measures have also been implemented.

Chris Urso/Tampa Bay Times/AP
Florine Mason (left) and her friend practice at the Copperhead course at Innisbrook Golf Resort, March 16, 2020, in Palm Harbor, Florida. The Valspar Tournament shut down due to the coronavirus, giving golfers the unique opportunity to play on a tour-ready course.

Washtenaw Golf Club, one of the oldest courses in Michigan, typically only has to worry about the weather in March.

Now there is a far more serious issue to contemplate: the new coronavirus.

"This is the one thing we didn't think of," said Dave Kendall, a PGA professional and operating partner at Washtenaw, which dates to 1899. "You know, as far as making plans. But we'll fight through it together."

Even as the pandemic has shuttered restaurants, bars, and beaches, many golf courses around the country have managed to stay open with all sorts of precautions in place to promote social distancing, from sanitizing carts to removing rakes from bunkers.

The hope is that golf can provide a safe outlet for the stir crazy, some fresh air and exercise, perhaps even a dose of normalcy.

But like so much else, the industry is in a day-to-day state of uncertainty.

Consider Poppy Hills on the Monterey Peninsula, once part of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am rotation on the PGA Tour. It announced March 16 it was closing until April 8 after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a shelter-in-place order for six Bay Area counties. Then, it reopened on Saturday with social distancing guidelines. One day later, it was temporarily closed again.

Others remain open.

"It’s definitely a needed distraction, especially with nothing else on at home," said Mark Laliberte, who was playing at Highland Creek Golf Club in Charlotte, North Carolina. "I’m a father of three daughters, and my wife and my daughters and I love to watch sports. It’s crazy that there is nothing on."

It’s not hard for golfers to keep their distance on the fairway, but greens and especially tee boxes can become more crowded – and golf is popular among age groups most vulnerable to the virus. Can it really be safe?

"I do think that golf is a relatively easy sport to socially distance while playing," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. His work focuses on emerging infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and biosecurity.

"I do think that social distancing is important but I also think that some activities can be modified to limit exposure," he said in an email.

Golfers can leave flagsticks in the holes, untouched. Grounds crews at some courses have installed the cups upside down, so the ball doesn’t fall in the hole and people don’t have to reach inside.

Pinehurst Resort, including the famous No. 2 course, put a 2-inch diameter piece of PVC in the hole so the ball comes to rest level with the turf – easy to retrieve. The USGA last week said when cups are adjusted, a temporary measure allows for scores to be posted for handicap purposes even if players don't actually make the putts.

"Honestly, and I’m biased as you know, but if you think of anything else you could do right now, golf is social distancing day to day," said Troy Andrew, executive director of the Washington Golf Association. "None of the general public is good enough to hit it within six feet of each other."

Carts can be limited to one player at a time, and players can be allowed to walk the course without one. Clubhouses and golf shops can have restricted access or be closed entirely. Players can prepay for their rounds online.

Wes Stenscher of Bethesda, Maryland, played early in the morning at Bowie Golf Club last week with a business partner.

"Kind of most surprisingly is most of the people that were out there were older people, which are at the highest risk right now, and I was surprised to see so many older people out there," he said.

Charlene Richardson of Pasadena, California, played the nine-hole Eaton Canyon course in nearby Altadena last week. Ball washers were covered in plastic to prevent use and she didn't pull the flagstick on any hole.

"When I had to reach in the hole to get my ball, I was like, 'Hmm,'" she said.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti later announced the closure of public golf courses. This week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a statewide stay-at-home order, with exemptions for outdoor exercise.

"Whatever the orders are, we'll certainly abide by them and try and help," Mr. Kendall said. "Maybe if it's helpful to not have this tease people into going out when they would have stayed home otherwise, then maybe we need to do that."

It was not clear if Ms. Whitmer's order applies to golf courses.

"We recognize the difficult task governors have in keeping the economy going and keeping citizens safe," Greg McLaughlin, head of the World Golf Foundation, said recently. "The distinction we're trying to make is the unique nature of the golf course. The clubhouse, restaurant, that's one operation. The fields of play, which typically represent outdoor, open space, should be treated differently."

Bruce Mohler, the course manager at Jacksonville Beach Golf Club in Florida, was in his office last week composing an email to city parks officials on why the course should remain open. The course was sanitizing carts, and cups were inserted upside-down.

"We had 273 rounds on Wednesday. For 18 holes, that's 4,914 potential touches we're eliminating by not having to get your ball out of the cup," he said.

Mr. Mohler had about 10 decorative square cement pieces to build a walkway to a window next to the cashier, so players could pay without having to enter the clubhouse. The public course, recently renovated, was booked all week.

Sean Poggi, who works in commercial real estate, was in a cart with Dino Delkic, waiting to tee off.

"What brings us out?" he said. "Just trying to do something."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP Golf Writer Doug Ferguson and AP Sports Writers Steve Reed, Tim Booth, Stephen Whyno, and Beth Harris contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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