When the golf world looks back at the year 2020, people will nudge each other and tell their story of Golf in the turbulent times of “The Pandemic.”
COVID-19. The treacherous strain of influenza which effectively shut down most of the country and most of the world. Words like quarantine, sequester, PPE, face masks and the popular social distancing became regular inserts into one’s vocabulary. Golf was not immune to the disease, as the sport was effectively shut down in about one-half of the country’s states with fears of spreading the disease.
Annual golf safaris from the Northeast United States to the south were cancelled; jaunts to play that special set of Irish or Scottish courses were postponed as states spoke of quarantines and were color coded, as in red, yellow and green and everywhere in between.
The PGA Tour halted its schedule before reopening without spectators. The LPGA, more of a world tour, was on the shelf even longer. The long-running ShopRite LPGA Classic, a true opening of summer tradition, was moved to fall dates on the LPGA schedule.
Abnormal became the new normal as state governors each dealt with the pandemic in a way which suited their respective state. Heck, some golfers were issued summonses for crossing state lines to play the game outside of their home state confines.
At one point each of the states surrounding Pennsylvania saw its golf courses shuttered for play. Nearby Delaware did remain open for play – for a bit. In Virginia, most courses never closed their doors and operated business as usual, installing governmental recommendations.
At Frog Hollow Golf Club in Middletown, Delaware, a land office business greeted General Manager Patrick Keefe, PGA, upon reopening its operation to the public while nearby states were closed.
“The weather was good and people had a pent-up desire to play,” explained Keefe, a Neshaminy High School graduate in Bucks County, Pa. “We installed numerous procedures to ensure social distancing, like extending tee times, having touch free flagsticks and plastic inserts in the cups, having a single player in each motorized cart, going cashless and do forth. As you might guess, we had many ‘dos and don’ts’ questions, had some trial and error, but we were with the program so to speak.”
Then in early April came a fax from the Governor’s office. Play would be restricted to Delaware residents only. “Our parking lot had cars from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland,” said Keefe. “That stopped immediately. We (Delaware) were no longer a respite for area players looking for a drive friendly place to play, only Delaware residents.
It seemed forever, but courses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Maryland did receive approval to reopen their fairways, greens and, well rough and hazards, to golfers. While tournament golf was stifled, actual play was open within states and across state lines.
“Since reopening our phones have been ringing off the hook,” commented Jim Bogan, General Manager of Bensalem Township (Pa.) Country Club. “Of course, we committed to doing our best at installing procedures to mirror the Governor’s requests, from social distancing, to wearing masks in common areas and inside, extending time between tee times and constant cleaning of our carts. When the bans were lifted our tee sheet was full.”
Bogan smiled when asked about the COVID crisis. “It’s amazing, our business had never had such a situation,” and Bogan has a wealth of experience to draw on, having assumed the head golf professional position at Bensalem in 1971. “We’ve had to deal with economic issues over the years, with growing the game and so forth. But the pandemic was a different animal. There was concern and confusion as we dealt with the issues of safety.
If there was a silver lining to the shutdown, the Dean of area golf pros found it. “On the plus side,” said Bogan, “our course exited winter in good condition. The winter was kind to us, relatively mild, and (superintendent) Jim Stauring did an outstanding job of keeping the course in shape and when we reopened players seemed pleased about the conditions.”
The jury is out on how and how long and to what extent the pandemic will affect the region in the future, at this point in time golf courses are open and golfers are playing the game they love. Conditions are good – oh, a little rain is always good for golf courses in the summer and play is brisk. While things are not back to the way things used to be considered normal the new normal is working.
“That’s a great point,” stated Tom Sullivan of McCullough’s Emerald Links in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. “Players understand the need for safety, and readily comply with the wearing of masks inside and social distancing and all the other precautions we’ve made. They are with the program. Our course is in fine shape, we’re truly open for business, and we welcome all to play.”
A recent visit confirmed Sullivan’s point, as the Stephen Kay designed layout – crafted in the Irish-Scottish tradition – was in superb condition. Challenges awaited, as did the early afternoon winds that generally pick up and befuddle club selection.
Hopes are the worst of the Coronavirus has occurred, but there is always concern about a new virus which can evolve down the road. This adds a little to the confusion or uncertainty surrounding best practices, as course management does not want to loosen restrictions only to put them back in a few weeks later.
All courses contacted supported a walking game, but understand carts are an integral part of the public game. Thus, the care and cleansing of the motorized cart is imperative, which may put pressure on getting a cart needed on the first tee cleaned in a timely manner. All said, safety would not be reduced in an effort to push players on to the course.
Voluntary player compliance, as well as common sense, is imperative as well. For instance, changing into golf shoes is easy at one’s automobile. Prohibiting non-family guests to ride along for the heck of it. And so forth. No fuss. No muss. No hassle. And it’s just safer.
“We can’t be everywhere at all times,” added Bogan. “Players still need to know and understand not to cluster together, wear a mask when need be, pick up only their own tees and clubs and not others. That’s just common sense.”
Sullivan agrees with the assessments of his peers. “Common sense is just so important. In the ‘New Normal’ one has to be aware not only of their tee time but also who is around them and why. Be aware of their own situation, their temperature, their body. Coming to the course less than healthy is not an option. So while we are happy to be open for play, we remind ourselves daily of the care required to ensure we comply with state oversight.”
It’s a long road back, but the road is open for business.
“The good news is we have been open for a while and the course is in its usual great shape,” explained Shore Gate professional Chris Smith. “We are doing everything we can to be a safe respite for the public, and believe we can do that while providing a wonderful experience. Obviously, we are a “shore” course, and we get a lot of out of town visitors on vacation, so we are doing our best to make this all work.”
At Maryland’s P.B. Dye Golf Club safety continues to rule, but head professional Jack Kelley says everything is under constant review and analysis. “We truly are staying in an up to the moment, day-by-day operational standard,” said the pro, who like his peers says business since reopening is booming.
“We recognize the uncertainty of everything, the science has to rule. We have done our best, but we are not over the hump. We are pleased to be open and to offer a golf experience, but we must be diligent in all our efforts to combat the virus.”
These days golf course operators are not only worried about promoting the game, filling tee sheets, providing food and beverage and so forth, but of most importance is acknowledging that the ability to remain open depends on some things out of their control. As for the procedures under their control, they understand and are doing their best to find the happy medium of playing golf in a safe ‘green’ environment.
Of immediate concern is that while keeping water coolers shuttered on the golf course safely keeps players from touching implements, heat and humidity necessitates the intake of water being of utmost importance. Thus many are offering bottled water at check it, or ensuring a beverage cart is consistently making its rounds.
As mentioned by several of the course representatives, the challenges of dealing with the pandemic means safety is job one. Each could respond with vigor on how the new normal is not merely taking a green’s fee and pointing to the first tee. Patrons are reminded on social distancing and measures in place to promote safety in a green period of time, and are constantly reminded of such. But they also want golfers to have fun!
Clearly, it’s now the New Normal -- as what has been known as normal operations are old news. It’s a time to ensure safety, being nimble and aware. Clearly, it’s a time to play golf…. safely.