Fore! Golfers play on, for now, with precautions in place

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

YPSILANTI, Mich. (AP) — 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.”