To Play or Not To Play – Should Golf Courses be Closed?

Like most aspects of our lives, golf and the golf course industry have been turned upside down by the Coronavirus pandemic.  Social distancing, at least for the foreseeable future is “the new normal” and (at least where we live) a routine trip to the grocery store exhibits all the elements of social distancing.  Fellow customers wearing masks, market staff stepping back from their tasks to give customers 6 (or more) feet, an attendant wiping down the cart and separation of customers at the checkout line are all apart of normal life now.

The golf community has identified a number of ways to reduce the risk of playing golf, including social distancing, leaving the flagstick in the hole, raising the cup and probably most significantly either walking the course or limiting carts to one person per cart, instead of the normal two.

The current debate in golf, with “stay in place at home” orders around the country is whether golf courses and clubs should be exempt from forced closure.  An article published in the past couple days listed state by state where golf courses can be open and where they can’t.  Currently, 33 states are allowing golf courses to operate and the list changes daily.  In some states, specific counties and cities have mandated closure.  Most of those open have closed their clubhouse facilities and any food and beverage service is limited to takeout  there are 7 states that have shuttered golf courses and 10 that are listed as “pending”.  From what I’ve heard, at many courses, walking is encouraged and cart usage is often one player per cart.  Just yesterday, my son and I visited a course that still required carts and decided to avoid the current risk golf carts pose and left.

The National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) has taken a leadership role among golf organizations in working with state and local governments and is working to establish best practices for those continuing to operate and planning for re-opening.  Current NGCOA President Steve Graybill, owner of Fox Chase GC (PA) shared some thoughts with me about playing golf in the age of Coronavirus.

Graybill, of course identified all the items mentioned above as practices to put in place and that the industry will recommend moving forward to make golf a safe activity during the pandemic.  So the question I asked was: So, how do you ensure that players actually comply?  Graybill anticipates using some of his staff to monitor play more closely to ensure that golfers are practicing appropriate social distancing around the course.  Not only does this seem to make sense to avoid legal exposure, but if golfers know that a course is maintaining a safe environment, it stands to reason that it would be good for business.

Many courses have “rangers” who patrol the course typically looking for congestion, compliance with course rules and cart guidance.  What we might see in the near future are “Social Distancing Police” whose job will be to ensure that the golf course environment is as safe as possible.  As state and local governments seek to limit the spread of COVID-19, NGCOA and other golf organizations are working to establish consistent policies to enable these governments to recognize golf as a COVID-safe activity, help people get outdoors and exercise and help golf facilities and clubs recover economically, including preserving as many jobs as possible.

Should golf courses be closed during the age of Coronavirus?  For sure, golf is NOT an “essential” business in the same way that grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations. However, fresh air and exercise are essential not only for our physical fitness, but in a time when we are restricted from normal social interaction, it can be a benefit to our mental and emotional health – if practiced intelligently.  All the practices mentioned above are essential to be followed and I concur with Steve Graybill that courses should monitor players to ensure a safe environment and that golf should develop and employ a consistent criteria of best practices to achieve this common goal.

In the United States, we’ve become used to and taken for granted the safety of our environment.  If we’ve learned nothing else from Coronavirus it’s that we can no longer take that for granted. There’s a new normal and golf has a unique chance to benefit with a few minor modifications to our grand old game.