As Golf Courses Reopen, New Players Take Up the Long Walk

Around noon on April 17, Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota announced that the state’s 450 golf courses, shuttered because of the coronavirus pandemic, could open the next day. At 3 p.m., the Hazeltine National Golf Club, about 25 miles southwest of Minneapolis, activated its automated online tee time booking system.

It took two seconds for 172 golfers to fill the entire tee sheet for the following day.

“We went into the system at two seconds after 3 o’clock and saw that every tee time until 6:30 p.m. was accessed by somebody,” said Chandler Withington, Hazeltine’s head golf professional. “Throughout the state, every course was packed.”

Minnesota is a microcosm of the golf boom enveloping the United States as courses have reopened in the past month, a time when the percentage of golf courses open nationwide has surged from 44 percent to about 88 percent, according to the National Golf Foundation. There are more than 16,000 golf courses in America and only a quarter are private clubs. With schools padlocked, fitness centers closed and many parks and playgrounds off limits, golf — with social distancing restrictions — has become a rare outdoor respite that combines exercise, companionship, competition and space.

“With so many things you can’t do right now and so few things you can do,” Withington said, “golf has never felt so much like a freedom.”

Moreover, golf course operators nationwide said they are seeing something new in their client behaviors and demographics: entire families, cooped up at home, are arriving at the first tee to play together; sales of discounted youth golf passes are exploding; and more golfers are walking the course because usually only family members can share a cart.

“I’m also seeing a lot of people who haven’t played golf in a while,” said Scott Krieger, the head pro and general manager at Broadmoor Golf Course in Portland, Ore. “And more fathers and sons, fathers and daughters and husbands and wives, too.”

Krieger said his course is in such high demand that he could host 300 golfers per day, but he has been limiting the total to 150 to prevent overcrowding.

“People get it,” he said. “Everybody keeps saying, ‘Man, it just feels good to get out.’”

It is not customary for recreational golfers to be universally content, especially after a challenging round replete with bad bounces and bogeys. The coronavirus pandemic, however, has apparently blunted the grumpiness.

“People have bigger things to worry about than a three-putt on the final green,” said Mike David, the executive director of the Indiana Golf Office, which oversees five golf entities in the state. “Golf is a relief.”

Or, as Tim Christ, the director of golf operations for the Essex County parks department in New Jersey, said: “People coming to the course are wearing face masks but I could tell they were smiling.”

The golf-related joy has been pronounced lately in New Jersey, where until last weekend golf courses had been closed for six weeks, even as nearby states like New York and Connecticut were welcoming golfers.

“It was frustrating,” Kory Rosenberg, who regularly drove 75 minutes from his home in Roseland, N.J., to New York State to play golf, said on Tuesday after he finished a round at the Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg, N.J. “First of all, I had to drive past all these closed courses near home and then getting a tee time in New York was really hard because they’re so busy.”

Rosenberg insisted that practicing the recommended social distancing guidelines was easy.

“There’s never a reason to get within six feet of another player,” he said. New Jersey has also been more strict than most other states, permitting only two golfers to tee off at a time instead of the typical groupings of four golfers, excluding immediate family.

Other safeguards have become routine, as every state has opened their golf courses, with Massachusetts, Maryland and Vermont becoming the final three to do so on Thursday. Generally, tee times are now being made and paid for digitally or over the telephone. The interval between groups of players leaving the first tee has been increased, sometimes to as many as 16 minutes, to keep generous spacing between golfing groups.

At some courses, the temperature of every player is checked upon arrival and those with a fever are turned away. Most clubhouses are closed and food and beverage services are exclusively takeout. Benches, ball washers and bunker rakes have been removed. Flagsticks are not removed, with various devices employed to keep balls from dropping into the hole so that golfers can avoid the unsanitary practice of reaching into a hole to retrieve a ball.

In states where golf carts are permitted — many require players to walk the course — sharing is allowed only when both riders are from the same household. The post-round cleansing of carts has become so rigorous that Art Walton, a vice president at Crystal Springs, has begun calling some employees “golf cart hygienists” instead of attendants.

There has been pushback in some states about whether golfers are appropriately practicing social distancing. David, the Indiana golf official, said people have taken photos of groups of golfers and sent them to government agencies as evidence to support allegations that established golf course safeguards are being violated.

“Someone sees four golf carts together and thinks that’s a lot of people when it’s actually four people in four carts,” David said. “A lot of it is a wrong perception.”

Among golf’s stakeholders, the game’s place as one of a limited number of outdoor activities sanctioned by health and governmental officials, albeit with restrictions, has given golf a chance to expand its reach.

Seth Waugh, the chief executive of the P.G.A. of America, is, for example, encouraged that golf is being viewed as, “really just a walk in the park, right?”

Tuesday, Waugh was speaking to reporters on a conference call along with a consortium of American golf leaders to announce a three-stage plan of best practices and uniform safety protocols for golf’s return nationally dubbed “Back2Golf.”

“You’re seeing a playing in the park kind of atmosphere that’s going on in lots of places in the country that we touch,” Waugh said.

He added: “We’re hoping that this ironically could end up being a growth opportunity.”

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