News & Opinion

Holed up while awaiting golf’s ‘new normal’

As the coronavirus pandemic suspends our lives, golfers can be assured of one thing: big changes in the game are coming

WEXFORD, Pa. – Normal is a worthless word. It means nothing these days.

We’re hunkered down in our Bat Caves, social-distancing (not counting assorted drive-through windows ... I’m looking at you, Wendy!) and waiting for coronavirus to blow over. It might be a long wait; nobody knows.

Commercial Bank Qatar Masters 2020
When the golf season resumes again after the coronavirus pandemic, such seemingly routine sights as a post-round handshake and a golfer grabbing the flagstick might go the way of the featherie and the stymie.

We’re hoping for the world to return to normal, whatever that might be. I’m no psychic. Otherwise, I would’ve gotten out of stocks in February, before the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped its pants, but I know this much:

We’re going to have a new normal.

The same goes for golf, a game of no consequence compared to the Really Big Stuff, such as people living and dying. When the time is right, I will come back to golf. The question is, will golf come back for me? And will it be drastically different?

None of that matters until the government delivers the equivalent of that Southwest Airlines commercial catchphrase (after the bell dings), “You are now free to move about the country.”

That day can’t come soon enough, but it won’t come in April. President Donald Trump extended the stay-at-home edict through the end of the month.

Golf would seem to be a relatively safe activity during the coronavirus shutdown. You’re outdoors on a few hundred acres of parkland being used by only a handful of others on 18 holes that, by nature, are socially distant from one another. But there’s the whole check-in process in the clubhouse and the post-round eating and drinking and story-telling in close proximity.

As of this writing, golf is banned in 12 states. The golf addicts in Wisconsin and Minnesota are petitioning to get golf reinstated. Ohio reversed its position and will allow courses to open if they practice safe procedures, including widening tee times to 10-minute intervals to help keep golf groups spread out from one another.

Golf is being played in Arizona, where it was categorized as an essential service, along with gas stations and beauty salons, and it’s a significant part of the economy. You can play golf in California if you look hard enough. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of its courses are closed. Some that stayed open have added precautions such as no rental carts or clubs, no snack bar, no driving range, no rakes in the bunkers, and limiting customers to two in the clubhouse at a time to pay.

A Virginia resident told me that his local course remains open for play, with restricted conditions. Reservations are required, he said; no walk-ons. One player only in a riding cart. Pay with a credit card in advance, and upon arrival at the course, the golfer will be called to the tee by a starter when it is time to play.

It sounds like golf minus most of the fun. I’d settle for that, though. I live near Pittsburgh, and Pennsylvania is one of the states that shut down all golf courses. The closures came just as spring arrived early after an unusually mild winter, with unusually little snow. I played golf once or twice in January and February here, a personal record. I don’t mean trudging through melting snow and playing to temporary greens in 33 degrees. I’m talking 50 degrees, real grass, real greens (though mushy).

We had a late spring a year ago – no spring, really. This year, it’s breaking out already, and I had no golf options until Ohio changed its mind. It’s about 30 miles west to the Ohio border from Pittsburgh, so I might be able to find someplace to play that’s within an hour’s drive.

Some things are going to be permanently different at the course. That post-round handshake is done, possibly forever, as a social custom in all settings. I’m trying out the salute as a replacement, but it’s still awkward.

The USGA changed the rule about leaving the flagstick in, and that may be a new full-time custom. Nothing good can come from 100 sweaty hands daily grabbing a flagstick in the same place.

The beverage cart might be an endangered species. Courses often have attractive women driving the carts, because the male golfers like that look. Mingling in close proximity to a hundred or more golfers a day and handling cash and coins might not be an appealing idea for potential beverage-cart drivers. Even if beverage carts continue, there will have to be changes. Maybe the cart girl has to wear a mask. Gloves, for sure. Maybe customers have to remain 10 feet away while ordering drinks and snacks. Stuff like that. At best, it’ll be less fun. At worst, the beverage cart is dead. FedEx and Amazon and other key businesses still are operating and mingling with people safely by using precautions, so there’s no reason why golf can’t do likewise.

The biggest concern is how many courses still will be operating if and when the dust clears. Golf courses are businesses, too, and it wasn’t a great business in a lot of places even before the plague, I mean, pandemic. One or two courses within an hour’s drive of Pittsburgh quietly slip away each year. The National Golf Foundation reported that nearly 200 courses closed in America in 2018 – a little more than one every other day.

This pandemic, especially if the stay-home edict stays in place beyond April, could shutter a lot of struggling small businesses, including golf courses. Even during the shutdown, courses that intend to reopen have to keep up some kind of maintenance. Mowers use gas. Employees who cut grass need to get paid. The clubhouse has to pay utility bills. There are taxes and mortgages and, in Pennsylvania, no golf money coming in for at least another month.

Even when all restrictions are lifted, the fear of coronavirus still will be there. How long will it take customers to get over being afraid to be around other people, who now are seen as possible germ-carriers, and go out to restaurants, fly anywhere, work out at the health club or play golf?

All right, golfers are a different breed. I know some serious golf nuts who would rather die playing 18 holes than stay cooped up at home another day, with no golf and no live sports on TV. They’ll be back.

But the business of golf looks more challenging than ever. If one-rider-to-a-cart restrictions continue, that could spell the end of foursomes. I don’t know any courses that have enough golf carts for single riders, even if their tee sheet is half-full. Mandatory tee times and pay in advance? I can see that sticking.

The food-and-beverage side of golf is a significant part of the business. Many private clubs need big events such as banquets, weddings and charity tournaments to exist. How are those going to play out if social distancing continues? Without those big paydays, no club is too big not to fail. All golf courses are at risk, just like all golfers.

Will I ever walk into the golf shop, slap a few guys on the back, exchange friendly barbs and see whether there’s an open slot so I can go out and play again? Will my favorite public courses even be open for business?

I don’t know. I’m itching to play golf right now, but I’m not itching to get very sick and die. So, like you, I’ll wait until things get back to normal.

Whatever that means.

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