News & Opinion

At The Villages, music stops but not the golf

With just about all social and recreational activities at the sprawling senior community in Florida halted because of coronavirus fears, residents cling to the one pastime that binds them: golf

THE VILLAGES, Fla. – For years, golf has been the game of choice in The Villages, the massive senior-citizen community located an hour northwest of Orlando.

Lately, it’s gotten even bigger, because golf is the only game left in town.

Golf defines the sprawling development at The Villages, Fla., where 12 championship courses, 41 executive courses and 2 other short courses enhance a lifestyle literally built around the game.

The Villages, with some 130,000 year-round residents, is renowned as an active-lifestyle community. It features 93 recreation centers plus dozens of swimming pools, softball diamonds, bowling centers, pickleball courts, tennis courts and other sites for ageless athletes. Three town squares in the development, which sprawls across more than 32 square miles in parts of three central Florida counties, offer nightly entertainment. Residents gather and literally dance in the streets.

But all of those recreational facilities are now closed. Because of the widening coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a “stay at home” order effective April 3. After the North Florida Section of the PGA of America sought a clarification of the order, golf was considered to be an “essential activity,” and courses were allowed to remain open, provided that federal social-distancing guidelines are followed.

Thus, this golf-obsessed community remains open for play, and that seems to be fine with just about everybody. The Villages features 12 championship courses, 41 nine-hole executive courses, an 18-hole walking-only pitch-and-putt course and an 18-hole walking-only grass putting course. All remain open for Villages residents, an estimated one-third of whom are regular golfers, even though many golf courses elsewhere in Florida and nationwide have closed because of local or state edicts or by self-regulation.

“We are still operating,” said Gordy Carlson, the head professional at Orange Blossom Hills Country Club, the oldest championship course in The Villages. “We have found things we needed to change to make playing golf safe for our residents, and right now we are doing what we can to allow people to play the game they love to play.”

Across the U.S., 41 percent of the 5,350 courses that have a business relationship with GolfNow have closed because of coronavirus concerns, the online tee-time reservation operator reported Tuesday.

Golfers at The Villages, Fla., spread out during a recent round, with 1 to a cart and plenty of space among them.

Clearly, that trend hasn’t made it to The Villages. Under new regulations, tee times have been assigned farther apart, each player is allowed to take his or her own golf cart (not a problem in The Villages, where nearly every household owns at least one cart), ball washers have been closed, flagsticks remain in the holes and all restaurants and bars at the courses have been closed.

In addition, all tournaments – including weekly men’s and women’s days and The Villages Golf Championship, an annual event that normally draws more than 500 participants – where competitors and others tend to gather around scoreboards after play, have been postponed.

Even with those restrictions, Villagers continue to flock to their favorite golf courses.

“My girlfriend and I played 18 holes at 4 o’clock,” Dan Hinkel, a three-time club champion at Orange Blossom Hills, said recently. “The weather was perfect, and it was good to get outside of the house for a while.

“We never got closer than a hole away from anyone else on the course, followed all the rules about the flagstick and bunker rakes (smooth bunkers by foot), and when we finished, we went straight home.

“It was a great afternoon.”

Villagers Peggy Thompson, Pete Casey, Dan Scacco and Jan Schroeder played the Silver Lake executive course under the new guidelines recently and were enjoying themselves.

“Maybe if I hit a flagstick with one of my tee shots on a par 3, I can finally get my first hole-in-one,” Thompson said with a laugh.
Scacco had no worries about social distancing between himself and the other members of his foursome.

“They are always in the fairway, and I’m always in the rough,” he said.

“This is probably going to spoil us,” Casey said. “A lot of putts are gimmies now that wouldn’t be good normally.”

But seriously, folks.

“What’s happening now both worldwide and here at home is unprecedented,” Casey said. “I’m not sure anyone – even the experts – knows what’s going to happen next. Some of the precautions are probably a little overblown, but no one wants to make a mistake or decision in the wrong direction, so it is better to be safe than sorry.”

Charlie Brewer, who has been a starter at Silver Lake for more than five years, made sure that no one teed off on the first hole of the executive course until the group ahead had hit their tee shots on the second tee, to maintain a safe distance between groups.

“It’s hard, because we by nature are social animals, especially here in The Villages,” he said from behind a mask that he said his wife made him wear to work. “But we are doing the best we can under the circumstances that still allow us to keep playing golf.”

In other changes to normal golf operations in The Villages, the practice ranges remain open, but spacing is greater than normal between the hitting mats and practice balls that are dispensed only from machines.

The Villages Golf Academy is conducting lessons by streamed video, but both of The Villages Custom Club retail shops closed for sales and club fittings.

“Everything is very fluid and can change day-to-day,” Carlson said. “But we are doing everything in our power to keep playing golf and still keep our friends and neighbors safe during this trying time.”

And the Villagers, perhaps more than at any other place in the country, will do their part to keep the game going.

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