News & Opinion

From the U.K. and Ireland, to Asia, the Pacific and all 50 U.S. states, golf slowly emerges from coronavirus. Now comes the hard part

After the Virus Part 4
Hayling Golf Club, off the coast of southern England, joins the rest of the country in reopening on Wednesday, signaling another milestone for golf during the coronavirus pandemic.

How clubhouses and pro shops will need to get creative, and why sustainable maintenance is no longer the future, but the here and now

Editor’s note: Morning Read is exploring the present and future of golf as the U.S. continues to navigate the coronavirus pandemic. This is the fourth report in our multipart series. Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here, plus related essays from contributors Dan O’Neill, Tom Coyne and Annika Sorenstam.

When golf reopened in England on Wednesday, Hayling Golf Club was booked solid. The course, 75 miles southwest of downtown London, occupies a windswept stretch of Hayling Island, just northeast of the Isle of Wight. Normally, members just walk up for a tee time, but now they had to book in advance. So intense was the pent-up demand after two months of government-mandated closure because of the coronavirus pandemic that all available tee times for three days were snagged within an hour of the online booking sheet opening. Too bad that after members complete their rounds they won’t be able to relax in the club’s distinctive art deco-style clubhouse, with its view of the English Channel.

Play at Hayling now proceeds under strict caution, as it does across all of England. Members only, with no visitors. Extended tee-time separations of at least 10 minutes, to encourage social distancing. Two-ball games only, under terms that best can be described as “touchless golf,” with flagsticks left in the hole, rakes removed from bunkers and no benches or water coolers.

At least they are playing golf. England’s 1,888 courses (all figures as per 2019 KPMG report) were allowed to reopen May 13. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, golfers in Scotland (560 courses) and Wales (144) will have to wait at least a week, probably two. Caddies there must wait even longer before they can get back to work. The 394 courses in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are not unified in their approach to reopening. Irish golf will reopen May 18; Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., awaits plans from its government.

Ireland is imposing a temporary ban on travel by members who live more than five kilometers (about three miles) from the clubhouse. Members of Irish clubs living outside of that range but within 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) will have to wait until June 8 for permission to play. The only caddies allowed will be those from the same household as the golfer.

According to guidelines developed by the Golfing Union of Ireland and the R&A’s Ladies’ Golf Union in conjunction with government health officials, the reopening of golf across the Republic of Ireland is subject to a rigorous five-phase plan that carries into mid-August. Conditions would be loosened gradually. Provisions limit play to members only for now, with onesomes allowed at 10-minute intervals, twosomes at 12 minutes and threesomes at 14 minutes. The idea is to restrict play to members only and limit play to less than 60 percent of total course capacity so that if health officials need to initiate contact tracing of infections, it can be undertaken with relative ease. Visitor play – including resident Irish non-members as well as any play from the lucrative overseas tourist market – is not foreseen until the end of June, at the earliest. And that will be subject to further restrictions of travel, the scope of which remain uncertain.

The phased-in return of golf across the British Isles remains subject to one overriding concern. If there’s a return wave of the coronavirus pandemic, then all bets are off as to the ability of golf to proceed; the same could be said of all other outdoor recreation as well as basic forms of commerce. The return to normal is anything but. It also could not come at a more urgent time, with many clubs strapped for cash.

Brora Golf Club in the Scottish Highlands and Durness Golf Club, the most northerly on the Scottish mainland, have campaigned openly through social media for support in the form of out-of-town membership drives and increased merchandise sales as a means of bolstering club budgets. According to the British trade publication The Golf Business, 8 percent of clubs in Great Britain and Ireland are classified in a “financially critical situation,” and a further 29 percent are indicated as “concerned” about their finances.

A global game all but shut down by a global pandemic is gradually making its way back. Golf in some limited form is now allowed in all 50 U.S. states, though restrictions vary, and some regions remain under local bans. Canada reopened golf on May 4 except for Ontario, its most populous province, where golf must wait until May 18. Overseas, the patchwork is even more complex.

A traditionally strong, democratic-socialist state such as Sweden remained open to golf and just about every other aspect of its economy and everyday life. That was not the case in other Scandinavian countries, nor across Europe.

Falsterbo Golf Club, founded in 1909, is the southernmost of Sweden’s 440 courses. Its links conditions allow golf to be played year-round. This spring, the club made adjustments for stationary flagsticks and removed rakes but play otherwise proceeded, as did activities in the clubhouse, including food service. That was the case throughout Sweden, where golf is almost entirely a walking game and therefore touted for its health benefits and ability to conform to social-distancing conditions while proceeding virtually unimpeded. With no strictly private clubs in the country, Sweden features courses that are open for public play, and they remained so during the past few months. In fact, golf seems to have flourished. Bookings across the country were up 220 percent in April compared with the same month last year, said Falsterbo club manager Jan Ekblom, citing Swedish Golf Federation data.

Swedish golfers were expected to comply voluntarily with basic social-distancing measures and, if sick, to avoid playing golf. They didn’t even need a tee time; walk-up play was allowed, with cart use (“buggies” in Europe) restricted to those holding medical certificates for use. Because of high labor costs in the region, Scandinavia does not have caddies, so that was not a problem, either.

It might not be a practice that works in every country, but it seems to have worked in Sweden – so far.

France, with 607 courses, reopened May 11 after a 55-day shutdown. Curiously, city parks remain closed – presumably because it is harder to uphold social-distancing measures there. In a country that is one of the busiest tourist destinations in the world, and with 8 percent of gross domestic product tied to such travel, pressure from the business community to reopen the economy has been particularly strong.

When French golf did reopen, clubhouse operations and food-and-beverage service were curtailed, but practice ranges were OK’d, as were groups of up to four players. Early plans by health-care officials had called for golfers 65 or older to be banned until development of an effective vaccine, but those restrictions ultimately were dropped because of the likely potential of legal action involving claims of age discrimination.

The case for golf was made easier, says Paris-based course architect Mark Adam, because of “the mental and physical benefits of playing.” He estimates 90 percent of French golfers walk, most of them with pull or electric trolleys. Caddies are virtually non-existent because of the high labor costs in France, and motorized buggies figure in “less than 10 percent of all play.”

Adam, whose firm also owns and operates golf properties in Europe and South America, is hopeful that golf in a post-pandemic France can learn some of the lessons of social distancing and healthier living and use that knowledge to build a more sustainable future for the industry. For one thing, with foreign travel likely to remain unfavorable for the next few months, he hopes that more French residents will take to the outdoors inside their own country and play golf rather than travel abroad.

He also points to the need for more creative use of clubhouse space: everything from more take-out food options and improved clubhouse menus to greater utilization of clubhouse space – for example, converting parts of large (unused) locker rooms to out-of-office work space, along the model of WeWork. He also anticipates pro shops moving more to a model of online merchandising, with less emphasis upon the traditional sociability of the shop.

“We need to analyze every single square meter of clubhouse operations,” he said. “We’ll have to get more imaginative about using clubhouses, since we’re likely to see golfers spending less time socializing as we move forward.”

Much the same holds true for sustainable course maintenance. The regulatory climate across Europe is likely to grow more stringent, not less. The model for golf, it seems, will have to make room for more diverse course setups, with less reliance upon chemical maintenance and more naturalistic approaches. That model likely will include less time spent on roughs and more efficient approaches to getting the course into workable shape rather than to a TV-pure version of lush, tournament-ready.

Across Asia and the Pacific, considerable variance exists in national policies toward golf, just as there remain a wider range of golf facilities: from the British-inspired versions of a simple golf club to the more elaborate full-service resorts dependent upon global tourism. No one has been immune to the effects of the pandemic and the consequent shutdowns, however.

Among the golf inventory that was shut down early as part of national policy and remaining so have been New Zealand’s 418 courses (all Asia-Pacific numbers per the U.S.-based National Golf Foundation) plus those in India (294), Pakistan (52), Bangladesh (19) and Laos (14). Other countries kept their courses open, subject to standard restrictions: Australia (1,616), China (599), South Korea (798) and Taiwan (95). Two emerging golf powerhouses, Thailand (315) and Vietnam (78), have reopened. Golf in Indonesia (177), Malaysia (248) and the Philippines (125) remains partially open, subject to different regional variances in control measures.

Perhaps the bleakest continental profile can be found in South America, where the pandemic has taken hold with a vengeance that has led to widespread economic shutdowns, including its 708 golf courses. Here and elsewhere, the ability of the game to return will depend more on public-health management than anything done by the courses.

For now, golfers can count themselves lucky that there are a growing number of places where they can find safe, healthy exercise through the game. This might well be the game’s greatest legacy in the pandemic era. For all its reputation as a competitive sport, the game’s strength globally resides in its underlying character as a playful engagement with nature. Now, more than ever, we need that.

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