Golf during coronavirus: 10 questions to ask the next course you play

Golf courses are reopening across the United States, but chances are, the course's operations are significantly different. Here's how to prepare.
A golfer walks the course at the reopened Cantigny Golf Club on May 01, 2020 in Wheaton, Illinois. Golf courses in Illinois were allowed to re-open under strict guidelines after being closed for several weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We're into early May and businesses are reopening across the United States as state and local governments relax COVID-19 restrictions. At one point, 15 states had outright banned the playing of golf, while other cities and counties instituted their own local restrictions and bans.

It's taken some time for golf course operators to figure out how to operate in this new normal. But they are responding and reopening with modified operations and often pared-down staff. Governing bodies in the game just jointly announced a "Back2Golf" campaign that promotes safety protocols at facilities and responsible behavior by golfers. As of May 4th, just 32 percent of US courses were closed according to GolfNow, down from a peak in mid-April of over 50%. Only three states - Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont - have not issued guidance on when golf courses can reopen. Canadian provinces are beginning to open and overseas, the Republic of Ireland announced May 18th that members could return to their clubs. (Get the latest COVID-19 news and stats here).

We live in a new world in 2020. Your first trip back to the course may be a little startling, but at it's core, we're still playing the same great game. By now, you should be pretty knowledgeable about CDC social distancing guidelines and how they apply to golf. But here is a checklist of questions to ask as you get back into golf in the COVID-19 era. We'd love to hear what your golf course is doing to accommodate safe play. Let us know in the comments below.

  1. How do I book and pay?

    Golf courses have revised procedures around booking tee times and accepting payment. In order to protect their employees, they want as little money exchanged in person as possible. This means many golf courses require advanced tee time reservations, and a growing number ask that you pay in advance as well.

    If you're used to paying for green fees in cash, there is a likelihood that it is not permitted at this time.

  2. What are the tee time intervals and pairing limits?

    It's been astonishing to see how spaced out golf courses are spacing out their tee times. The most extreme case I've heard is Indian Wells in California's Riverside County going to 20 minutes between tee times. Bethpage State Park spaced out 16 to 18 minutes. It is very common for munis that once spaced out 7 or 8 minutes to go to 10 to 12.

    Part of the order for golf courses to safely reopen in New Jersey was that tee times must be 16 minutes apart and only twosomes are permitted. (Read the full rules at the NJSGA). You can do the math: it's going to be difficult getting a tee time at already-busy public courses, and revenue for the operators stands to take a big hit. On the flip side for golfers, pace of play should be brisk.

    Some resorts are not opening their courses every day (such as South Carolina's Sea Pines Resort and Michigan's Forest Dunes). I also noticed at my home club an unwillingness for starters to pair small groups up. If you're a single, you may have a tougher time getting out, or if you do, be prepared to be stuck alone behind a big group.

  3. Do I need to wear a face covering?
    MIAMI, FLORIDA - APRIL 29: Matt Tattullo and Yvonne Rodriguez (L-R) enjoy a morning of golfing at the Crandon Golf at Key Biscayne course on April 29, 2020 in Miami, Florida. Miami-Dade county began to slowly reopen Wednesday as restrictions, with some caveats, were dropped for people to use marinas, parks, golf courses, tennis courts and other areas where social distancing remains relatively easy to continue to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

    Some areas like, Riverside (Calif.) County and Miami-Dade County are requiring that golfers play the entire round with a cloth face mask for the time being. Other states and cities are asking that you wear them in common areas and on practice greens.

    It is important to understand that businesses have the right to set rules they feel will keep their employees safe and it is a customer's obligation to comply to them. I've begun stuffing bandanas in various parts of my car and around the house to be safe.

  4. Are non-residents or non-members allowed?

    Some states and citiees are presently requiring in-state residents only to discourage unnecessary travel. Delaware wants those arriving to self-quarantine 14 days, and to respect the order, golf courses will not book non-residents. Hawaii still requires arrivals to quarantine for 14 days thru May 31. Other private clubs are restricting play to members only. Expect these restrictions to loosen as all states open up their golf courses. But if you plan on crossing state lines to play golf, you may want to confirm you are welcome.

  5. What is the golf cart policy?
    People ride golf carts at McCleery Golf Course on May 2nd. The course has eased restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic in Vancouver, Canada.

    Social distancing mandates in many states indicate that golfers cannot share a golf cart unless they live together. Many courses, especially in the north, are walking-only for the time being.

    One interesting policy example is Riverside Golf Club near Austin, Texas. They've required single-rider carts, and the first four tee times of each hour are reserved for riders, while the final two are reserved for walkers.

    We've seen some reviews come in from golfers who are upset that the golf course charged them an additional $15-25 on top of the green fee to take their own cart. Golfers should understand that these courses are dealing with not only depleted fleets but a sharp loss in revenue. Course operators should, however, be clear about this charge at the time of booking.

    It's also worth mentioning that some golf courses are not making pull carts available for hire at the moment, so you must bring your own (many golfers are reporting difficulty finding any to buy online). You may have to hoof it. Also, don't expect bag drop service, either. Now is a good time to lighten your golf bag of the all the worn-out accessories that have been in there for years.

  6. Is there on-course water available?

    It's starting to get hot in the south, but as a safety precaution, many golf courses have taken out their water stations on the course. Higher-end or private courses supply bottles of water, while munis may tell you that you're on your own. Be sure to confirm what the water availability is, and if you need to, pack a big jug of it.

    Speaking of what NOT to expect on the course, bunker rakes and ball washers are also common objects that are being kept off the course for the time being.

  7. What are the food & beverage options?

    A significant number of golf courses around the U.S. have closed their clubhouses and restaurants in order to comply with state social-distancing mandates. Mandates are being reduced in various states right now, but that doesn't mean your locl golf course has reopened its restaurant. If you're used to getting a hot dog at the turn, double-check and make sure that will be available, and if not, pack food in with you. The beverage cart may also not be out there right now. Check on the status when you arrive.

  8. Is the driving range open?

    Many golf courses have decided that driving ranges bring golfers too close together, so they have closed theirs for the time being. Others have blocked off every other stall to promote social distancing. You may also notice practice greens have taken out their cups or flagsticks.

  9. How are cups and flags being treated?

    Courses and states throughout the country have various policies on how they've decided to handle flags. In most places, courses are asking that you leave the flag in. You can expect one of three methods:

    - Cup is raised an inch out of the ground, and balls are "holed" when they hit it.
    - Pool noodles are inserted into the hole so the ball never goes fully in and it's easy to retrieve.
    - MacGyver-style contraptions have been created to allow you to retrieve your ball using your putter head.

  10. How can I help?

    Now probably isn't the time to nitpick or bicker with rangers or the pro shop staff. As you return to your home course or try somewhere new, keep in mind this has been a trying time for all businesses, and your patience and acceptance as we strive to settle in to a new groove will be greatly appreciated. It appears most golfers have a profound sense of gratitude; at Golf Advisor, we've noticed our average review's star rating is up by as much as half of a point since late-March compared to the same interval last year. Many of our reviewers are giving thanks and expressing profound happiness that they can escape the real world on some fairways for a little while.

    Keep an eye out for anything your golf course is doing to support furloughed staff or maintain operations. There is a lot of uncertainty of how unpaid bills will be dealt with later on in the year.

    But most importantly we can all be a cheerleader of the facility's rules when we're on the property. It may seem like a weird time to be on the golf course, but we can all embrace what is hopefully a short blip in our golf lifetimes.

Brandon Tucker is the Sr. Managing Editor for GolfPass and was the founding editor of Golf Advisor in 2014, he was the managing editor for Golf Channel Digital's Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and nearly 600 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at @btuck34.
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I have been using golf now hot deals in Nova Scotia, Canada for the last 3 years. One of the benefits of hot deals was it included carts. However, in 2020 carts are excluded. My question is why carts are no longer included and will they be in the near future?

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Good job

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Member at Seven Oaks in Hamilton NY. No club house, no ball washers, no restaurant, no water. Bunkers played as waste areas. Pool noodles in flag cups. Tee times 15 minutes apart. Foursomes allowed. Course in great shape. Most members walk this course therefore it's even more enjoyable without cart noise.

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No ball washers, cup up above the ground, social distancing, kind of take the fun out of the game. The one person per cart should have been done years ago to speed up play, there are plenty of vehicles that can be leased: scooters, 3 wheel mini bikes, Segway, etc. If the course if flat walking should be encouraged.
Until they decide to put the cup back in the ground, water available, there will be some who will not play. I play approx. 75 rounds a year and will not play 1/3 of that until things change.

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This stuck in the past attitude will be the death of golf in future generations. I’m a member of a course that has never had ball washers, igloos or “cart girls” and we do just fine. Bring your own supplies, water, etc. what’s the big deal. Like so many I’ve met in life who want to “ go back to the good ole days”, get over it. It’s never going back to the way it was. Some of us are happy about that.

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Good for you ! But you are wrong on things never going back ,they will. I would prefer they let the course go back to a more natural state but that will not happen either. Good luck with your game.

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Thank you for the comprehensive article Brandon. Hubby and I have played throughout the pandemic thanks to our local muni in Casselberry, FL. We can't say enough for the staff there - they have embraced all the protocols and kept us safe AND playing golf! Now I have to get used to riding in the same cart with "him" again - haha. Good luck and good golfing to everyone - there may be a little bit of inconvenience now, but think about it - you're OUT and you're PLAYING GOLF!

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What about washrooms on the course. High on the list for lady golfers.

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While NY state courses are opening local metropolitan municipal courses have not and in each case neither permit carts or have toilet facilities available. Somehow, not allowing people to use a toilet is going too far! None of the politicians, Cuomo, Diblasio, Murphy or Lamont are ever queried on this? Anyone have an answer?

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Happy for golfers and courses that play has started or will start soon. One issue I don't see addressed is the fact that many if not most golfers these days are old geezers. And old farts need to use the toilet. What are they, and women, to do?

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I live in an ‘Active Senior Living’ community of around 5000 homes. Our 2 18-hole courses are semi-private. While our HOA closed play to outside play back in March, residents (but no guests) have continued to be able to golf. T-times are spaced 7 minutes apart. Rakes were removed from bunkers and sand boxes had their covers opened. In course ball washers were covered and sealed. In course bathrooms and ice/water machines remain open and are cleaned frequently during the day. Most people have their own carts so few residents are actually utilizing the rental carts. Those carts and the balls/buckets on the driving range are sanitized daily and/between rentals/use. No cash is accepted in the pro shops - only customer house account charges or credit cards (which you swipe through the POS device yourself) - or else you must have an annual membership. Only people who live in the same home may ride in a cart together. The cups have been inverted in each hole, which raises it to almost to the height of the green itself so that you don’t have to touch the flag stick itself to retrieve your ball.

Most all of the golfers have been good about observing social distancing on the course and before and after the round has been finished.

What my regular group and ai have observed is that we get through the round much faster since we only have to drive to our own balls.Even though there are now more carts on the course, there IMO there is less ‘wear and tear’ on the course

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It is what it is out there for now. Be grateful you can golf. You may not like some things but suck it up butter cup everything is and never will be all about you. If you think you can do better make suggestions instead of complaining. A bad day on the course is still pretty darn good. Enjoy what you have.

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Golf during coronavirus: 10 questions to ask the next course you play