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.
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.
To ensure social distancing and limit foot traffic in our clubhouse, please note all online tee times are available to be 100% prepaid online via our website here: https://t.co/E7CHf1JdKq until further notice. Thank you! pic.twitter.com/M9bZHZOZ0e— Wildcat Golf Club (@wildcatgolfclub) April 30, 2020
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.
Do I need to wear a face covering?
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.
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.
What is the golf cart policy?
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.
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.
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.
Updates (May 18 - May 31):— Erin Hills Golf (@ErinHillsGolf) April 28, 2020
* Golf only (course is in splendid spring condition)
* Forecaddies will act as essential guides for each tee time
* CDC-recommended cleaning procedures — on course and off
* Extended green fee of $210
Speak with our reservations team: 866-772-4769 pic.twitter.com/Kg0B70TVNz
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.
We are reopening! 🎉⛳️ Tomorrow, we are reopening our golf course for pre-booked, online tee times only while our practice facilities and clubhouse will remain closed. For more information and to view our current policies, please visit our website at https://t.co/0aKk7QVipz. pic.twitter.com/EkjXDaBkbe— Charlie Yates GC (@Yates_Course) May 4, 2020
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.
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.