I know what it's like to be a golf-starved Midwesterner.
It's not fun feeling like a caged animal all winter. Watching pro golf visit Hawaii, California and Florida only fuels the jealousy.
The Masters is often a week of joy up north, where temperatures begin to warm and golf courses open. But in 2020, The COVID-19 outbreak has put a stop to those plans in many states where governor mandates have banned golf until the outbreak passes its peak.
When Minnesota Governor Tim Walz extended the state's mandate closing courses Wednesday through May 4, it felt like a gut punch to many, including Tim Matsche, the general manager at Loggers Trail in Stillwater, Minn.
"A lot of people in the golf industry really thought the governor would allow us to open," he said. "Most courses saw that as a loss. We sure did. We were all optimistic on the staff. (The only saving grace is) The weather looks poor next week. We are prepared today to do whatever we need to do.”
While most warm weather states are continuing to allow playing the game with safety restrictions in place, the governors of Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin have shut down golf completely. On the East Coast, the golf industry in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania and New Jersey is also feeling the strain from government-mandated course closures. Maine is currently under the longest East Coast ban with no golf allowed until May 1, according to this report. New York courses were open, but a recent executive order April 9 closed them through April 29, according to WGRZ.com.
The mandates are closing an already small window of 6-7 months for northern golfers who want to tee it up and owners/operators who hope to make money while the sun shines. Losing too many good golf days is a heavy burden to bear. Matsche estimates his course has lost at least 2,000 rounds already this spring. One league has already canceled its season and asked for a refund.
"Every week we get pushed back, it is harder and harder to convince league and regular members that it (buying a membership) is worth it," he said.
Michigan in a tough spot
In Michigan, the issue has become divisive.
Detroit is currently a hotspot for the virus spread, which probably explains why Michigan's golf industry hasn't fought too hard publicly against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's ban. The Michigan Golf Alliance, a group of influential golf associations and organizations, sent a letter (see below) to Lansing earlier this week that said it "supports" the "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order, which was scheduled to end April 7 but was extended through April 30.
Kevin Helm, the executive director of the Michigan section of the PGA, which is part of the alliance, admittedly knows golf industry people on both sides of the closure issue.
"As a golf alliance, it is a tough position," he said. "We know how important it is for courses to be open in spring, but health and safety and what the governor is trying to do is important. We want to be part of the solution. We want golf to be considered to be one of the first ones (businesses) to reopen when the time is right."
He said he's been told that open courses in the neighboring states of Ohio and Indiana have a "parking lot full of Michigan license plates." Golf rounds in Indiana are up 34 percent from last year, according to GolfNow data. Toledo has plans announced Thursday to ban Michigan golfers from playing its area courses going forward, according to WTOL.
Social media is a popular spot for golfers to protest, including Mike DeVries, a prominent Michigan-based architect.
Please, @GovWhitmer, open up golf to walking! It is social distancing in the purest sense. We can get some businesses (golf courses) to employ people with separation to mow grass and prep the courses without impacting others. This is good for all: business, golfers, & health. https://t.co/xby9nsQ0YI— DeVries Designs (@DeVriesDesigns) April 8, 2020
Two Michigan-based change.org petitions - here and here - have garnered fewer than 2,000 signatures. A group of West Michigan golfers called Good Friends Golf against Whitmer's actions - first reported by mlive.com - has taken the protest letter it sent to government officials off its website. At least two state representatives have appealed to the governor, according to the Detroit News.
These efforts are being heard but not garnering much sympathy from the state officials, at least according to this controversial tweet by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who stirred up racial undertones that have plagued metro Detroit since the 1960s riots.
Meanwhile, across Lake Michigan, Wisconsin course owners and operators feel like they're being singled out unfairly as well, considering walking, hiking and riding bikes outdoors, etc. is allowed during this time. Wisconsin's courses are closed through at least April 24.
"We're doing things that make us safer than other outdoor activities," Jeff Schwister, the executive director of the Golf Course Owners of Wisconsin told The Journal Times in Racine. "You go down to your local parks, state parks, things like that that are open, they can be quite crowded on the trails."
The Wisconsin State Golf Association has sent two letters to the governor asking to reverse the law, according to the newspaper. A change.org petition to open Wisconsin's golf courses has secured roughly 65,000 signatures. Creating some confusion is this story from the Wisconsin State Journal how one county sheriff is allowing golfers to play as long as they're dues paying members of the course.
"What our courses are doing is allowing their members to show up and walk and golf the course," Dunn County Sherrif Kevin Bygd told the newspaper April 2. "As far as I'm concerned, if they take online sales of yearly memberships, I don't see a violation."
A change.org petition to open Minnesota's courses has roughly 43,000 signatures. Originally, executive orders didn't allow staff to maintain the courses, which can devastate turf quality after just a few weeks, until that changed with the most recent update.
"Most courses were doing maintenance," admitted Matsche. "They felt like they had to."
In Illinois, courses are locked down until at least April 30, according to the Chicago Tribune, a ruling the four major local golf associations have supported, writing in a letter: "The leaders respect the decision of the Governor's Office and understand the gravity of the public health crisis we are facing. At this time, the allied associations will shift their efforts from advocating for golf courses to reopen to assisting our constituents in getting through these difficult times."