Hey golfers, let’s not screw this up
My putting was dreadful the other day—not an uncommon occurrence. Nor was it unusual for me to shift blame to extenuating circumstances, in this case new restrictions in place at my course.
“I really wish they’d open the practice green,” I complained to a playing partner.
It was Saturday in suburban New York, the epicenter of a pandemic that has infected millions, killed hundreds of thousands and sent the global economy into a tailspin. But really, let’s talk about my crappy putting stroke.
However unintentional, the remark was a fleeting return to normalcy, a typical golf moment getting worked up over something that couldn’t matter less. But also it was a reminder of how carefully golfers must tread at a time when our game, while believed to be relatively safe, might signal irresponsibility or even indifference to the crisis enveloping our communities.
After about a month of confining myself to chipping in the yard, I have recently returned to the golf course, for a host of reasons: because I believe the experts who say golf poses a low transmission risk; because it gets my golf-obsessed 14-year-old son out of the house and away from his little brother; and because, let’s be honest, I love golf. The nine-hole windows are everything I’ve craved during this surreal period—fresh air, distraction, a sense that by playing, my son and I are both progressing toward something as opposed to simply waiting for life to resume.
Still, when Charlie and I load our clubs into the car late in the day, guilt persists. Friends and family who don’t play golf don’t have the same reprieve from lockdown. And this is to say nothing of the scores of people who are showing up to work at hospitals, trapped in apartments, or worse—in the throes of illness themselves. Plus, there is the specter that going to play golf is a type of reckless behavior, comical as that would sound in any other context.
Most of us who play these days are conscious of not taking any chances. We walk. We don’t shake hands. On tee boxes and greens, we jockey awkwardly to give one another sufficient space. In consulting a series of infectious-disease specialists last week, they gave the sense that golf was as innocuous as walking the dog.
But remember, those experts were assessing golf in its simplest, rawest form. It’s when we stretch the definition of the game that we begin to push our luck.
“We want to encourage people to do things in a manner that teaches them to be safe,” said Dr. J. Trees Ritter, DO Fellow of the Infectious Disease Society of America. “The more things you encourage people to do, then the next thing they do is maybe a little riskier. Behavior plays a big role in this. You’re re-training people and the more you get them in that mindset the better.”
Much as I love all the ancillary elements that accompany the game—post-round beers, waggling different clubs in the pro shop, carving out a sliver of grass on a crowded practice green—most golf facilities are putting those on hold for now for a reason, however costly it might be to their bottom line. It didn’t take long after my small outburst the other day to recognize playing at all still beat chipping in the yard. Some states are not there yet.
A growing debate in this country revolves around the question of when life can return to normal, as if some invisible gates will fly open and we can all flood back into subways and grill rooms. Sadly, the more one follows the trajectory of this virus, the more misguided that question seems. Instead we should be asking how we function during a period when life surely will need to be different, even after the strictest of lockdowns have lifted. If safety is paramount, our livelihoods and our sanity are not far behind.
Which is why as one of the few widespread permitted activities, golf represents a kind of litmus test. We all want to play, and a cursory glance at courses in my area suggests most are trying to make it work—tee times spaced out, practice facilities and clubhouses closed, carts banned or limited to those who really need them. When my course sends out weekly emails outlining or emphasizing these restrictions, the subtext is always, “We’ve got a decent thing going here. Don’t screw this up.”
Yet there are reports out of different parts of the country and abroad where golfers are holding firm to the game they’ve always played. Big groups, two players to a cart. Beers flowing post-round. At a time when deep sacrifices are being made all around, there is great danger, both symbolic and otherwise, in assuming the asks being made of society don’t apply to golf. The game fights a bad rap as it is.
“Golf now has an incredible opportunity to lead, not to mention an obligation to set a safe, responsible example for other sports and activities,” Joe Beditz, CEO of the National Golf Foundation, said recently. “Done right, this is a chance to show how golf as an industry, and community, can not only weather this crisis but come out of it in a positive light.”
Which is to say if your course is open, or will hopefully open shortly, be happy for that. We all want everything back soon—packed grill rooms, a handshake and maybe even a hug when the round is over, a practice green where I can obsess over my inconsistent stroke. But until then, keep it simple. There have been times when we’ve all had to tolerate playing partners who take liberties with the rules. Now shouldn't be one of them.