In golf-crazed South Florida, the harsh reality of living without the game sets in
Nearly two decades ago, Tony Chateauvert had an 8:15 tee time off the 10th hole at Inwood Country Club on a glorious Tuesday morning on the west end of Long Island. As he walked down the 11th fairway, he looked toward Manhattan and saw a plume of smoke coming from the World Trade Center. “We played two more holes,” he said. “Then they came and got us off the golf course.”
Chateauvert, the head professional at Bedford Golf and Tennis Club at the time, ended up at a friend’s house, where they drank a lot of red wine, ate pasta into the night and tried to process what just happened.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed between the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the four planes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and while the COVID-19 pandemic is incomparable in many ways, the slow-moving toll it is taking on civilian lives is being felt across the country and the globe.
On Wednesday, the number of coronavirus cases in the United States climbed past 205,000, with more than 4,500 deaths so far. New York is at the epicenter, with nearly 2,000 and counting having died, and Florida isn’t far behind with more than 7,000 cases of infection, including more than 85 deaths.
“It reminds me of 9/11,” says Chateauvert, the head pro and manager the last 10 years at the Palm Beach (Fla.) Par-3 Golf Course, a wildly popular 18-hole muni on 39 prime acres nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. “I’m still sort of in shock. It’s surreal.”
Much like that terrible afternoon in New York and Washington D.C., many parts of South Florida are currently shut down, albeit for different reasons, of course. Local officials ordered Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties on lockdown more than a week ago that included golf courses. On Wednesday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, under mounting criticism and pressure, issued a statewide stay-at-home order, though it wasn’t clear if golf courses would be required to close.
Certainly, golf—be it professional tours halting their seasons or those of us not able to play at the local club or muni—is trivial when compared to what’s going on elsewhere. Still, it’s not without impact. Florida, after all, has more golf courses than any other state in the country with more than 1,200—about 250 of them between the three aforementioned counties.
That’s meant everything from layoffs to lost revenue.
“It’s had a big impact,” said Chateauvert, who is employed by the city of Palm Beach but had to let go the 11 part-time employees he used for various jobs around the property. “Ten years ago, we did about 26,000 rounds. Last year, we had around 40,000 and we were on track for even more this year.
“The weather has been perfect the last couple of weeks and we’ve lost probably $200,000 in revenue [since closing on March 18]. This has taken the wind out of our sails.”
Farther south, just outside downtown Miami and juxtaposed against ritzy Coral Gables, its tree-shaded boulevards and million-dollar ivy-covered 1920s Mediterranean homes, is the unassuming Granada Golf Course. Despite its posh surroundings and notable designer—Donald Ross—Granada, which opened in 1925 and is the longest operating nine-hole course in the state, is feeling the pinch, too.
Smack in the middle of the neighborhood and down the street from the famous Biltmore hotel and its 18-hole course, Granada, along with the attached Burger Bob’s, a quaint diner straight out of the 1950s where you can grab a cheeseburger and soda for $6.25, is as much a fabric of the community as anything. This time of year, with sunny skies, little rain and temps in the upper 70s, the course normally does as many as 200 rounds in a day, from kids in t-shirts to seniors playing their regular games.
Instead, greens are roped off and people in the neighborhood are treating the place more like a park than a golf course—a few friends kicking a soccer ball here, a family picnicking there, a few inclined doing yoga over yonder.
“Our situation is unique because we have no barriers,” said the superintendent, Troy Hall, of the course’s fenceless borders. “So instead of golfers, we have joggers and picnickers and people on bikes. The residents have been really good about it, though, because they live here and have respect for the property.”
In the meantime, Hall and his crew—employed by the town because the course is owned by the city of Coral Gables—are plenty busy, doing maintenance and other projects they normally can’t get to during the day when the course is teeming with golfers, like tree trimming and aerating the putting surfaces.
That’s the good news. The bad is that like everywhere else across South Florida, people have been laid off. The pro shop at Granada, which is run by the Biltmore, let go its manager and resident teaching pro Ben McCain.
Jim McLean, the Golf Digest Top 100 teacher who runs his golf school out of the Biltmore, had to cut back his staff, too. With everything closed and no lessons being given for who knows how long, McLean laid off six of his teaching assistants—part-timers who spend winter and spring taking advantage of the warm climes of Florida to earn a large portion of their income.
“Payroll is significant,” said McLean, who added that he’s even had to slash the salaries of his full-time employees. “We don’t know if there will be help from the government or what. It’s a bad time for my guys who teach.”
It’s a bad time for everyone, though efforts or spirit haven’t waned entirely.
At International Links Melreese Country Club, adjacent to Miami International Airport and Miami’s lone city-owned golf course, where Erik Compton and Cristie Kerr learned the game, the course is closed, but its restaurant remains operational, accepting take-out and delivery orders. Those in the neighborhood, which is another tight-knit community, have been receptive. Being so has helped keep the doors open and people employed.
Melreese, currently locked in a battle with soccer star David Beckham and his real estate group over their intended use of the land for a soccer stadium and retail complex, has not had to let anyone go yet, according to an official at the course. It has also taken its popular First Tee program, with its more than 2,000 kids, online to ensure the learning doesn’t stop, even if the golf has.
Not everyone can be kept away from the course, though.
At twilight on a recent evening at Miami Beach Golf Club, a sporty 6,800-yard Arthur Hills re-design that originally opened in 1923 as part of trailblazing developer Carl Fisher’s grandiose plan to lure rich socialites during the winter months, families rode bikes on cart paths while others fished, and a lone figure was on the driving range.
A 50-something-year-old man, slender and more than 6 feet tall, with tightly cropped graying hair, the tan of a roofer, a jaw as square as Wyoming and dressed in a white t-shirt, jeans and dark sneakers, swiveled, dipped, spun and hit one ball after another, patiently working his way through the shag bag he’d brought with him.
I asked him what he did for a living: “Eh, a little of this, a little of that,” he said in a slight Chicago accent, not wanting to be identified, given the course was closed or perhaps for some other reason.
“Gotta do something to break up the boredom,” he said. “The weather is too good not to take advantage of.”
Then he went back to chasing the sun with his homemade swing and low draw. The gentle ping of the ball meeting an old fairway metal was one that hadn’t been heard in a while. It was sweet music and a welcome reprieve, even if for a moment, in these otherwise troubling times.
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