Golf's return
May 01, 2020

Industry launches phased return to golf's 'New Normal'

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If you’re ready to return to golf after the effects of the Covid-19 shutdown, rest assured that your courses are ready for your return, too. Key to their preparations is an operations playbook put together for courses and clubs by golf’s leading organizations, led by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and the National Golf Course Owners Association, as well as the PGA of America, the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour, the USGA and the Club Managers Association of America.

The Back2Play document, which comes under the banner of the industry’s unified lobbying effort We Are Golf, provides operational guidelines for a phased return to golf closer to the game it was before the coronavirus pandemic. It includes many ideas that flow from the CDC guidelines designed to prevent a spread of the virus, but it also tailors those ideas specifically to the game and how it should be played and experienced now and going forward. As well, the document includes many of the arguments that state and local golf organizations used in lobbying governments to reconsider golf’s status as a viable recreational alternative. It details golf’s many special characteristics and benefits, as well the almost instantaneous adaptations to play and operations that the industry collectively put together in short order to make the game well in line with the recommendations for health and safety.

“Some of these best practices have been communicated to officials since this all began to show them how we take responsibility in facilitating a responsible and socially-distant experience at golf courses,” said Jay Karen, chief executive officer of the NGCOA. Karen explained that his organization’s “Park and Play” program stressed the limited touch points that a golf operation could offer. “It was helpful in expressing our message to authorities who were tasked with analyzing the status of golf courses. The industry and all those who are fortunate enough to open their doors each morning are taking our responsibilities very seriously.”

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With courses from Maine to Washington set to reopen today and within the next week, those courses will have specific recommendations in the Back2Golf playbook that lay out three phases of golf’s return. They are labeled “Individual,” “Restricted” and “New Normal.”

At the Individual phase, it starts with what we’re seeing in many of those newly re-opened states now, including a preference for walking, single-rider carts, no bunker rakes, modified cups, closed clubhouses, virtual clinics and the suspension of any leagues or camps for the time being.

Under the “Restricted” phase, the same limits on touch points on the course are in play, but it makes room for controlled group events of 50 or fewer, the opening of the golf shop and resuming clinics and camps with strict social distancing guidelines in place.

Finally, the “New Normal” phase includes recommendations for “a return to normal operations with enhanced sanitation and social distancing protocols.”

It’s the documents opening segment that reflects some of the key points industry leaders made in detailing how golf could be viable sooner rather than later in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to its natural social distancing aspects and health benefits, the document had an economic message, too. It cites the over two million jobs in the golf industry and an economic impact of $84.1 billion with over $4 billion in charitable donations.

Through the We Are Golf allied groups, advocacy for the game has been a local, state and national focus, and establishing that level of communication helped golf’s cause at this particular moment. “This is why we take advocacy seriously,” Michael Lee, manager of government affairs for the GCSAA. “If you can develop those relationships ahead of time, you can fix your problems much quicker when they do arise.

“I’ve been very pleased with the support that we’ve seen from governors and lawmakers around the country.”

By May 5, 44 states are expected to be largely open to golf. A National Golf Foundation report expects nearly 80 percent of the nation's courses to be open by mid-May. There’s a definite sense in the industry that preparing courses for golfers to return and adapting practices will have to be an ongoing initiative, though. As Karen said, “We fully recognize that we have a unique asset in the recreation and outdoor space at this challenging time. This offers our industry an opportunity to hit the reset button on how we can be viewed by those interested in the game, but who have never played, and even those who have looked side-eyed at the game. People are discovering for the first time that golf lives beautifully at the intersection of solitude and social, and it's not all about how great of a player you are.”

But perhaps most telling is how the Back2Golf document makes it clear that the next steps for golf must be carefully measured. It is not full speed ahead and an immediate return to normal. The document’s final instruction is blunt: “While the intent is to move forward through each phase, it may be necessary based on health conditions or poor behavior by golfers to take a step backwards.”

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