Playing golf during the coronavirus pandemic: Your most pressing questions, answered

golfer on green


To say the current landscape for playing golf in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is a changing one is to only hint at the confusion. It’s a reflection of the pandemic itself as not only are course openings and maintenance being regulated and restricted in different ways in the same state but sometimes within the same county. We know you have questions, too, about how to approach the game and how the game might be changed in the coming days, weeks or months. We can’t predict exactly where it’s going, but we’ve got some answers based on what’s already being done in the field. So while staying home is the more prudent policy, golf can and will have a place. Here’s how it’s changing and how it’s staying the same:

Where is golf allowed?

According to the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America there are currently 16 states where an executive order from the governor has either directly or indirectly put golf on pause. Some states have taken the unusual step of basically characterizing golf as not a non-essential business and thereby allowing courses to continue to operate in the midst of stay-at-home recommendations. This includes states particularly affected by COVID-19 cases like Connecticut, where as of this moment many daily-fee and private clubs can operate their golf course business with the appropriate restrictions. New York courses were largely open up until Thursday when a revised executive order specifically added golf courses to the list of non-essential businesses. But in most states, golf is not specifically identified as an essential business and therefore many courses are closing. According to the National Golf Foundation, 44 percent of courses nationwide were still allowing play. But even then, because the language isn’t clear, courses and even state golf associations often aren’t sure what they’re allowed to do, especially since many orders allow “recreation areas“ to remain open. Even in the states where golf’s status is clear, banned or not, local guidelines can take precedence. California’s governor has said no to golf but several counties and regions are offering golf. In Connecticut, where the governor has said golf is OK, many municipal courses, particularly in hard-hit Fairfield County, aren’t open for play.

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If my region restricts golf, when might restrictions ease?

The coronavirus likely originated in Wuhan, China. That region ended its lockdown Wednesday after 76 days, and people flowed into the streets and shops and were packed shoulder to shoulder at national parks. But images show every person wearing a mask, and while people are free to move about, it comes with a more restrictive process. While the most affected regions of the U.S. have started to see some positive signs of the curve flattening, they are well behind the numbers that Wuhan has been seeing that allowed for its lockdown to end. Wuhan recorded only two infections in the last two weeks. By comparison, there were almost 7,000 new cases in New York on Tuesday alone. In other words, while a two-month nationwide lockdown may not happen here, if Wuhan is any indication, we’re at least many weeks away from universally returning to a golf experience anything close to how you played the game last summer.

If experts say outdoor exercise is encouraged, why would golf be restricted?

Most executive orders are following federal and CDC guidelines in allowing for the operation of essential businesses. Because golf courses are not explicitly identified as essential, they’ve had to shut down operations. Getting the role of golf defined more clearly requires large-scale orchestrated lobbying efforts, and those are not going to be a priority in the midst of a pandemic. Given the range of problems facing government, it’s been easier to characterize golf as a firm “No” for now and let local authorities stipulate otherwise. There’s also the issue that while golf out on the course is considered relatively safe (with the proper precautions being adhered to by course operators and golfers), concerns about gathering on a clubhouse patio or course parking lot, or the first tee, can make things more complicated.

Can a course stay open with minimal staff? Are courses that are closed being maintained?

If a recent survey of superintendents in the Met (N.Y.) Section is any indication, it’s far from business as usual. Of the 58 clubs surveyed only four said normal maintenance was being performed. Twenty-six facilities reported minimum maintenance and the rest were more than minimum and less than normal. Twenty of those courses are closed for golf, so yes, some maintenance is being done, and that’s important. Unlike a store that can close and be ready to go when it re-opens, a golf course can’t have decent playing conditions quickly after a period of neglect. The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America has provided some minimal maintenance guidelines that included mowing greens two to three times a week; tees and fairways one to two times a week and rough one to two times a week, among other measures. Many maintenance crews also have had to adapt to social distancing and sanitizing measures, with some crews working split shifts to minimize interaction. One unanswered question is how long facilities can afford to pay their maintenance staff with little or no revenue coming in.

What can I do to make playing golf safer? Should I be wearing a mask when I’m playing golf?

There are many things you can do to make playing golf safer. For starters, walk (no carts, even if available) and play with people who completely share your social-distancing desires. That might mean playing only with or mostly with family members. Also the golf course is a big place. State to anyone you’re playing with that you’d be much more comfortable with a 15-foot distance than merely six. On tee boxes, stand well away until it’s your turn to hit. You can have a perfectly good conversation from 15 feet away. On the course, do not pick up tees other than your own. Hopefully your course has placed something in the cup (or raised the cup) to where you don’t have to put your hand in there. If the ball is holed, be extra careful when picking it out. Bring hand sanitizer with you so if you do touch a cup or something else, you can immediately sanitize. Don’t arrive until about 10 minutes before your tee time. Change shoes in the parking lot. Don’t sit on any bench or chair that might have been left out. Don’t linger afterward. In short, be smart and err on the side of caution. Regarding masks, the CDC recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” A golf course probably doesn’t fall under that description (depending on community-based transmission), but if it makes you feel more comfortable, go for it.

How are clubs/courses that are allowing golf adjusting practices/policies?

Like news on the virus itself, things move quickly and adjustments are made regularly. Some clubs that previously had no tee times are now going to tee times at 15-minute intervals to reduce crowding. Guests at most clubs are forbidden. If carts are allowed, it’s one person to a cart. Almost all public facilities are doing online tee times and payment. Most are going with bare-bones staff. The larger question is how facilities will react once it’s clear the curve of cases has flattened and eventually goes down. There will be a temptation to return to “normal” as soon as possible, but that might not be feasible or prudent. While some competition would seem fine, such as any event that really isn’t much different from going out to play with friends; perhaps a larger event with more of a social component such as a member-guest might not be feasible. But we’re a ways off from knowing that at this time.