Are Golfers Showing The Way With Social Distancing?

CHANTILLY, Va. – Jason Paul stood at a social distance, the only person in the pro shop at Westfields Golf Club in northern Virginia.

No one’s shopping for new clubs. Paul, the club’s general manager, is only there to check in golfers to play. The course is open, but players must heed social-distancing guidelines aimed at slowing the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Stay at least 6 feet apart at all times, leave the pin in, only one rider allowed per sanitized cart.

Common surfaces have been removed: No ball washers or water jugs, no rakes in the bunkers. There is hand sanitizer.

Each cup has been fitted with a foam insert so the ball barely falls below ground level when it goes in. No hands reaching in and touching the hole.

The entire operation has been redesigned so that, as much as possible, golfers don’t touch anything they didn’t bring.

The mood of the players is friendly but subdued. The deadly and highly contagious virus working its way through the United States, killing more than 1,000 Americans daily, is on everyone’s mind, almost all of the time. Hospitals are stressed, people are stressed, livelihoods have evaporated in a matter of weeks.

Golf is not a priority. But it is something to do. More than most other sports, it’s relatively simple to golf and keep your distance at the same time.

 “The response has been very positive,” Paul said. “Walking is up ten-fold. People are taking it very seriously. At the same time, I think they appreciate having a place to get outside and play.”

 A Way Forward

As states announced stay-at-home orders and shut down non-essential businesses to reduce community spread of Covid-19, some also closed golf courses, parks and other outdoor public spaces. A Golf Digest review found 14 states have temporarily suspended golf, though most allow course maintenance to continue.

In issuing a stay-at-home order, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said residents could go out to seek essential services and to exercise, including to play golf. Michigan, a golf hotbed and coronavirus hot spot, is among the states that shut it down, seeking to keep people as close to their homes as possible. So have California and New Jersey, where case numbers are high.

Governors have vowed to reopen non-essential businesses as soon as the crisis is brought under control. With the number of sick people still surging, and models indicating a months-long fight that could recur in the fall and in 2021, setting a restart date is not yet possible.

And that makes the operation at Westfields and other golf courses not only resourceful, but a critical part of how Americans will move forward. The emergency temporary measures put in at these courses may not be so temporary. This could be how golf is played, this season, next season – until the virus is contained and/or a vaccine is available.

As the crisis drags on — and it will drag on — American society is going to adapt. A new normal already has taken hold. The careful approaches these golf courses are employing are important models for how we’ll stay active.

“There are no high fives. And the traditional end-of-round handshake has given way to the six-foot wave,” Paul said with a smile. “But it’s not too bad.”

Better Than Most

Right now, life is six feet of separation. Taking up golf may be a better option than you think.

“I think it’s safer than hiking,” said Adam Paik, standing on the first tee at Westfields, his playing partner a solid 30 feet away. “If I take my family hiking and we pass someone on a trail, I can’t maintain 6 feet of distance.”

Indeed, a drive around the area emphasized the point. None of the golfers at Westfields were as close to one another as the bicyclists zipping past walkers on the Mount Vernon Trail in Alexandria, or joggers on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., huffing and puffing as they passed children on scooters. Street construction workers were still standing in tight groups as if nothing had changed.

Given a choice of being with three golfers on a course in which it’s easy to avoid each other’s space, versus dealing with a bicyclist’s heavy exhales as he passes scores of people on a 20-mile ride, I’m going golfing. It offers a lot of advantages: Plenty of fresh air – and plenty of room to avoid each other.

These are the kinds of scenarios we face for the next year, or two years. Who can say for sure? It will affect the sports we play. It will cause people to think hard about entering a stadium with other fans. I’ve got a friend in New Orleans, among the legion of diehard Saints fans. As it stands now, he says no way will he be in the Superdome this season. He’ll let others take his tickets and wait for next year. What will change his mind? A vaccine. 

Experts say that’s a year to 18 months away, at the least. To slowly bring the economy back in the meantime is going to require changes in how we do just about everything.

“Follow the rules, keep your distance and we’ll be all right,” the starter advises the next twosome headed out at Westfields, which was designed by golf Hall of Famer Fred Couples and is rated one of Virginia’s best courses.

It’s not forever, but now is what matters. It matters that we find ways to bring back our world. And perhaps in these trying times, we can expand what is known in golf as the circle of friendship. That 6-footer you’ve got to save par? Pick it up, you’re good.

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About The Author
David Meeks
David Meeks
David Meeks has never hesitated to speak truth to power. He’s uncovered shady coal mine operators in Alabama, corrupt politicians in Louisiana and supported single fathers in Florida. When New Orleans flooded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Meeks, then Sports Editor of The Times-Picayune, refused an evacuation order. He commandeered a newspaper truck, assembled a team of journalists and won two Pulitzer Prizes. He has worked for the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, South Florida Sun-Sentinel and was the Managing Editor of USA Today Sports. He is Alabama-born and Michigan-raised, and today lives with his family in Washington, D.C.
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