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Coronavirus closes some golf courses while others, like Trump National DC, stay open with new precautions

Golf is among the lower-risk activities during the pandemic that has changed daily life, but there is no set guidance for operating, if courses stay open at all.

78th KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship Photo by Montana Pritchard/PGA of America via Getty Images

The most famous golf course in the United States, Augusta National Golf Club, told members this week it would be closing down. The chairman of the club, Fred Ridley, in his letter obtained by Golf Digest, cited the health and safety of the staff, which he called the “heartbeat” of ANGC, as the primary reason for closing the club.

“We intend to maintain our properties with limited personnel on site, and we will support our many other functions by working remotely where possible,” Ridley wrote. “But this is about much more than business continuity. This is about our employees, and the foundation of this decision is built-in upon keeping everyone safe while preserving the financial stability of those we care about most.”

This is the question that golf courses around the country, from the local muni to the most exclusive private clubs, are confronting this week. Golf is an outdoor activity that one doctor told features the “least at-risk scenario” in a wide-open space. Dr. Kelly Cawcutt told Nick Piastowski at the end of last week, “It’s very reasonable to play if you are smart about it and follow the proper guidance.” That guidance seems to vary from course to course and club to club right now, especially over the last four days when cities have closed businesses, bars, restaurants, and the President advised avoiding gatherings of 10 people or more.

There are tips about not taking a cart, not touching the flagstick, and avoiding crowded practice areas or the clubhouse, if it’s even open. The superintendent at Richter Park Golf Course in Connecticut, Robert Dorsch, tweeted that they removed bunker rakes, ball washers, coolers, and trash cans, and also tweeted images of raised cups to inhibit more contact with shared surfaces on the course.

Another superintendent, Jeff Sexton at Evansville Country Club, also raised the cups and asked players not to touch the flagsticks. The Philadelphia section PGA has a google document running with feedback and comments on how to operate during the health crisis.

There is no uniform set of precautionary measures or defined framework for closure at this point. Winter Park 9, a model of successful community and municipal golf, closed in the Orlando area. Pebble Beach, as of Tuesday night, remained open but was discussing next steps after a shelter-in-place ordinance was issued for Monterey County. Pasatiempo, up the road from Pebble in Northern California, closed.

The early week operating status for private clubs locally in the Washington, DC area, where I live, included a mixture of closures or partial closures for indoor areas. Chevy Chase Club, including the golf course, was closed on Tuesday and a small staff was expected to remain to look after maintenance. The same was true for Columbia Country Club down the street. Congressional Country Club notified members Monday night that all indoor facilities would be closed, following an order from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan that closed all bars, restaurants, and gyms in the state. The club also solicited donations from members for staff working at these facilities at the club. Bretton Woods, another private club farther out on River Road than Congressional, announced it would close the clubhouse on Wednesday night. The course would remain open to play but on-course bathrooms would be closed, carts would not be available, the driving range would be closed, and no golf staff would be on the property.

A DC-area club that did have steady play on Tuesday was Trump National DC, where its annual “Irish Open” on St. Patrick’s Day proceeded under new precautionary measures. There were 88 players on the tee sheet for the event at the Northern Virginia club. Demand to play remained steady and a source told me that the few groups who dropped out were immediately replaced off a wait list that existed after the club cut down the overall size of the outing in the preceding weeks.

The outing did not play out as usual, with measures taken to create social distance. To avoid a concentration of players, the event was changed from a shotgun start to rolling tee times off two tees and refreshments were served only from beverage carts while on the course, as opposed to self-serve stations. Players were encouraged to walk. Carts were available but not to be shared. The tournament format was scratched but scores were kept and submitted by players via smartphone with results emailed and prizes sent out later.

There were pre- and post-round meals served, with a floor plan set up to “maximize space between tables” and with food plated and served individually to players. A source estimated about half of the “Irish Open” field stuck around for food and drinks after the golf.

Golf may be a lower-risk activity for people looking for a break from total isolation or social distancing. But there is still an element of shared space and public interaction. Most importantly, as the Augusta chairman noted, there are the staffs required to run and maintain a golf course and a clubhouse, whether it be some gaudy private complex or a spartan public shack. As the pandemic evolves and likely escalates in the United States, courses, both public and private, will face the decision of shutting down an outdoor “low-risk” operation. For now, there’s a variance from outright closures to pared down offerings, to otherwise abnormal regulations.