On some Capital Region golf courses, the flagsticks are sitting this one out.
On most courses, the golfers are not.
In light of rules and recommendations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Briar Creek Golf Course in Rotterdam, for one, has simply removed the flagsticks from every hole so that multiple people won’t be handling them. To offset the loss of that visual advantage for approach shots, the golf course is handing out sheets of paper showing hole locations.
“Ninety percent of the players say, ‘Are you kidding? I’m lucky if I hit the green,'” Briar Creek co-owner Bill Sise said on Monday.
So golfers haven’t lost their sense of humor during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in most of the Capital Region, they haven’t lost their beloved sport, either.
Restrictions shutting down many public places have affected how golf courses do business now, but at least they’re open for play, and as the weather gets more spring-like, they’re bracing for higher traffic, not just because it’s the season, but because people crave a chance to get outdoors.
Some courses, like Schenectady Municipal and Amsterdam Municipal, aren’t open simply because they’re waiting for course conditions to become playable. Schenectady Muny head pro Matt Daley said they hope to be open as soon as Friday, and Amsterdam Muny head pro Kevin Canale said they’re looking at next week, maybe Monday.
But after some confusion last week on nonessential business restrictions and whether golf courses could open, they’re all permitted to send golfers out there, under strict guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the United States Golf Association and the New York State Golf Association. It’s been a welcome relief for people cooped up in self-isolation.
“That was the mindset, nobody cared what the course conditions were, they just wanted to get out,” said Bill Whelly, general manager of Rolling Hills Country Club in Fort Johnson.
“I played nine holes on Saturday. Like, if you have a two-footer, just pick it up. As long as you do what you’re supposed to do, it’s all do-able.”
“Gosh, they’re champing at the bit,” Daley said. “My phone is ringing off the hook, and I can’t blame them. If it gives them a little bit of solace with everything going on, it’s worth it. We need it … as long as everyone is responsible.”
“They’re ecstatic,” said Rich Scott, the head pro at Fox Run Golf Club in Johnstown. “They’re beside themselves and don’t even care what shape the course is in if they can come out here and knock it around.”
“It’s the only thing to do right now,” Van Patten Golf Club head pro Adam Panagopoulos said. “As terrible a time as it is, it’s exciting to see people out and about, almost like it’s normal.”
Among the new recommendations, golfers are being asked to keep six feet of distance from each other; refrain from handshakes and high-fives; leave flagsticks in the hole; don’t share clubs or other equipment; and one person per cart.
The courses have been told to remove rakes from bunkers and to sanitize carts after each use with a hose-off and disinfectant on all surfaces that may have been touched, like steering wheels, seats and windshields.
Pro shops, clubhouses and snack bars are closed, with some makeshift accommodations, and tee time reservations and payments are being handled online. Courses have been modifying holes so players won’t have to reach into them to retrieve balls.
They’re also spreading tee times out. Typically, there’s about eight minutes between groups, but now they’re being spaced by 12-15 minutes. Tournaments, outings and leagues, for which post-round socializing is a big part of the fun, have been postponing, Whelly said.
Similarly at the national level, the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour have canceled or postponed everything through the middle of May. The Masters, scheduled for April 9, has been postponed with no date yet, and one of the LPGA majors, the ANA Inspiration, has been moved to September.
“We put in more procedures than you could possibly imagine,” said Rob Gardner, head pro at The Edison Club. “It’s CDC-on-steroids stuff. Disinfect everything on the half-hour. Essentially, no one is allowed to touch anything.
“We had hours and hours of discussion. It was not a decision that was taken lightly in any way, shape or form. We looked at everything, what other states were doing, and other courses and state parks.”
Some courses, including Saratoga Spa State Park Golf Course, remain closed until further notice because of the pandemic.
“Everybody’s champing at the bit to do something, but you’ve got to think of everyone else instead of yourself,” Glens Falls Country Club assistant pro Jack Madej said. “We’re still deciding how to operate, and we’re going to err on the side of caution. We’re not going to open just to open.”
Stadium Golf Club in Schenectady announced last week that it would open on Tuesday, but in a Facebook post Monday morning, owner Greg Hennel said he made an “agonizing” decision to remain closed indefinitely instead.
In a phone interview, he said they’re targeting sometime during the week of Easter Sunday, April 12, as opening day, but in the meantime, “I really struggled with it all weekend, and I knew in my heart I had to do what the professionals were saying about staying home and not spreading this. There’s no way in hell I could control social distancing when they started piling into that parking lot. I wasn’t going to be a part of that.”
While making a firm point not to criticize anyone who has chosen to open, Hennel said the situation “hits pretty close to home for me,” since he has one daughter who works as a physician’s assistant at Ellis Emergency and another who is an occupational therapist at a nursing home.
“Two weeks ago we were getting some negative comments, wondering why we weren’t open when other courses were,” he said. “I was following the directives. I’m not an epidemiologist, so I have to trust them. A lot of people have the attitude that ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’ I felt that way. I’m in good shape, I’m not worried about getting it, but now there are people younger than me who have died. To me, it’s not worth it.”
As hungry for some golf as his Stadium regulars are, Hennel said he received a flood of email support after posting the explanation of his decision on Facebook.
The many courses that have opened or are on the verge of doing so have been getting unending positive feedback, too.
“The sooner the better,” Canale of Amsterdam Muny said. “If we’re very, very lucky, we’re hoping for Monday. Everybody wants to get out and play. They want us to open, and there’s no reason not to. It gives the residents a place to go to get out of the house.”
“They definitely appreciate finding something to escape the reality,” said Sise of Briar Creek, which has been open since St. Patrick’s Day, March 17.
“It’s been very, very positive,” Gardner said. “Everybody’s happy to go out. And everyone’s being extremely respectful of these rules and guidelines.
“It’s really odd to look out at the first tee and see everyone spread out. I can see all three closing holes [from the pro shop], and there will be just one guy on the green at any time.”