State of the Game: Golf in the Time of COVID-19
PAUSE. RESET. REIMAGINE.
Save injury, incarceration, a move to northern Manitoba or self-exile owing to an extended bout of the Spanish fades, it’s safe to say that since taking up the game, most of us haven’t had a golf sabbatical like we had this spring. Public or private player, shag-bag grinder or TopGolf hit-and-giggler, in some way each of our normal rhythms were disrupted if not totally canned.
We’re not back–not in a full-throttle cultural, social or economic sense, as the plague called COVID-19 ain’t going away. But our sport is returning, with silly yet popular exhibitions giving way to real Tour play, championships major and local still (mostly) on the books, and everyday players locking up tee times.
And maybe, hopefully, with a refreshed perspective.
“With most things in peoples’ lives, we look for ways to find a silver lining and reorient our appreciation for and perspective on things we value most,” observes Jeff Ninnemann, the SCGA’s director of championships and golf operations. “It was refreshing to see people excited for the opportunity to play golf again, to see the joy simply in the opportunity to play. The reason they wanted to get back wasn’t to see how well they would play; it was the physical and mental health, and what golf does for them spiritually, in a way. That’s why we all do it at our core.”
Echoes SCGA President Fred MacFarlane: “My reference point for golf has always been that it is a mental release. To be out on the golf course, outdoors, trying to execute shots to achieve a particular end. That takes my mind away from everything else that might be going on. It gives me a near-complete release mentally. Not to have that, not to be able to feel that, was kind of a huge blow.”
We all had our own takeaways from golf during the time away; some deep, some not, some, let’s be honest, of a selfish nature as there were and are those who never did accept that an unseen killer was loose and we all had to chill for a spell. And through the process and time, if nothing more than renewed appreciation for what we have in the game is what emerged, then we might just end up a bit stronger.
A few change points showed up immediately with reopening. Players and courses reported far speedier rounds — sub–four hours — owing to tee-time spacing and, where carts were allowed, (mostly) single riders individually speeding from shot to shot. Of course, single-rider carts are a revenue drag and tee sheets weren’t at full, pre-COVID capacity, which also appears a revenue drag, but like a freely flowing freeway, a hell of a lot of individuals can be moved through when lanes are clear and you avoid surges.
PLUS, YOU HAVE happier players. Course operators need to resist the urge to shoot as many groups off the first tee as possible regardless of the inevitable logjams. A lesson to be embraced going forward? As Ninnemann notes, “For years we’ve heard the dialogue that when you space out tee times, all else equal, play will be quicker. Quicker play can facilitate a higher overall flow.”
And we’re walking more, as restrictions on cart usage to outright parking of entire fleets made golfers who are itching for some action but who may not have walked since their junior days step up and stride out if they want. Worldwide Golf Shops — think Roger Dunn locally — reported a run on hand-carts upon curbside-pickup reopening that exhausted the chain’s supply in two days.
None of this occurs in a vacuum. Social distancing means less lollygagging, and if we’re not being iced on the tee or between shots there are fewer (tired) stories and (bad) jokes adding to the doldrums. One person in a cart can certainly zip about, but walkers will always beat two awareness-challenged players in a cart engaging in go-and-wait to one ball and then the other.
IT WAS REFRESHING TO SEE PEOPLE EXCITED FOR THE OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY GOLF AGAIN, TO SEE THE JOY SIMPLY
IN THE OPPORTUNITY TO PLAY. THE REASON THEY WANTED TO GET BACK WASN’T TO SEE HOW WELL THEY WOULD PLAY, IT WAS THE PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH, AND WHAT GOLF DOES FOR THEM SPIRITUALLY, IN A WAY. THAT’S WHY WE ALL DO IT AT OUR CORE.” – Jeff Ninnemann SCGA Director of Championships & Golf Operations
COURSES AREN’T GOING to just walk away from revenue, however; the nut has to be cracked. Humans are hard to re-wire, so push-carters may revert back to motorized buggies when they are again readily available. It would be nice to think the five-hour round has been consigned to the trash heap. I’d like Tiger’s swing, too, and we know how that’s going to turn out. But we’ve seen some of what can be, just as we witnessed clearer air when modern life took a pause for a few months.
“I think there will be at least a little bit of a shift,” predicts Darryl Taylor, Worldwide Golf’s Southern California regional manager. “Peoples’ perspectives have been altered, they have been doing things differently on the course, with faster rounds, walking, carrying a bag for the first time in years, and that’s all been positive, and some are going to be thinking, ‘Hey, I like this,’ and will want to stick with it.”
Distanced or not, foregoing high fives and 19th hole suds and laughs, riding solo on a golf board or hoofing with a bag, we cannot forget that golf is about the social; it’s why we do it, ultimately. Golf without a shared experiential anchor is just so many sheep and some solitary dude hitting a rock with a shepherd’s crook.
As Woodland Hills CC member Mike Dexter reminds us, “I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed the socialization aspects of the game until they were gone. It’s a really big hole in the experience. The pro shop isn’t open. We don’t show up early like usual, getting ready, hitting balls, talking and joking. There is no post-round camaraderie. That’s all a big part of the enjoyment of the game, beyond the act of simply playing.”
Here’s to that returning too. Taking it back by taking it back.