On a warm and breezy spring afternoon, Steve Sanford Jr. lines up his putt on the practice green at Englewood’s Meridian Golf Club and strikes the ball perfectly. It curls toward the hole but, instead of disappearing into the cup with a satisfying plop, it caroms off a 2-inch raised cylinder protruding from the hole and rebounds halfway back to him.
This is golf in the time of the coronavirus.
In a period of ambiguity about the risk of outdoor activities, golf occupies one of those gray areas. It’s a game that can invite social interaction and, with it, the risk of contracting the virus. But it’s also an intensely individual activity that offers both thrills and disappointment on essentially a four- to five-mile hike.
In Colorado, many courses have closed during the stay-at-home order. But many also have remained open, inviting the sport’s rabid practitioners to continue playing with some significant alterations to the usual format — like holes that aren’t really holes, to avoid golfers fishing their ball out of standard cups and risking virus transmission.
But players like Sanford, a 34-year-old insurance broker from Castle Rock, view it as safer than a visit to the grocery store or even a stroll through Denver’s popular Washington Park. They claim it’s not only therapeutic but also insulated, in a way, by its traditions.
“Golf is a game of rules and etiquette,” Sanford says, as he heads to the first tee. “Everyone here is respectful and wants to do the right thing. We don’t want an unsafe environment.”
Counties and municipalities have taken a variety of approaches. Denver has closed its courses. Some rural areas have assembled their own rules, like at Redlands Mesa Golf Club in Grand Junction, a public course.
Due to the long and hilly terrain, Redlands Mesa management didn’t think it would work to eliminate motorized carts, so it limits each cart to just a single person and employs a thorough disinfection process overnight. Only five people at a time can visit the pro shop and yellow caution tape helps keep people socially distanced.
“We disinfect constantly, wiping down countertops, having customers swipe their own credit cards,” says general manager Sandra Weckerly. “We even have some older players tell us they feel safe, it’s so clean. All our doors are propped open so people don’t have to touch them. So many little things.”
But Weckerly says that for golfers seeking play on the rural Western Slope, “it’s town by town, county by county. It’s really hit and miss out here.”
In the metro area, courses that have chosen to stay open during the coronavirus shutdown have implemented a laundry list of safety measures designed to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of transmission.
For instance, the Tri-County Health Department, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, drew up what it termed “provisional guidance” for courses during the pandemic — an undertaking that benefited from similar exercises at courses all over the country.
Originally, Tri-County had determined in its public health order that courses should be closed, says executive director Dr. John Douglas. But Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide stay-at-home order was vague, at least with regard to golf, on its description of what outdoor activities would be allowed. And when courses expressed a willingness to close their clubhouses to human traffic and cobbled together other ideas to enhance social distancing and reduce the chance of transmission, Tri-County reversed course.
“This whole thing is around reducing social interaction,” Douglas says. “And the gray area was, what’s essential? We were persuaded that the outdoor activity that golf provided many people could be safe if social distancing parameters were followed.”
From Riverdale Golf Clubs in Adams County to Plum Creek in Douglas County — and many in between — some of the primary rules aim to enhance that distancing, from the time players book their tee times to when they load their clubs in their cars and, with no 19th hole for socializing, head home.
For example, all transactions are done by credit card, in advance. Players must walk the course — no motorized carts allowed, and only push carts provided by the players can be used to transport clubs, eliminating the shared use of equipment.
Driving ranges are either closed or allow for extra spacing between golfers. Clubhouses are open only for restroom use — and, while it’s not on the TCHD list, courses with clubhouse food service tend to follow restaurant to-go-only protocol.
Tee time intervals, which normally run about 8 minutes, have been lengthened to allow for greater distancing between groups, and mobile course rangers — some call them marshals — monitor adherence to social distancing recommendations.
Some additional modifications seek to keep golfers from touching common objects — sand-trap rakes, water sources and ball washers have been removed, while flagsticks generally have either been removed from the course altogether or are prohibited from being removed from their holes for putting. The point is to keep golfers from repeatedly touching them.
“It’s not real golf,” says Tom Lyneis, the general manager at the private Meridian club. “But it’s golf.”
Even the actual holes have been modified.
Some courses have installed shallow cups, just a fraction of an inch deep, so golfers can remove their ball with minimal chance for contact with the cup itself. Others — like Meridian — have installed a cylindrical barrier the diameter of the hole, with rules adjusted so that a putt is considered good if it deflects off the barrier.
That last one — which guarantees a more forgiving putting experience — has thrown a wrinkle into the game. Meridian’s Lyneis, whose members record scores for purposes of determining individual handicaps, has noticed that nearly everyone has suddenly been scoring better than usual.
But the modified holes, which tend to speed up play, can also lead to disappointment. One golfer at Meridian teed off on a par 3 and, when the ball ricocheted off the cup barrier, figured he’d scored a hole in one. Although he aced the hole under the revised scoring standards, he didn’t get official credit for the feat.
“A real one needs to roll in the cup,” Lyneis says.
Among the roughly 50 courses under Tri-County’s jurisdiction, Douglas says, the arrangement has proved mostly successful, although there have been a few complaints about people congregating too closely. Too many flagrant violators could trigger additional restrictions, he notes, although the department hasn’t had to impose any yet.
“Human beings are social creatures. I get it,” he says. “By the same token, if human behavior overrides our ability to social distance at a place like that, having these places stay open is not going to work. But the biggest point is that we want to make sure this investment we’re making in disrupting people’s lives is done well enough that it pays off, that it was worth the pain.”
At Meridian, Lyneis always felt like the club fell within the governor’s orders for allowable outdoor activity.
“It’s like a walk in the park with a couple of sticks,” Lyneis says. “Say we put 70 people on 200 acres. There’s a lot of room.”
Even so, when Meridian opened the first day after the governor’s order, Lyneis got an irate call from someone in one of the office buildings adjacent to the course who had observed golfers walking the fairways. Then he got a visit from a sheriff’s deputy.
Lyneis says he spoke with the deputy, pulled out a copy of the rules the course would follow for social distancing and safety, and then showed him the governor’s order. He said he felt that the arrangement was reasonable. The deputy agreed.
Judging from golfers’ response at the private course, the list of concessions to the coronavirus has been well worth having the course open for play.
“If I didn’t have this, I’d lose my mind,” says Jason Shear, 33, of Denver. He and two other golfers were waiting to tee off as Sanford’s group had all but disappeared into the distance. “The parks and trails are full of people. Here there’s a sense of community — we’re not going to be reckless.”
Response to the course’s availability, even with the restrictions, has been “over the top,” according to Lyneis.
“People have nothing to do. They’re looking for an outlet,” he says. “We’re running three times the number of rounds in April that we normally run.”
At the Riverdale Golf Courses in Adams County, 36 holes spread over two layouts, there has been a similar response.
Head golf pro Jeff Meeker says that the longer intervals between tee times has allowed the course to run at about two-thirds of normal capacity, but reservations fill up quickly, to the point that golfers need to call more than a week ahead to secure a spot. The only factor that has hampered use of the public course has been fickle spring weather.
Meeker describes a no-frills approach that begins as soon as golfers arrive. Instead of hitting a bucket of balls on the practice tee, they notice that the driving range is closed. There’s a greeter on the first tee to explain the rules, but also marshals on the course to issue reminders if players get lax about social distancing.
Riverdale even patrols the parking lot, so there’s no socializing and comparing scorecards.
“Once they’re done, they go home,” Meeker says.
He notes that there have been “about four emails” from people upset that the course is open, but he’s mostly seen gratitude for providing an outlet for physical activity.
“We kept thinking we’d be shut down,” he says. “So many people are happy it’s unbelievable. We’re not offering golf carts, so everyone is walking, but not one person has complained. Everybody is modifying how their day-to-day life goes, even at the golf course. But they’re willing to do it.”
At Plum Creek Golf Club in Castle Rock, the drill is similar — minimal human contact, enforced by a starter, a marshal and two other workers to “manage the herd,” says Matt Goudy of the pro shop staff.
“We tell people not even to show up until five to 10 minutes before their tee time,” he says. “It’s an assembly-line process.”
And the assembly line is in full production. Goudy politely excuses himself from his conversation with a reporter.
“The phone’s ringing off the hook,” he says. “I’ve got to get back to work.”