Golfers and course operators in Ontario must have felt like they sank a hole-in-one this week.
Golf courses will be allowed to open on Saturday as part of an initial stage of easing restrictions on businesses in place since March 23 to limit the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
The Ford government gave golf the green light yesterday after weeks of business shutdowns and orders for people to combat the coronavirus pandemic by staying inside and avoiding contact with others as much as possible.
And while golf will return in time for the May long weekend in Ontario, it comes with new guidelines designed to maximize physical distancing and limit the number of contact points where the virus can be transmitted.
Lauren Zanini, director of golf operations at Echo Valley Golf Club in London, Ont., is elated that her course can finally open.
“It hasn’t been easy holding off, but we’re excited about this,” she said. “We’re used to being open in the beginning of April. So our goal now is to open up while keeping everyone safe.”
Zanini said unlike most other sports, even pre-COVID-19 golf has a certain amount of physical distancing built into its existing rules of play.
“You’re outside. You can follow your own ball, and you don’t have to be with the players you’re playing with. You’re not confined to a particular space,” she said.
“I think it’s good for people to get out. People are going stir crazy right now.”
Zanini said golf course operators in London have used this spring’s downtime to swap ideas about how the game could be tweaked to keep players safe.
Many of those ideas are included in the guidelines the Ontario government released as part of yesterday’s announcement.
Here are some of the ways the age-old round of golf is changing in this COVID-19 age.
Call before going
Echo Valley is asking golfers to book ahead and arrive no earlier than 20 minutes before their tee time. Instead of the standard 10-minute intervals between groups, Echo Valley is doubling that to spread out groups and reduce the chances of golfers bunching up on greens or at the tees.
The clubhouse will be open, but Echo Valley is using a “staging” model where golfers move from the pro shop to the putting green and onto the first tee in timed intervals. At the clubhouse, only a limited number of people will be allowed inside at a time. Echo Valley has installed Plexiglas around the cash register, and golfers should be ready to pay by debit or credit card — no cash. The course is also adding online payment to its website so golfers can pay before they arrive.
“Even in the parking lot and on our practice greens, we’re trying to keep only one group on at a time to maintain social distance,” Zanini said.
This is part of the provincial guidelines, which call on courses to consider moving to no-touch payments as much as possible.
On the course
Golf allows players to spread out as they move from tee to fairway to green, so in most cases, physical distancing shouldn’t be difficult to achieve. Zanini said golfers are asked to use the same common sense they use while sharing a sidewalk and make an effort to spread out around two potential choke points: the tee and the green.
No more holes?
So what about reaching into the hole after sinking a putt?
At Echo Valley that won’t happen because each hole will be blocked with a chunk of cylinder-shaped foam that sits flush with the top of the hole.
“It’s kind of like a pool noodle,” Zanini said. “It just blocks the hole.”
If your ball rolls over the foam, you’ve holed out, meaning you got the ball in the hole. This is a twist on what the province recommends: elevating the plastic cup out of the hole so the ball doesn’t fall in. Any ball contact with the cup, and it’s considered a good putt.
As for the flag stick? The new rule at Echo Valley is don’t touch it. And again, the provincial guidelines are also calling for flags to be left in place.
“We actually already have signs asking people not to touch it,” Zanini said.
Instead of using cardboard scorecards handed out at the clubhouse, Echo Valley has put its scorecards online. Golfers are asked to print out a copy before they head to the course. Ball washers and wastebins have been pulled from the course to minimize touch points.
No cart sharing, limited bathrooms, other rules
Zanini said over the past few weeks the use of golf carts has been a topic of debate. The provincial guidelines say one cart per golfer. Also, the province calls for carts to be thoroughly sanitized between rounds, something Zanini said her staff is already doing.
At Echo Valley, outdoor bathrooms have been removed. Washrooms inside the clubhouse will be open and with enhanced cleaning protocols in place.
Zanini said much of this comes down to common sense.
“If people are going for walks in their neighbourhood, I don’t see why they can’t golf if they’re using their own equipment, and they’re social distancing.”