The New Abnormal: Golf in the Era of Coronavirus

By RANDY YOUNGMAN

No one knew that when Ernie Els won the Hoag Classic at Newport Beach Country Club on March 8—the same day that Tyrell Hatton won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando—that they would be the last two players to win titles in PGA Tour-sanctioned tournaments for at least three months.

A few days later, the PGA Tour suspended all play indefinitely after the first round of The Players Championship in Florida.

Shortly thereafter, most public and private courses across the state of California also shut down after Gov. Gavin Newsom issued stay-at-home orders for all but essential businesses, to try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

A few courses in California remained open for a couple more weeks—notably in Oceanside, San Clemente, Beaumont, Indian Wells and Sacramento—insisting that golf is a sport that naturally promotes the requisite social distancing. But by the first week of April, most of the stragglers except in Sacramento had also been persuaded by government leadership to temporarily close.

All of which created a pent-up demand to tee it up by the time Gov. Newsom eased restrictions, enabling a majority of golf courses in the state to reopen by early May, with safety protocols in place. (The PGA Tour eventually returned on June 11 in Texas and the PGA Tour Champions returned on July 31 in Michigan after nearly a five-month hiatus.)

As soon as public courses swung open their gates, it was as difficult to secure a tee time as it was to find hand sanitizer in a store.

Suddenly, there was a run on push and pull carts, as some courses reopened with walking-only restrictions.

Suddenly, golf course parking lots filled up again and people wearing face masks and carrying their own bags headed to check in and then to the first tee.

Some people describe it as “The New Normal” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I call it “The New Abnormal.”

I played a couple of times in the first month after courses reopened and then began playing weekly at my home club, Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Orange County. Even now, I’m still getting accustomed to the new guidelines, which have been put in place to try to keep everybody safe while chasing the dimpled white spheroid.

Overall, I think the guidelines—and new rules—are working quite well, with most players following the recommended safety protocols. Most. There are always exceptions.

Interestingly, Golf Datatech, LLC—the golf industry’s leading independent market research firm for retail sales, consumer and trade trends—announced on Aug. 25 that “U.S. golf equipment sales reached the all-time greatest single month retail sales since the company started tracking data in 1997. July’s total on- and off-course equipment sales of $388.6 million bested the next two all-time highest sales months ever: $368.1 million in June 2007 and $364.0 million in June 2006.”

Golf Datatech also noted that four equipment categories—balls, irons, wedges and gloves—also set all-time monthly sales records.

“Golf is surging through the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is a perfect outdoor social distancing recreational activity, and the retail results confirm what a lot of retailers and PGA Professionals have been feeling,” said John Krzynowek, Partner, Golf Datatech, LLC. “While nothing is assured in this crazy world we live in today, we are hopeful that the current upward trajectory will continue into the fall, when things would normally slow down.”

I know I have been playing more during the pandemic. How about you?

A few observations and opinions about The New Abnormal in Pandemic Golf:

** Six feet has become more than the length of a putt. It has become an invisible force field called social distancing.

One golfer to a cart accomplishes that nicely. It also prevents you from being paired with somebody who describes what they did wrong on every shot. (You know who you are.)

By the way, I walked one round carrying a bag with only six clubs, and I almost needed paramedics to finish. I guess that’s why I qualify for Medicare.

** Best development in pandemic golf is faster rounds, which I attribute to one-person carts. I’ve finished all but one of my rounds in less than 4 hours and many of them in 3 ½ hours. That’s not a coincidence. Wish it could always be this way.

** From what I’ve seen, golfers also have become much more generous with their “gimme” putts—the size of their circle of friendship, so to speak—during the pandemic.

Four-footer? Pick it up. Five-footer? Pick it up. You would have made it.

** Sudden thought: For courses that use a plastic barrier that protrudes above the cup, you can’t make a hole-in-one. Doesn’t the club know that will hurt its bar business?

Oh, yeah, the bar isn’t open yet. Never mind.

At least plastic cylinders and foam donuts in the cup give your ball a chance to go in.

** By the way, when someone invades my 6-foot force field, I politely tell him.  I had to tell one guy—I won’t use Joe’s name (oops)—on six consecutive holes. He went 4 for 18 trying to stay away from me one round.

Same guy marked my golf ball and tossed it to me. Another no-no.

Memorize these new unwritten rules: Don’t pick up somebody else’s Titleist, or somebody else’s club lying on the green, or any discarded tee if it isn’t yours. And don’t touch the flagstick.

And don’t spit your sunflower seed shells (with your DNA) on or near the green. It’s always been one of my pet peeves—even more so now.

Oh, I no longer accept or give cash after a round, so don’t bet me.

** While we’re talking about the don’ts: Don’t shake hands after the round, the way we always have. Doff your cap, if you’re wearing one, and give an air high-five or air fist-bump. Same after someone makes a birdie. Or I’ve seen guys tap putter heads. Perfectly acceptable.

I cringed when I saw video of President Trump shaking his playing partner’s hand after a round during the pandemic. Nice example.

** Always keep a little bottle of sanitizer on your cart, in case you touched something you shouldn’t have. Washing my hands with sanitizer often during a round makes me feel safer.

I wear a face mask to check in and take it off when I get to the first tee. Then I put it back on when I finish and head to the 19th hole patio.

Some guys I know put on their masks when they go to the teebox and when they walk on the green to putt, when they are closest to their playing partners. Makes sense.

** Best of all, the trash-talking has changed during the pandemic.

If one of my buddies hits a wayward tee shot, way left or way right, I am always quick to thank him for going out of his way to practice social distancing.

It’s The New Abnormal. For how long, nobody knows. But it beats not playing, right?

 

Randy Youngman

 

 

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