Open or Closed - Golf During the Covid-19 Pandemic PDF Print E-mail


(Source NGF) - April 2020



Governors in states such as Arizona, North Carolina and South Carolina

have specifically identified golf as an activity that’s permitted to continue

despite executive orders shutting down all non-essential businesses in an

effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Meanwhile, their counterparts in states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and

Michigan have stipulated that no golf operations can continue under their

emergency orders.

To play or not to play golf during a pandemic – that is the question.

And it’s far more nuanced debate than simply pointing to the fact that golf

is conducive to social distancing practices, that it has broad appeal to people

of all ages for its wealth of physical and mental benefits, and that courses

typically have a limited number of participants spread out over a wide-open

property that is, on average, approximately 150 acres. Golf has all those

selling points, and more.

But there’s also the question of optics and, in this unprecedented time,

how wide the net is cast as it pertains to “essential” businesses or activities

and golf’s place therein? There are often significant differences from state-

to-state, with playing golf in its simplest form either lumped with recreational

or personal care pursuits such as gyms, casinos, shopping malls, movie theaters,

nail salons and massage parlors, or included among healthy outdoor activities

such as walking, biking, hunting, fishing or running.

A Mercer County municipal course in Ewing, New Jersey, is closed due to

the shutdown of all golf in the state.



At a time when policy-makers are tasked with making oft-unilateral decisions

regarding the shutdown of businesses in the interest of protecting the health

of residents of their county or state, it shouldn’t be surprising some will err on

the side of caution, not to mention public support (as more than 90% of the

population doesn’t play golf).

A Divisive Issue

Golfers themselves are strongly divided on the issue, with some insisting quite

passionately that it shouldn’t be played – at least for the time being. Others

steadfastly insist that it’s the ideal activity for social distancing and that most

areas aren’t demanding social isolation.


NGF research of core golfers (those who play 8 or more rounds a year) revealed

a split among age lines regarding government restrictions. Among young adults

(ages 18-34), 67% said they don’t support restrictions that prohibit golf while

26% are supportive. In the over age-65 set, 55% support restrictions on golf,

with 30% against. While older golfers, on average, play much more frequently

than their younger counterparts, some may note that it’s also a demographic

at greater risk for getting ill from COVID-19.







Source: National Golf Foundation






The perceptions, or misconceptions, of the privileged nature of golf can

be a detriment, too, particularly as they relate to those government

decisions being made during a time of crisis. That was apparent in

California, the first state to impose some form of stay-at-home order.

Initially, golf was given a pass and even encouraged as a way for people

to get outdoors and be active, including in the nation’s second-biggest

municipal golf system: L.A County. As the crackdown on businesses and

other recreational activities continued in the nation’s most populous state,

golf courses weren’t going to win the case to stay open in the course of

public opinion – particularly not in the most densely-populated urban parts

of the state, where decision-makers were more focused on ensuring that

the medical system didn’t get overrun. While no exception was made for

golf, it wasn’t singled out either; parks, playgrounds, beaches and hiking

trails were also closed off.

Although California doesn’t have a statewide ban on golf, it’s now only

being played in a very few spots. Pennsylvania and New Jersey were

among the first to enact statewide bans on golf operations, and states

like Michigan, Massachusetts, Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington soon

followed. Wisconsin reversed its stance on April 16, with an update that

courses could re-open as of April 24 given a host of safety restrictions

that includes no golf carts.

Still, while much of the Northeast and parts of the Midwest around the

Great Lakes have temporarily clamped down on golf, categorizing it with

other “non-essential businesses” in executive orders, the game continues

to have a highly visible presence in other parts of the country.


Golf Is Everywhere

Golfers spread apart on the driving range in the interest of social

distancing at Copper Canyon Golf Club in Buckeye, Arizona.

(Photo credit: Pat Matuszewski)






Golf in the U.S. took root in and around major urban areas, and the game

exists in abundance outside of city centers – in rural locales far from dense

population centers. In many parts of the country, golf has demonstrated that

it can be played safely with modified operating procedures and extensive safety

protocols in place for the benefit of golfers as well as facility employees. These

practices may vary from state to state and region to region.

Golf most notably is being played throughout the southeastern U.S. and in golf

-rich states out west like Arizona and Oregon, where more than 80% of courses

remain open for play in both.



The map above represents a sample of roughly one-third of all golf

courses in the U.S., and is intended to provide perspective as to the

geography of courses that are either open or have temporarily

suspended golf operations.




Nationwide, nearly half of golf facilities are open – perhaps to the surprise

of many. Likewise, almost half are closed – the majority of those having

suspended operations due to implications of the coronavirus, whether by

choice or government order.

That inconsistency can be a point of contention in and out of an industry

that has an annual economic impact of more than $84 billion in the U.S.

Even in spots where there are restrictions, golf is still being played.

New York City is the epicenter of coronavirus cases and deaths, leading to

widespread statewide shutdowns that now includes golf. The latest clarification

allows members at the state’s private clubs access to the property to play

golf provided there are no gatherings of any kind and appropriate social

distancing. And a few public facilities in New York continue to operate as





Procedures and Protocols

A raised cup on the green prevents golfers from reaching into the cup

after a made putt, one of the many safety precautions golf facilities

have taken to limit high-touch areas.




In a vacuum, it seems reasonable that golf should be able to be played

in many areas given the proper modification of behaviors by participants

and operators alike. The reality some policy-makers are forced to face,

or consider, is whether all golfers and all golf course employees will be

able to adhere to these new safety procedures.


CLICK HERE for a rundown of virus-focused safety protocols

Connecticut is one of the few states in the Northeast that doesn’t have a

statewide ban on golf operations, yet there are local restrictions, including

some implemented in areas where play was previously permitted. In

Naugatuck, the mayor stepped in to shut down a local course after a

resident posted a video to social media of golfers failing to adhere to social

-distancing guidelines. In Meriden, the municipal Hunter Golf Course was

closed by the city after large turnouts of golfers gathering in the parking

lot after their rounds put players and employees at risk.

In Florida, which has the most golf courses in the U.S. and a license plate

that lays claim to being the “Golf Capital of the World,” openings and closures

vary from county to county. In Martin County, for example, public courses

are open to play to county residents only. Those who live in adjacent Palm

Beach County, where golf courses are closed, are out of luck – unless, of

course, they have an existing membership at a private club located in Martin


Despite the often confusing and confounding inconsistencies in golf availability

and where golfers’ opinions lie in whether it should be played where they live,

the good news for golf is that it is well-positioned to be among the first businesses

or activities that are phased back into operation in areas where operations are

currently suspended. Given its popularity as an outdoor activity conducive to

distancing, it’s sure to be a safe and appealing option as the gradual progression

of business operations resumes in many states.

In other states – from Arizona to the Carolinas — it’s not business as normal

by any means, but golf goes on. As do debates about play versus no play and

essential versus non-essential.