The PGA Tour is scheduled to resume competition June 11 in Fort Worth, Texas. I’m not here to predict whether that will happen or should happen. What I’m here to do: throw my clubs into the back of the car, lace up the (soft) spikes and see what playing golf feels like in the midst of a crippling pandemic.
A normal drive to the golf course can be loaded with feelings: anticipation and excitement, but maybe even angst and anxiety depending on the state of my game and the stature of the course that awaits. This drive — my first to a golf course in 6½ weeks — brought an unusual amount of apprehension.
As in, “Is this the right thing to be doing?”
Golf courses in the District of Columbia and Maryland are closed by order of their respective governments. The novel coronavirus has impacted all sorts of businesses, but particularly those deemed nonessential, and there’s little arguing that golf courses should take on an “essential” label. But in Virginia, if local and county officials feel as if it’s safe to be open, they’re allowed. So off I went Tuesday morning to Penderbrook Golf Club in Fairfax County.
There were some questions, though. Given that my normal routine now includes putting on a mask when I walk the dog, it was worth wondering: Is this safe?
“I do think that golf is one of the relatively safer sports to play in this era of the pandemic,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security who is an expert in infectious diseases. “It naturally engenders itself to social distancing. It’s not a contact sport. It’s played outdoors. And there are ways to modify it to reduce the risks.”
That’s encouraging. Penderbook, it was clear from the beginning of the process, made an effort to fit its services to the times. Payment had to be made in advance when booking a tee time online; there would be no transactions in the pro shop, which was closed anyway. Golfers were asked to print their booking confirmation and bring it with them to the course. Scorecards and pencils wouldn’t be offered; if you wanted to track your progress, print a card off the website and tote it along.
Another notice on the club’s website excitedly proclaimed that “Flagsticks are back in!!!” but immediately afterward cautioned, “Please remember to not touch the flagsticks at all.” Thankful to have a target at which to shoot, I would be sure not to graze it. Anyway, according to Adalja, “A lot of people are hung up on the flag or picking up the ball from the cup, but there’s really minimal risk there.”
When I pulled in for a tee time just after 10:30 a.m., the skies were gray, and it wasn’t much more than 50 degrees out, but the parking lot was rather full. On a Tuesday, in lousy conditions, it was clear people don’t have many options to get out these days. The starter with whom golfers checked in not only stood behind a podium stationed outside the clubhouse but also wore a mask and was cordoned off from customers by police tape. Welcome to our club. Please keep your distance. It made me feel better about what was ahead.
Some courses are limiting carts to one golfer apiece unless the two share a home, and they are cleaning them thoroughly, but I prefer to walk anyway. So after warming up on the putting green — which was flanked by a sign that blared, “No more than 5 people” and encouraged players to remain six feet from one another and requested that only one golfer use each hole — I headed to the first tee. I had hoped to play alone, but given the packed schedule, I held out little hope. What I got was the next-best thing: a pairing with another solo golfer. Let’s call him Richard because his name was Richard.
In these situations, Richard is exactly with whom you want to be paired: a retiree who didn’t outwardly care whether I duffed my first tee ball (which I did), who cursed after his own wayward shots, who was quick with a story but not stifling with conversation.
Richard and I didn’t mention social distancing when we met on the first tee, but we didn’t shake hands, either. We seemed to have an understanding. I don’t think we came within 10 feet of each other in our time together. I brought a mask and had vowed to myself I would wear it if my playing partners crept too close. It remained in my pocket.
By the third hole, a light rain fell. By the sixth, the pelting was more steady. By the end of the seventh, Richard said he would head in and wait it out. He was being sensible. I trudged forward.
My game stunk, either because I was rusty or terrible at golf or both. (Probably both.) I chunked wedges and bladed irons. I hadn’t packed rain gear, and the water soaked through both my pullover and my pants. I got cold. But goodness gracious, it felt glorious.
There is some debate about reopening golf courses in other places. The golfdc.com website — which manages tee times at D.C.’s three municipal courses — says the group wants to offer play May 16, the day after Democratic Mayor Muriel Bowser’s stay-home order is scheduled to expire. It urges golfers to share their voice on social media with the hashtag #AppealToReinstateGolfAsAllowable, clumsy but clear. Emails from Maryland courses such as Worthington Manor in Frederick County say such facilities are “hopeful” about reopening, in part because “golf is a low-risk outdoor activity.”
“Nothing is without risk,” Adalja told me by phone. “It’s really going to boil down to a person’s risk tolerance. The virus isn’t going anywhere. It’s here until we have a vaccine. But if your choice is playing rugby or playing golf, it’s clear which one is less likely to be risky. As this social distancing continues, golf is something that I think is a relatively safe activity.”
On one gray, rainy Tuesday in the spring, it felt that way. That I put my game together over the final several holes felt appropriate, too: Even in abnormal times, golf has a way of driving you insane, then sucking you back in. The virus can’t kill that quality.
I’m not going to call for all states to open their courses; that’s a decision for smarter people considering more factors and facts that I’m not privy to. I’m still somewhat uncomfortable with the optics of engaging in such a mundane activity during what are challenging — and dangerous — times. I don’t know whether it’s wise for 156 golfers and 156 caddies, not to mention officials and television staff and all the rest, to gather in Texas in a month and a half to play a PGA Tour event.
But I also know what it felt like Tuesday to hit a lousy shot and, for a blink, have that be my biggest worry. It felt awesome.