The long-term effects of Covid-19 on golf in the United States

The long-term effects of Covid-19 on golf in the United States
Mike DeVries
By Mike DeVries

During these most challenging of times, golf in America has been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic in many ways. Numerous states have forbidden the playing of the game while others have allowed it to continue albeit with restrictions that ensure that social distancing protocols are followed. How will this impact the golf industry and what are the post-pandemic expectations for players and administrators alike?


In my home state of Michigan, play was prohibited until the issuing of a new government order last week allowing it to recommence with restrictions. Even with courses opening for play, there is still significant maintenance to do as the turf wakes up after its long winter hibernation. Typically, Masters Week in early April heralds the beginning of northern golfers returning to the links to enjoy exercise, camaraderie and nature. But this year, with stay-at-home orders in place, the majority of course superintendents in this part of the country are trying to figure out how to prepare their courses with reduced labour resources and the potential for large cuts in their budgets.


Superintendents are typically very resourceful. In the face of these unique conditions, I am certain they will figure out ways to get things done. Some are splitting their staff between different start times or shifts so that reduced interaction between workers and social distancing can be built into schedules. In regular times, staff would only undertake a thorough clean of their work environment and break rooms on a rainy day or during odd times in the schedule. Now, the disinfection of equipment and common areas is a priority, with time having to be allotted for such activities on every shift. Keeping people safe and healthy is everyone’s primary focus.


Craig Moore, superintendent at Marquette Golf Club (home of the Greywalls course, pictured, which I designed in 2005) in Marquette, Michigan, oversees the maintenance of the club’s 36 holes. In a normal year, its location in the far north of the country prevents him from having the courses open until mid-April or early-May since, once the spring weather has awoken sufficiently, there is a lot of preparatory work to do before golfers can commence play. He appreciates that members, their guests, and daily fee players all want to be out there as soon as possible. But due to this season’s pandemic, his staff have yet to return and he has had to develop methods for executing upcoming maintenance work that will be respectful of everyone’s health and safety yet suitably efficient. He also needs to be mindful of budgetary concerns. His decisions are going to be heavily influenced by government mandates which have yet to be properly clarified. Should play not be permitted, maintenance will be at reduced levels and with minimal staff. Such a scenario would allow for the quick revival of playing surfaces. If the courses are open for play but with reduced rounds (and revenue) permitted on account of social distancing measures, adjustments will have to be made to increase team efficiency and deliver savings, both from a time and labour perspective.


For the foreseeable future, how we play golf is also going to be different. Walking may be mandated in order to avoid the risk of contaminating other users of carts. Where carts are allowed, players may well be restricted to one per vehicle, thereby increasing the wear to turf from increased traffic. Disinfection of carts will be critical to prevent the spread of the virus. Courses will likely be devoid of objects that are frequently touched by golfers and/or employees such as tee markers, ball washers, bunker rakes, benches, signage, water stations, etc. Flagsticks will not be allowed to be removed and cups will be above the surface or filled so ball retrieval is possible keeping players remain safe from potential contamination. This change of ‘scenery’ may be a blessing in disguise. Imagine the uncluttered look of a golf course with only the contours of the ground, hazards, grass lines, and a flag in the distance – a beautiful sight that breaks the game down to its essential elements.


Over the years, golf in America has developed a very polished look to it, with perfect turf and deep green grass often cited as the ideal standard. Watching the Masters every spring and seeing Augusta National in all its glory sets a very high bar for conditioning that many clubs aspire to emulate. While the Masters is certainly a highlight for golfers everywhere, it is unrealistic for a club to maintain its course in the same manner as Augusta week in and week out, especially within the confines of a normal budget.


In contrast, golf in both the British Isles and Australia typically has had less to do with how a course looks and more with how it plays. Turf conditioning is often excellent without extreme measures being taken to make everything picture-perfect at all times. Consider most Open Championship courses and how they appear in comparison to Augusta. The overall aesthetic is more natural, with Mother Nature affecting the course’s condition just as much as the superintendent and his team. Walking is also much more prevalent than in the US, with golfers carrying their bag, taking a caddie, or pushing a trolley. Many American golfers love playing overseas and relish their experiences there. Is this just because it is different from their ‘home game’ or because the whole golfing experience there is more enjoyable?


With the series of mandated changes to socialisation and human contact in the Covid-19 era, golf in America will have to change and maybe for the better. Those that have been forced away from playing the game during the lockdown are eager to get out and play, no matter the state of the game or the restrictions. Club’s budgets will be tightened due to reduced income streams. Their members may, therefore, have to adjust their expectations with regard to conditioning. In order to save on maintenance, grass will likely not be cut as frequently. Bunkers will not have rakes readily available, so players will have to smooth out their own footprints and treat bunkers as true hazards with questionable lies. This may also make golfers more considerate. They may well clean up after themselves, knowing that they may be subject to those conditions themselves next time around.


If a course is closed for an indeterminate amount of time, mowing heights will probably be raised, just as northern courses typically do in the late fall when preparing for the arrival of winter and snow. At Marquette, Craig is considering raising the height of cut on his greens to .135 or .150 inches (from the normal .125) in anticipation of the delay. Will his greens be a little slower? Yes, but the turf will have more leaf tissue to absorb sunlight, which in turn will increase photosynthesis and energy production. Stronger turf with less stress and less threat of disease saves time and money through reduced labour and inputs. Craig always does an excellent job maintaining his turf. I know his greens will be firm and roll true, even if they are a tad slower on the stimpmeter. It may allow him to place cups on slightly steeper parts of the greens. This will lead to more interesting flagstick locations and an increased variety in the course’s daily setup. Ultimately, that will translate into more fun and thought-provoking shots, reflecting the true heart and soul of the sport.


Golf provides a great outlet for exercise and a much-needed sense of normalcy during these difficult times. The structure of the average course’s activities provides a prime example of social distancing by spreading out groups every 300-400 yards. Additionally, players can safely separate themselves from each other when on tees and greens. They can still talk and socialise as they walk down a hole – no one ever said that social distancing must exclude such interaction.


We can emerge from the Covid-19 era with a better idea of what is really important about our favourite pastime. We’ll walk, play, and exercise while engaging with others, and still pursue that little white ball. By simplifying its ‘touches’ and carefully limiting the potential for exposure to the virus, golf maintenance might just deliver us a more sustainable model. Golf may become more affordable and, therefore, more popular to a wider demographic. The ‘grow the game’ initiatives of the last few years have been searching for new ways to interest more people. Perhaps the restrictions and related impacts of this challenging period will point the game back towards its humbler roots and make it more popular than ever.