The coronavirus pandemic emptied out tee boxes, fairways and greens as it spread through the country. Now, golf is returning to one of the few remaining states that continued to keep its courses shut down.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Wednesday that golf, tennis, boating, fishing and camping are once again considered safe outdoor activities, effective Thursday at 7 a.m., paving the way for shuttered courses to reopen across the state.
“After much discussion yesterday, all of our doctors and scientists are now in agreement that we are able to move forward with resuming some additional, lower-risk, outdoor activities,” Mr. Hogan said.
The state’s golf courses had been shut down since March 23, when Hogan told all nonessential businesses to close.
The governor’s office released guidelines and best practices for courses to reopen, which said that staff must be limited to management and essential golf and maintenance crew. Organized activities like golf camps and recreational leagues must remain suspended, and pro shops and clubhouses cannot yet open.
A National Golf Foundation survey found that 47 states were allowing golf as of this week, while Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts and the District had not yet lifted their orders against it. (Vermont’s courses will also reopen Thursday.) Locally, Delaware and Virginia never banned golf as part of their pandemic response efforts, and Pennsylvania reopened its courses last Friday.
Maryland’s decision came down as its golfers were itching to return — and as one public course in Urbana, Maryland, privately planned a defiant reopening for its members.
Little more than an hour before the golf ban was lifted, Robert Sturges, the owner of Worthington Manor Golf Club, emailed the club’s members saying it would reopen Thursday despite not having official clearance from the government.
In the email, obtained by The Washington Times, Sturges took aim at the Republican governor’s perceived indifference to the local golf industry’s concerns and said he was left no choice but to reopen without his go-ahead.
“Governor Hogan has said on numerous occasions, ‘I’m a lifelong small businessman, and nothing matters to me more than getting our economy back on track,’” Sturges wrote. “Worthington Manor Golf Club is a small family business. We have adopted appropriate and guided safety measures so we can safely operate. The Governor has been unresponsive.”
Mr. Sturges wrote that the course’s social media accounts would not post anything about reopening and asked members to refrain as well, seeming to signal a quiet approach to the planned civil disobedience.
But it’s disobedient no longer, and Worthington Manor will be prepared when golfers inevitably arrive. Elsewhere in the state, some officials at courses in Anne Arundel County told the Capital-Gazette they’ve kept their courses in shape and had plans in place to reopen with 24 or 48 hours’ notice.
“All of our neighbors are open for golf, so we have taxpayer money moving into other states,” Crofton Country Club general manager Ray Sauser told the Capital-Gazette. “We recently had a group of 50 players going to Virginia to get in a couple rounds. Obviously, other states have learned how to adjust their operations to be safe.”
Golf is one of a precious few sports that can be played safely during a pandemic like COVID-19 — there is no shared equipment, it’s noncontact and players in the same foursome can maintain social distance.
Golfers at all levels have relied on that logic when justifying playing their sport of choice, including the pros. The PGA Tour plans to begin playing tournaments again starting June 11. This month, there are even plans for at least two charity matches with star golfers — one involving Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and star quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning that is rumored for Memorial Day Weekend.
Still, golfers returning to the links will have to take extra precautions that have become a standard part of pandemic-era life. Mr. Sturges wrote in his email that players will be required to sign a “golfer code of conduct and COVID-19 release form.”
In other states where golf never stopped, players were still expected to follow social distancing. Harry Griffin, co-owner of Glenwood Golf Course in Richmond, told The Washington Times his staff was cleaning golf carts with bleach every day. Some courses only allowed one person per cart.
Joseph Beditz, president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation, wrote this week that while an estimated 79% of golf courses in the country were open, that represented more of a “yellow light” than a “green light” for the sport moving forward.
“As I’ll continue to say, golf has an opportunity to lead by example, showing it can be played safely and responsibly in the midst of a pandemic,” Mr. Beditz wrote. “Course owners and operators need to keep following local rules and adjusting to our ‘new normal.’ And we need to continue to remind golfers that they’re playing before the biggest gallery of their lives, as well-publicized screwups could turn the yellow lights back to red.”