COVID-19: Safe tee first: Courses gear up for new-look golf to protect players, staff

London-area clubs have been busily preparing since Premier Doug Ford told them to start getting ready a week ago.

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Every so often, Colin Scatcherd drives past Oakwood Resort and it’s almost too much to bear.

“There was no winter kill and the course is just gorgeous,” said the director of golf at the Grand Bend staple. “I just look at it and cry. It’s upsetting.”

The traditional spring “good walk spoiled” has been, so far, foiled in Ontario by the coronavirus. But London-area clubs have been gearing up since Premier Doug Ford told them to start getting ready a week ago.

Full swing, with the pastime already green-lighted in most of Canada, is imminent, perhaps as early as the Victoria Day long weekend.

So once it starts, what is a round going to look like?

“The actual playing of the game won’t change much,” said Tim McKeiver, head golf pro at the London Hunt Club, said. “We expect this after talking to colleagues across the country, like in B.C., where golf was never mandated to shut down. I anticipate people playing 18 holes in the same four-hour period. It shouldn’t be a problem to keep golfers in the same group adhering to physical distancing.


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“There’s no need to stand right next to someone when you play golf, anyway.”

Getting to the first tee will be much more regimented. Each club, based on geography from car to course, will have to work that out. It’s almost certain no one will be allowed to arrive more than 20 minutes before a scheduled tee-time.

A text message or a personal signal from a club representative will be one of the more familiar ways to alert golfers it is safe to leave their vehicles. Some clubs will start by sending out four or five groups each hour.

The Hunt Club has looked at expanding the time between group tee-offs (usually nine minutes, but likely now 10). Every second counts in the safety business. They have also sent a video to members about what to expect.

“It’s controlling people around the parking lot and making sure there are limited numbers,” said Rick Pero, golf director at Highland Country Club. “If you open your range and putting green, you can use those as on-deck areas. Group on the tee leaves, the putting green group then goes to the tees. The whole key is to limit social gatherings and eliminate touch points.”

Rick Pero, the golf pro at Highland Country Club in London, Ont. Photograph taken on Thursday May 7, 2020. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

That means no benches, ball washers or bunker rakes. You will now play preferred lies in the sand and smooth out the disruption with your foot.

No pencils or ball markers, either, making it a bit of a golf cheat’s dream.

Flagsticks will not be touched, which has sparked several alternate methods of removing a ball from the hole. The most popular is putting a piece of pool noodle in the cup, allowing a quick, two-finger scoop so you don’t touch the liner.


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“The first caveat is hearing what the province is going to allow us to do,” said Sunningdale GM Brad Adams. “We’ve seen other provinces have a list that mandates 10, up to 20, temporary measures in order to open a golf course.

“You have your ideas and then react to what’s being put in place. I’m following real closely what’s happening around the country.”

Carts are one of the biggest issues.

Some courses won’t offer them right away. Others will limit rides to one per person unless you live in the same house and have ID to prove it.

“Every time they’re used, they have to be cleaned,” Scatcherd said, “so you can’t let them get mixed up. They have to be parked by the golfer and stay in one place until they’re sanitized. It’s the same for the bathrooms. It’s daunting for course employees. When it opens, we’re becoming front-line workers.

“We’ll probably have to wear masks and do the whole nine to make sure it’s a safe environment.”

Payment is a breeze for clubs with memberships. It won’t be so easy for the rest of the courses.

And what happens if there’s a rain delay?

Golfers will have to head back to their vehicles and wait.

Golf courses like FireRock in Komoka will likely open soon according to recent Doug Ford statements after being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Photograph taken on Saturday May 2, 2020. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

Pro shops, if open at all, will encourage online ordering and put in the same measures you find at the grocery store and LCBO. Most clubs hope to offer take-out service, with Plexiglas screens up to protect members and staff.

Every course expects routine inspections from health authorities.

“If there is any rule-breaking, everything could be shut down again,” Pero said. “We’re trying to not only get open again, but get golf available for our members to play in a safe environment, know they can come here and then go home and not affect the health of their families.”


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For a while, it will just be golf. No tournaments, no gatherings — just the game itself.

In this world, that’s plenty.

“I’ve walked the course and I’m very hungry to get out there,” said Patty Howard, the retired hall-of-fame golf pro who calls Sunningdale home. “It’s exciting to think we’ll be able to get out soon. This is an easy sport to get back to during this difficult time. There isn’t any contact. Physical separation is part of the game.”

Every birdie and double-bogey will matter to the competitive sort, but there is a built-in mental freedom to playing nine or 18 holes.

That part of it has never been so important.

“It’ll make a world of difference for so many people,” Adams said. “We’ve been walking our neighbourhood streets. To get out and play golf with your spouse or closest buddies will be an absolute breath of fresh air.”

Golf was always designed for relaxation and leisure.

“Now, more than ever, it’s about health,” Scatcherd said. “People need to get out and think of things other than the worst things. It’s going to be different at the start, but it’s still about having fun and it’s exciting to think it’ll start again soon.”


Ontario: Courses were able to start non-essential work as part of opening preparations May 4

Quebec: Pro shops permitted to open with restrictions May 4

British Columbia: Courses were never mandated to close

Alberta: Golf started May 2

Saskatchewan: Due to start golf next Friday

Manitoba: Golf started May 4

New Brunswick: Opened April 24

Nova Scotia: Driving ranges open, including those at golf clubs. Clubs can perform necessary maintenance and prepare for opening

Prince Edward Island: Golf started May 1

Newfoundland and Labrador: Due to start Monday