With clear guidelines for effective social distancing, is there hope for a return to golf in the near future and how might that look?
What Might Golf Look Like After Lockdown?
During the lockdown period, there has been increasing clamour within the golfing world that golf, in clearly defined and regulated circumstances should be allowed as a form of exercise.
The argument for this is that golf is one of the very few outdoor activities that can be conducted while maintaining social distancing.
The Government has been gathering evidence on which sports can effectively social distance and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden hinted that golf, fishing and bowls were being looked at.
Other countries such as Denmark, Austria and Germany have allowed golf to be restarted with restrictions, Ireland is considering a restart, so why not us?
Before complete lockdown, many clubs were allowing play with no rakes in bunkers, raised cups and so on.
Most are now planning for a possible restart.
We spoke with Colin Mayes, CEO of Burhill Group Limited (BGL) that operates 22 courses over six golf centres and four golf clubs across the UK, and Rob McGuirk, General Manager of Prince’s Golf Club in Kent, to get their thoughts on the likelihood of a return to golf in the near future and what golf might look like immediately after lockdown.
“I think a restart in this country reasonably soon is realistic,” says Colin Mayes.
“There’s been quite a bit of lobbying from the UK golf course federation, the PGA and R&A. I’ve been talking to a number of politicians to suggest that, golf is an outdoor sport in which we can manage social distancing.”
Rob McGuirk is also quietly optimistic about golf’s imminent return.
“I think with European countries starting to relax the restrictions, Ireland considering a restart, I would hope that it makes sense for us to be next,” he says.
With that possibility in mind, clubs need to be prepared to operate a little differently.
Each club will take their own approach, but a consistent factor will be the requirement to ensure social distancing is maintained at all times.
Most clubs have an online booking facility, and many will make this mandatory.
Tee times might be spaced further apart and there could be a stipulation that golfers arrive no earlier than 10 minutes before their time, to avoid crowding at the first tee.
On arrival, it might be possible to use only every other space in the car park.
Play might be restricted to singles or two-balls.
On course, there should be no touching of the flag with raised cups used.
In Europe some clubs are drawing a circle around the hole of set diameter.
If the ball hits the raised cup and stays within the circle, the putt is deemed holed.
Rakes could be removed, or bunkers put out of play completely.
There could be guidelines that only the player (not his partner/s) would be permitted to search for a ball.
Handshaking would be out, as would exchanging cards or touching another player’s equipment.
“I think we’ll start with two ball golf with online booking only,” says Rob McGuirk.
“I can’t see the clubhouse being open immediately, so at first I think we’ll need to use a course marshal – making sure people are adhering to the rules but also making sure we don’t see people jumping on to the course for a free game.”
Colin Mayes has been video conferencing regularly with all the BGL facility managers to draw up a co-ordinated plan of attack for a restart.
“Our re-opening plans are pretty well laid out now,” he says.
“I actually believe we could manage fourballs, but we’ll follow guidelines on that. You would have clear spacing on each tee, with lines to indicate where players should stand – they don’t move up to the tee until their turn to hit. There’s a social responsibility on everyone to maintain distance.”
One of the challenges will be the rush to play when restrictions are lifted.
After such an extended break, golfers will be itching to get out on course.
Evidence from Europe suggests there could be a huge spike in demand.
“The only fair way to do it will be on a first come, first served basis,” says Colin Mayes.
“We have a mixture of membership and pay and play across our clubs, and we’ll try wherever possible to give members the first opportunity. We’ll have to monitor it pretty closely though.”
At Prince’s, Rob McGuirk is hoping to be able to welcome visitors as soon as the sport restarts.
“We’ve had a lot of calls from people looking to come down and play. As long as we take the payments online, they can book times and choose their courses,” he says
“We just need to be strong and consistent in the message to them so they know exactly what they can and can’t do. What is and isn’t open. But I think most people will be quite savvy with that. The great thing about our courses is how much space we have. We could have 100 people out there and we wouldn’t even see them. But we would probably look to put starting blocks in, so we may do between 8 and 10 and then have half an hour rest in order to really let the golf flow through. We don’t want it to be packed.”
Rob stresses how important it is that both members and visitors have a pleasant experience when coming to play and feel relaxed despite the restrictions.
“I’ve met with a company who have been doing a lot of printing for the government for social distancing guidance,” he says.
“They help to put in one-way systems and can provide signage with the club’s branding. It won’t be red and white or yellow – nothing hazardous. It will just be gentle reminders from the car park right the way through.”
As Rob says, the likelihood is that, even if golf is allowed to restart, clubhouses may well have to remain closed. But clubs should still be planning for how they may be able to reopen facilities in future.
“Our reopening plans include making sure we have all the necessary PPE for example,” says Colin Mayes. “We’ll also have signage and markers on the ground in each area of the clubhouses. Each facility is different though, for instance at Burhill we have quite a bit of space so we could manage it. With clubhouses though, I think it will be a slow-moving situation and that seems sensible to me.”
Despite all the challenges, both Colin and Rob are confident there will be positives to come out of the crisis.
“I think we could see a busy mid to late summer,” says Colin Mayes.
“People who would have been going abroad, may now look to stay home and will be looking for activities. Golf here could benefit from that. The other positive thing I think might be people really seeing the benefits and value of their club memberships. Sometimes you only see what a good thing you have when it’s taken away.”
Rob also feels golf could bounce back strongly.
“Not only will people be super keen to play anyway, but we’ll also potentially have three Majors and a Ryder Cup. We could see a great second half to the year. Given the courses are looking absolutely pristine with the lack of traffic, I’m very hopeful,” he says.
Golf’s return could feasibly come reasonably soon.
Together with other individual outdoor pursuits where social distancing can be managed, golf can provide the fresh air, exercise and activity that are so important to general physical and mental health.
Finger’s crossed, we’ll be back out on the fairways before too long.
What Might Golf Look Like After Lockdown?
10 Point Summary
1. The Government has been gathering evidence on which sports can effectively social distance. Golf is being looked at.
2. Other countries such as Denmark, Austria and Germany have allowed golf to be restarted with restrictions, Ireland is considering a restart.
3. Courses could reopen with restrictions to ensure social distancing.
4. Clubs would need clear signage from car park onward and around course to gently remind players of requirement to distance responsibly.
5. Play might be restricted to singles or two-balls.
6. Clubs will need strategy for coping with initial rush upon reopening. Some might restrict to members only initially.
7. Clubs will need to manage bookings, payment and spacing of tee times to allow for distancing and lack of contact.
8. Clubhouses unlikely to be able to open in a first instance.
9. Clubs should look to have a plan established to facilitate clubhouse opening in future – one-way systems, signage, markers on floor to show correct distancing etc.
10. Golfers likely to stay in UK through the summer could mean a boost for clubs in the second half of the year.
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