Golf in the Time of COVID-19: A Retiree’s Journey to the Bottom of the Hole

The writer, Ralph Peluso, on his home course in Delaware. (Family photo)

Retired and no spare time. That’s what living in an active 55-and-over community produces: too many things to do.  Budgeting time is harder than when I was working 60+ hours a week.

That was until mid-March when the state’s shelter-in-place orders hit.  Fitness center, pool, tennis, all communal activities ceased abruptly.  Social distancing quickly ingrained into our daily vernacular. Growing numbers of people wearing masks and rubber gloves for routine activities. Movie theaters closed, but current releases streamed for a nifty $20.  Going out means dinner on your porch after curbside pickup from the local restaurant.

The weekly go-to activity: sitting in your driveway to watch a car parade go by, hopefully surviving the horn cacophony. Then, the last bastion of social enjoyment falls. The place where, against the odds, you give monies freely. Casinos closed.

What is left for the average retiree to do?

Read, jigsaw puzzles, cooking, knitting, grooming the pets, and so on. Not enough for those craving physical activity. Thankfully, my state, kept golf open. But not without COVID-19 modifications to the great sport that provides hours of expected social interaction. To remain open, the course had to adopt and enforce strict guidelines.

Golf in the time of COVID-19.   Play only for those with “eternal fidelity and everlasting love” for the game.

The state guidelines seem simple enough. Easy, precautionary steps of course:

  • No longer provide motorized or pull carts
  • Raise cup or insert a 3-inch sponge to avoid players from touching cup or flag
  • Tee times are 20 minutes apart
  • Enforce social distancing between players
  • Restaurant and beverage service cannot be provided
  • Sanitize bathrooms
  • Require golfer to wear mask when within six feet of another golfer

Well, the last one does throw a sane person for a loop.

Confined for 10 days, I was chomping on the bit to play. I did not care about restrictions. I called, and surprisingly, I got a midday tee time. Pulling into the parking lot, I noticed the makeshift sign near the bag drop.

Curbside check in … entry into pro shop restricted to ONE MASKED player at a time. Please stay at least 6 feet apart. Handle your own bags.

OK. That was a straight forward set of directions. I sensed more to follow.  Hey, I saved a tip.

I pulled my bag and a 20-year-old pull cart from my trunk. Dry rot caused one of the bag’s security straps to break in my hand. No problem. Using bungee cords I secured the bag.  Who does not have spare bungees handy?

Check-in was quick.  An Oz-like voice from beyond the door, “Go to starter’s booth.”

There I was paired with three masked strangers. And they were destined to stay that way under the draconian guidelines. Darts shot from their eyes as they stared at my naked face.  Then I saw another makeshift sign:

  • Start on # 10
  • Pin Placement 1 (front back middle), except par 3’s pin placement 2
  • No ball washers
  • No sand bottles
  • No rakes
  • Odd number holes have raised cup
  • Even number holes have a sponge insert
  • Do NOT touch the cup, the insert, or the flag
  • No scorecards or pencils
  • Tees not provided.
  • Pick up tees after use
  • DO NOT pick up tees left behind
  • Please fix all divots
  • Players shall only touch their own balls
  • Do not pick up another player’s club
  • Beverage coolers are removed
  • NO OUTSIDE FOOD or DRINK
  • Restaurant and snack bar closed
  • No beverage cart service
  • Winter rules apply
  • Use of gloves and masks highly recommended
  • Course bathrooms closed
  • Maintain social distancing and other safety rules.
  • Players without masks must keep a 6-foot distance
  • Rangers patrol for compliance.
  • No playing through
  • Violators will be directed to leave course
  • No refunds
  • Enjoy your round!

 NO MORE FIST BUMPING or ELBOW TOUCHING – Touch Clubs Instead

Inside the starter’s booth, a man with surgical mask robotically asked: “Did you read rules?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Make sure you follow them. Start on 10.”

He pointed over his shoulder. The tenth tee was in the opposite direction.

Someone had a twisted sense of humor. The list was too long to remember. The stroll was likely five hours and eight miles. No beverage cart! Luckily I had a water bottle and crackers stashed in my bag.

I started to go.  “Stay two full holes behind,” the man barked.

At the tee, one of the three strangers I just met, spoke.

“You want in on a $2 Nassau? Double for birdies. “

“Nope, I do not bet.”

“How do you enjoy the game?” he asked.

“I just do. Don’t enjoy drama or debates, OK?”

Play went without incident until the first green. Walking off, I noticed an abandoned wedge greenside. . The others were already walking to the second hole. First conundrum. I am sure it will be alright if I grab the club. But then again, it might be frowned upon. after all a rule is a rule. I went on.

After hitting my drive, I asked “Did anyone leave a wedge behind?”

I’ll call the other players Moe, Larry and Curly for simplicity.  Moe answered sharply, “No” The others remained silent.  On we played in silence while maintaining proper distance.

At the first par three, Curly missed the green. Left with a pitch to get on, Curly noticed his absent gap wedge. He yelled, “Did anyone see up my wedge.”

Moe gruffly answered, pointing at me, “That guy.”

“You left it on the first green” I said.

“What? You saw it and left it there! How stupid are you?” he said even louder.

“First off, the rules. But I did ask if anyone left a club behind. You did not answer. Why are you yelling?”

“I forgot my hearing aids. Rule is you always pick up a forgotten club. Everyone knows that’s protocol. Now YOU go and get it,” he yelled again.

The situation was about to escalate when a course ranger approached.

“Someone lose this?” he asked.  “Next time a club is left, it’s getting tossed.” He wore rubber gloves.

Things turned frostier in this already icy foursome. I felt like Tonto amongst a pack of imitation Lone Rangers. They kept to themselves for the most part. The only words spoken related to the scoring. So much for golf being the prime example of a social-distancing sport. During this ordeal, I realized social distancing became a social chasm.

At the turn, the ranger slowed us down. We were a mere ten minutes behind the group in front of us. With time to kill, the Stooges compared scores, painstakingly hole by hole. Moe carded a 42, on pace for his best-ever round, taking all but one hole. He was up $32.

“Smacking the raised cup shouldn’t count,” the agitated Curly barked.

“Rules apply the same,” Moe replied.

“Because you putt like a gorilla,” Larry added.

“I do not care; this is my best round ever!” Moe exclaimed

At the back nine, anew set of challenges arose. A small sign was there that read “greens aerated.”

“Wonderful” Curly said, pissed and sarcastic.

Finally, Larry chimed in. “Let’s press the back. Otherwise we have no chance.”

Funny, I thought he was a mute. I knew what he meant: bets double.

With three holes to go, Moe’s winnings had evaporated. As legs grew weary, tempers shortened.  No talking, no chewing, no rustling the grass. Everything annoyed someone else.

On 17, Moe pounded a putt off the raised cup, saving par. The ball stopped after hitting Larry’s foot.

“Gorilla putt!”  Larry said, picking up the ball then tossing it to Moe. Of course, the ranger had just pulled up.

“Hey, you know the rule about the balls!” the ranger reminded us. “Pick up your pace. We’re getting complaints about slow play.”

I expected the ball comment. But pace? Really? We had just one hole left to play. Truth is, we were slower than a darter snail.

Moe, feeling pretty good, asked, “I call press for the last hole?” Bets doubled again. Our pace decelerated more.

Finally, on the green of the long closing hole, Moe was up. Painstakingly he examined the 40-foot birdie opportunity. The trailing foursome impatiently watched from about a hundred yards away. The marshal purposefully marched toward us.  “Guys, finish up.”

Moe startled, stepped back, and started his long routine again.

I wanted the round over, so I spoke up. “I do not need to putt. If he sinks this, game over.”  All nodded. Moe had never won money in all they years they’d been playing.

Moe firmly hit the ball. It headed straight for the cup. As the ball dropped in, it hit a slightly raised portion of the foam and popped out. Continuing down a long slope, Curly and Larry made their pars. Moe ended with a bogey. He had to pay up. But of course, at first, he objected. He ranted the putt should count.

We asked the marshal.  He agreed ball needed to stay in cup.

“Will you be posting your score today, Moe? he asked. “We’ll provide rubber gloves to wear at the computer.”

“Hell no. Thanks to the cup, I’m 10 under: my all-time best. I do not need my handicap to go down artificially.”

Moe was denied victory, though the round was a personal best and left his handicap unimpacted. Tomorrow will bring another restriction: NO BALL FISHING!  That’s golf in the time of COVID-19.