Avid golfer Tom Nacu would normally be itching to play his first round of the season by this time of year, if he hadn’t already. But 2020 is unlike any other.
Nacu and millions of other golfers in Canada are stuck without a game because most of country’s 2,400 golf courses are closed. They’ve been deemed non-essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic and thus are shuttered until they’re safe to open.
But if there were ever a sport that seemed well-suited to the physical distancing requirements of a public health crisis, say enthusiasts like Nacu, it’s golf.
“You’re outdoors; it’s like walking through a park,” he said from his home in Grimsby, Ont. “As long as you’re not high-fiving each other every time you make a good shot, it just seems like … an easy sport to do safely, given the current conditions.”
British Columbia is currently the only province with operating golf courses. Even against the recent advice of Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and governing body British Columbia Golf, about 100 courses are reportedly open, with many resuming operations over the past several days after taking a hiatus of a few weeks. They are running with safety measures that include fewer available tee times and bans on carts (or shared carts) and touching the flagstick.
Nacu can only be envious of B.C. He is so frustrated he can’t play in Ontario that he launched a petition through the change.org website, calling on Premier Doug Ford to relax the prohibition that has been in place on golf courses and other outdoor recreation facilities, including playgrounds, parks and off-leash dog areas, since March 24. The shutdown is expected to last until at least May 12.
“Golf certainly isn’t essential – nobody is trying to argue that,” said Nacu, who owns a home services company and usually plays about 30 rounds a year. “I’m just saying: Why not allow certain exemptions for things that realistically should be safe to do?”
He’s not alone in his feelings or the pressure he’s exerting. At least two other Ontario golfers have petitions on change.org, too, and collectively they’ve gathered more than 40,000 signatures. An Alberta golfer has a similar petition.
The golf establishment is also lobbying to get the multibillion-dollar industry that employs approximately 300,000 Canadians up and running as soon as possible. A director with the National Golf Course Owners Association Canada, for example, told a Waterloo, Ont., newspaper last week that he’d like golf to be at the front of the line when the Ontario government starts reintroducing non-essential services.
Meanwhile, the Alberta chapter of the National Allied Golf Associations drafted a letter to Premier Jason Kenney outlining 47 steps that could be taken to make golf courses safe enough to open.
“We get there’s more important things happening than golf,” said Barry Ehlert, owner of Windmill Golf Group, which has six courses in the province. “But we also believe there’s somewhat of a balance, and we believe with the protocols that we could put in place that we really could create a safe environment.”
So far, provincial governments and health authorities have resisted the call. With COVID-19 cases still peaking in most provinces, there’s been little enthusiasm for budging on bans put in place last month.
Ford says he’s heard the rumblings. “All my buddies are busting my chops about when they can get back on the course,” he said in an interview with TSN last week. But he stressed he’ll continue to take his direction from the medical authorities who recommend what should be open and closed.
In official statements, national governing body Golf Canada and NGCOA Canada have said they also stand by health-authority guidelines to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and they’ve urged courses that are allowed to be open “to take every health and safety precaution.”
Some key figures in the golf industry agree it’s too soon to lift stay-at-home orders for golfers or anyone else with a non-essential job or pursuit. They say individual golfers are putting their own desires above the possible impact on other people, including the skeleton crew of staff working to maintain the grounds and the wider community.
“For a very short period of time in our lives we’re being asked to think of others rather than thinking of ourselves,” golf course architect Ian Andrew of Brantford, Ont., said.
He has heard stories from colleagues at courses in Canada and the United States, where golf remains open in many states, about golfers continuing to congregate in certain areas, shortages of cleaning supplies and increased demands on small maintenance staffs. Adding golfers, or more golfers, to the mix would just require more staff and create more chances of virus spread. “I miss the game, too," Andrew said, "but there’s no frickin’ way it should open up.”
Others question whether golfers could police themselves, even if safety precautions were put in place. “If you left this to golfers, it would be a disaster,” said Ian Leggatt, director of golf and general manager at Summit Golf and Country Club in Richmond Hill, Ont.
Leggatt, a former PGA Tour winner, said the stakes remain too high to allow people to share a space, even one as big as a golf course, especially when such a transmissible virus remains at large and asymptomatic people are carriers.
“It’s not your decision, it’s not my decision,” he said of when courses should open. “It’s going to be the health organizations, the provincial government, the City of Toronto and so on. Not golfers."
Leggatt added golf’s reputation as an elitist pursuit would suffer even further if courses were given a special exemption that led to infection outbreaks and deaths among golfers or course staff, both of whom tend to be in an older demographic.
“If opened too early [and something bad happened], it would be devastating to the whole game of golf.”