I live in North Carolina, where despite having a relatively low number of coronavirus cases, our state and local government has levied fairly stringent guidelines on social distancing in order to stop the spread of potential undetected asymptomatic cases. Over the past two weeks, our Governor, a Democrat named Roy Cooper, has closed schools until May 15, ordered all bars and restaurants to close except to offer delivery and takeout services, banned gatherings of more than 50 people, and shuttered gathering spaces such as gyms and movie theaters (Gov. Cooper also issued an Executive Order attempting to offset the impact on these companies’ workers by making it easier to get unemployment benefits). In Durham, where I currently live, the local government has declared a State of Emergency and closed all public facilities, with the exception of the local public golf course, which, despite setting a series of increasingly stringent social distancing measures, has managed to remain one of the few local businesses that hasn’t shut down operations yet.
I have been an avid golfer going on four years now. I’m not good, but I’m not bad enough to pretend I don’t care about how I shoot. Now, since golf is not cool, all of my friends in Durham think I’m crazy for being really into it (ironically, I have more golfer friends in Brooklyn, where it is logistically difficult to play because of everyone’s reliance upon public transportation, than in car-friendly Durham). This has led to a situation in which I have gotten very used to playing golf, alone, usually walking. While I thought this just made me kind of a weirdo — I genuinely believe that I would win a golf tournament where only avowed socialists could enter, but only because I would be the only one who showed up — it’s left me uniquely prepared to feel at least a little normal in this current, once-in-a-lifetime crisis.
Golf, obviously, is played outside, and adheres to a decorum which asks players to maintain a respectful distance from each other at all times. You also wear a glove on one hand when you’re playing. According to my calculations, this automatically cuts your chance of picking up germs on the golf course by 50 percent. In other words, it’s a game where a certain level of social distancing is already baked in.
My home course is inexpensive — it costs $13 to walk nine holes, which is the perfect amount of golf to play after you get off work — and fully open to the public, meaning that unlike many of the fancier courses in the area, you don’t have to be a member to get out there. Like everyone else these days, the course’s management is trying to be mindful of coronavirus. In the past few weeks, they’ve made a few minor tweaks that have, in aggregate, made the place as sanitary and safe as any public place can hope to be.
There are exactly 36 parts of a golf course that you could catch coronavirus from: 18 of them are the metal flagsticks sticking out of the holes on the green, which are touched by dozens if not hundreds of people per day when they remove them to putt. And even though everyone takes the flagstick out when they putt, leaving it in isn’t actually against the rules! In 2018, golf’s governing body, the U.S.G.A., decreed that removing the flagstick to putt was optional. The intent behind the change was to speed up the pace of play by cutting out the 30-90 seconds per hole that it takes to fiddle with the flagstick, but at this point, knowing that putting with the stick in is technically normal is like balm for my socially distanced soul.
So far so good in the “not catching coronavirus” department. Then there’s the plastic cup lining the inside of each hole, which in addition to being as germ-friendly as the flagstick has the benefit (to germs) of sitting in a dark hole in the ground and therefore being at a slightly lower temperature than anything else around it. My local course rectified this issue by cutting up a few pool noodles and sticking them on each flagstick — it turns out that noodles, which have little holes in the middle of them, fit snugly inside the cup. Now, when you putt, if it was going to go in the hole, it bumps the foam, ensuring that you don’t actually touch a thing that other people have touched.
The point of golf isn’t the golf you’ll be playing in the future, it’s the golf you’re playing in the moment, focusing on each shot as if it were the only thing in the world.
Additionally, the course has taken even more precautions. Rather than entering the pro shop to pay, you can now pull into the parking lot, call them, and pay over the phone. The course has restricted its two-seat carts to holding one human at a time, and each cart gets sanitized before being loaned out to a player. This is inconvenient if you’re trying to play with friends, but regardless, you really should be walking when you golf. It’s good for you: you’re going around with a heavy bag strapped to your back, which is a great opportunity to work up a sweat.
I am not the only person to realize that golf courses are some of the few public spaces that have remained relatively unchanged by coronavirus. Course attendance has been up nationwide, (“mostly males, and a lot of them are widowed,” the pro at a course in Florida told the New York Times), but with crowds come public health concerns: courses in coronavirus-heavy areas have now begun closing.
As I was writing this, news broke that Durham’s mayor, Steve Schewel, was issuing a stay-at-home order for city residents. For those who have been practicing social distancing, the changes will be semantic more than anything: What were once firm suggestions to stay home except for buying essential items and doing solitary exercise have become a mandate. The shift in wording implies a sense of urgency on the local government’s part, one that for me will more than probably lead to more anxiety, more wondering when this will be over, and more worrying about my parents, who live in a rural part of the state where access to testing is limited.
But, in North Carolina, where golf is etched into our state’s history, courses will stay open, for now. Not all of them, and maybe not forever. But that’s fine. The point of golf isn’t the golf you’ll be playing in the future, it’s the golf you’re playing in the moment, focusing on each shot as if it were the only thing in the world. And at a time like this, when the future is uncertain, it can be good to give yourself a break and focus on the small stuff.