When the coronavirus came to the United States, balls stopped bouncing, whistles stopped blowing and fans stopped cheering. Sports at the college, professional and youth levels largely disappeared. The NBA was the first to pull the plug on its season on March 11. The NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments the next day and every other league big and small followed soon after.
But the one sport that has endured in Chatham County on a recreational and amateur stage is golf.
Each of the county’s six clubs have remained open during the pandemic and state-wide stay-at-home orders. And many of them have remained packed and engaged.
“Their capacity is pretty full,” says Ken Crow, the regional vice president of Arnold Palmer Golf Management. “I would say the rounds, in total, are about the same. It’s just spread out a little differently.”
Arnold Palmer Golf Management is a company that is employed by golf clubs to manage operations. The company takes care of countless courses across the nation, including seven in North Carolina, two of which – the Preserve at Jordan Lake and the Chapel Ridge Country Club – are in Chatham County.
Crow says that the number of people coming to those courses isn’t exactly more or less than it’s been in previous years, but traffic is a bit steadier, perhaps due to spread out tee times and new golf cart regulations. Only so many people can be on the course at one time.
Typical tee times at both courses are usually eight or nine minutes apart. But to ensure social distancing, those times are now spread at least 12 minutes apart. This gives the people on the course a built-in cushion so their carts aren’t running up on each other.
Both courses have also gone to single-rider golf carts. The only time golfers can share a cart is if they live in the same household. Each cart is sanitized before every use.
“Because you’re doing the single-rider cart, it makes the carts a challenge every day,” Crow said. “We’ve restricted guest play at some courses, so members can have total access. At some others, we’ve adjusted the tee times and spread those out further apart. That gives us better social distancing, better flow of cart traffic and things like that.”
Both Chatham County courses at Jordan Lake and Chapel Ridge remain open to non-members. Other new regulations the two courses have implemented include keeping flagsticks in the holes, removing bunker rakes, making all staff wear gloves and sanitizing the clubhouse each day. Food and beverage from the clubhouse are carry-out only.
“With people working from home — and there aren’t many other activities — families have more time to do things together to come out and play golf in the afternoons,” Crow said. “So, that’s made our weekdays a bit busier, which has kind of leveled out the business.
“We’re very happen to be open and encourage folks to get out and enjoy some of this great weather we’ve been having.”
Siler City Country Club is also thriving during this time, which has been difficult for so many businesses. Brad Fogleman, the manager of the pro shop who has worked at the private club since 2016, said he thinks the club saw more golfers this April than it did the year before.
“With what was put out originally, saying that golf and tennis (were safe), I think that had a lot to do with it,” Fogleman said. “And then people who are at home, they didn’t have to work.”
At Siler City Country Club, golf, tennis and pickleball are open for play. The clubhouse is closed, but the kitchen is still making pick-up meals available.
Like the two courses managed by Arnold Palmer Golf Managament, flagsticks remain in at Siler City, bunker rakes have been removed and a single-rider cart system has been implemented. All 36 carts are washed and wiped down after every use.
“They’re spread out anyway here, because we only have so many carts,” Fogleman said. “We can only take so many golfers.”
The club has also put up plexiglass in the pro shop and is limiting the number of people in the shop to two at a time.
“We just went by exactly what was put out from the state,” Fogleman said. “I’m not saying we didn’t think about (closing), but as long as (the state) said it was OK (to stay open), and we kept the social distance part of it, that’s all we tried to do. We just tried to follow the guidelines as best we could.”
Governors Club near Chapel Hill has also remained open during this time. The private course has built-in many of the regulations other Chatham courses are following, such as single-rider carts and the removal of golf ball washers, bunker rakes and water coolers.
And despite the course restricting access to members-only at this time, Thomas Brinson, the club’s director of golf, says that they are “twice as busy.”
“Not quite, but close enough to say it,” says Brinson, who has worked at the club for six years. “With nothing else going on in the world, they’re playing golf. Every tee time every day is booked.”
To accommodate the heavy traffic, the club also took its driving range and temporarily turned it into a nine-hole par-3 course.
“That’s close to 13 acres of land that’s just sitting there vacant and we decided to turn that into a nine-hole course,” Brinson said. “That gives us one more avenue for our membership to go out there and have a golf-like experience and kill a few minutes. Just one more thing to get them outside and make use of the land we have sitting there.”
At Old Chatham Golf Club, courses are closed on Mondays, but otherwise open to members-only. In an email, Ian Campbell — the club’s director of operations — said the clubhouse, golf shop and dining services have been closed since mid-March. A single-rider cart system has been implemented, tee time intervals have increased to 10 minutes, flagsticks have remained in holes, and rakes, sand bottles, water bottles and coolers have been removed from the course.
“The club is experiencing steady rounds during this season,” Campbell said. “We attribute much of this to great weather as well.”
Elsewhere in the county, Twin Lakes Golf Course is open for public play. Hand sanitizer is available around the course and cart sharing is allowed. An employee at Twin Lakes said they’ve been “pretty busy” over the past month.
At Siler City Country Club, Fogleman hopes the heavy traffic at the course continues after non-essential businesses start opening back up in North Carolina.
“I think, in my opinion, we’ll go back to our normal,” Fogleman said. “Once people are back at work and things open up. I hope people will continue to play golf. I don’t think there’s anything negative about it.”
But going forward from the coronavirus, one person’s sense of usual might not seem so run-of-the-mill.
“Who knows what ‘new normal’ is going to be,” Brinson said. “I can’t predict the future and tell you, but I think there’s going to be some touch points removed. Bunker rakes will probably come back, but maybe everyone brings their own bottle of water instead of coolers on the course. I think people are going to be sensitive to touch points.”
Between now and getting to whatever the “new normal” is, Brinson remains grateful that golf courses in the county and state remained open. His colleagues, competitors and avid golfers likely share his appreciation.
“I’m thankful the state left that alone,” Brinson said. “We all would’ve gone crazy. It’s been a blessing for us.”
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