Ready or not?

Tom Barrett works on repairing a broken section of irrigation pipe near the 18th tee on the Bretwood Golf Course’s north course in Keene recently. New Hampshire golf courses are still awaiting a decision from the governor on whether or not they can open for business.

Soon after Gov. Chris Sununu closed New Hampshire’s golf courses on March 26 as part of his stay-at-home order to help combat the spread of COVID-19, antsy golfers around the state raised their collective voice. They began signing an online petition titled “Let New Hampshire Golf” calling on Sununu to reconsider his decision and open the state’s courses before the current re-open date of May 4.

As of Sunday, 11,972 people had signed the petition, which can be found at change.org. That vocal crowd, however, does not represent the feelings of everyone in New Hampshire’s golfing community, including some local course owners, teaching professionals and golfers.

“My wife is a nurse and she’s on the front lines, and I’ve been on the fire department my whole life as an on-call firefighter, so I see both sides of it,” said Bob White, who owns Duston Country Club in Hopkinton with his wife, Maureen. “I haven’t signed the petition and I haven’t discussed it with anyone, but we’re more than willing to open because every day lost is a dollar you can’t make up.”

Phil Davis, the head pro at Beaver Meadow Golf Course, and Rich Thibeault, the head pro at Concord Country Club, both said members at their courses have been understanding.

“Everybody that I’ve had interactions with are really okay with the course being closed based on the governor’s order and the recommendations of the CDC. They don’t want to be out there until it’s safe,” Davis said. “We all hope we can get out there and play golf, but I think for right now it’s more important to keep social distancing, stay home and stay safe, and I would say the Beaver Meadow community feels that way, too.”

“So far everyone has been pretty patient,” Thibeault said. “It’s really been pretty quiet in terms of hearing from our members, certainly much more quiet than it normally would be at this time of year when everyone is anxious for the course to open so they can get going. I think everybody understands the circumstances and that we have to stay home and try to flatten this curve.”

Belmont native Jim Cilley, the 2011 N.H. State Amateur golf champion, is the kind of avid golfer who one might expect to be leading the charge to re-open courses. Yet Cilley believes keeping courses closed for the time being is the right decision. He has not signed the petition, but that’s not the case for many his hardcore golfing friends.

“I’m on a group thread with about 20 of the top golfers in the state and I would say 15 to 17 of them have signed the petition,” Cilley said. “I’m definitely in the minority there. I just don’t think it’s necessary to try and tell the governor and the powers that be to open it up. I think we can wait until May and see what happens.”

Sununu has stated that he will not open New Hampshire’s golf courses until Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont also agree to open theirs. The governor believes that if New Hampshire allows golf while courses in bordering states are closed than a flood of out-of-state golfers will travel to the Granite State, which is in direct contrast to the stay-at-home order. That’s just what happened last week when three Massachusetts men were arrested for crossing the state line to play golf in Rhode Island, where golf courses are open but only for the state’s residents.

Concord High golf coach Mark McDonough didn’t initially agree with the decision to close courses, but after considering the out-of-state concerns he began to see both sides.

“When I first heard I thought it was absurd. You can pack thousands of people on a trail at Mount Major or hundreds of people in the Market Basket grocery store, but four people walking down the fairway of golf course is not appropriate? I just thought it was a poor judgement call,” McDonough said. “But I later learned that part of the motivation was that all of our neighboring states have closed their golf courses, so (New Hampshire is) afraid that if we open up we’ll be inundated with our neighbors whose virus counts are significantly higher, so I can respect that part of it.”

Many of the golfers who have signed the petition were probably ready to play 18 holes as soon as the courses opened last year, so naturally they are raring to go now. But the reality is many courses in the area wouldn’t be open yet even under normal circumstances. White said he was eyeing an April 15 opening for Duston, and the average opening date for Beaver Meadow is April 17-18, according to Davis.

Thibeault said Concord Country Club probably would have opened on the first weekend in April, and some local courses, like Loudon Country Club, opened before they were forced to close on March 26. Still, April is not a busy month for courses, even if they do open early. Cilley said he doesn’t usually start playing regularly until May because course conditions are usually lousy in April – “it’s brown and bumpy and you can’t make a putt … and people complain for three weeks about it anyway.”

So most local courses aren’t losing too much revenue … yet.

“We can easily survive not having April, and May, yeah, we could get through that, too,” said White, who has owned Duston for 36 years. “But if this goes into June, we’re going to be feeling it very badly.”

The initial financial crunch is being partially mitigated for the smaller courses by some of the big golf companies. Davis said major brands like Callaway and Taylor Made are holding orders and pushing back payment dates so pro shops aren’t stuck with inventory they can’t sell or bills they can’t pay.

Local, regional and national golf associations have already been working on safety guidelines for golfers to follow if courses do open while the pandemic is still happening. These include measures to make sure no one uses flags, sand trap rakes, ball washes or other items that multiple people might touch; one person per cart; cups raised above the greens so no one has to reach into it; closed pro shops, clubhouses and course restaurants; encouraging online payments and no cash payments. The petition makes many of these same suggestions.

There is some worry that not everyone would follow the guidelines and that a few non-conformists could spoil the golf, and potentially be a health hazard, for everyone else. But others feel like golfers will do whatever they need to do to get back on a course.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that given the seriousness of the situation people will follow the rules,” Davis said “So, when it comes time for us to re-open, we’re going to have all of the best practices in place that have been tested in places New York and Florida where the courses have stayed open because golf associations across the country are doing a great job staying in communication with each other about their procedures, and I feel confident that people are going to follow those procedures.”

This article is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.