Playing Golf Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

Playing Golf Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

In view of the current Novel Coronavirus (2019 n-CoV) crisis I have been researching recommendations and advice for golfers who may wish and are able to play golf during the crisis.

Please note that as of 21 March 2020, it is a UK Government Mandate that all persons regarded as ‘at risk’, i.e. those who have underlying or pre-existing chronic diseases, over 70 years of age or living with a vulnerable person must self-isolate and have no option but to do so.

Anyone not adhering to this is not only compromising their own health and welfare but that of the rest of the UK.

Table of Estimated Death Toll In UK COVID-19
Estimated Death Toll from COVID-19 in UK March 2020

I am not an authority, but this page is my best attempt at collating information that I have been able to obtain from reliable sources both in the US and UK.

It is not exhaustive and as the crisis progresses the information may well change, even daily, and I will attempt to keep the information as up to date as I can as further information comes to light.

The message coming out of England Golf is that it is still OK to play golf, but one of the biggest determinants to play, however, is actually the players themselves.

You can read an up to date England Golf Statement by following the link below:

Golf is a great sport for people generally to get out and about, exercise and enjoy fresh air. It is played in an outdoor setting where the risk of contracting COVID-19 may be low.

And a statement made by the UK’s chief Scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance would seem to support this.

Responding to a question put to him by Dean Russell MP, “Exercise is going to be key, especially for older people. If someone wants to play golf, can they still do that if they are not close together?”

Sir Patrick said, “We’re not asking everyone to be completely isolated. The specific advice is to avoid close contact. A walk is OK if you keep your distance”.

The reply was a little naïve in comparing a person playing golf to going for a walk and made no reference to players in the ‘at risk’ category, nor the risks that there are in playing golf at this time and what necessary precautions golfers should paying attention to.

All golf clubs should, at this time, be mindful of the safety and well-being of their members, visitors and staff.

Playing golf would also appear to be supported by Dr. Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, golf as it’s normally played outdoors, with natural social-distancing built in, “would be fairly safe.”

Provided golfers adhere rigidly to certain guidelines, and take comfort in these guidelines, as they think about the game as a possible escape from the current headlines.

It is considered that the way the game is different from other activities that makes it a viable alternative to locking yourself indoors.

What is Novel Coronavirus (2019 n-CoV)?

It is a new form of Coronavirus, similar to that which caused SARS and MERS around 2002

It causes COVID-19 a life-threatening respiratory illness that can cause fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.

In an attempt to stem the spread of the virus, extensive guidance has been published for anyone who has potentially come into contact with a carrier. In addition to good personal hygiene, self-isolation is seen as the best way to contain the spread. If that happens at a golf facility, the club could find itself without its entire greenkeeping, catering and/or clubhouse staff for an extended period and its long-term security could be placed at risk.

What are its symptoms?

COVID -19 Symptoms Compared to Other Conditions
Dry CoughCommonMildCommonSometimes
Shortness of BreathCommonNoNoCommon
Aches and PainsSometimesCommonCommonNo
Sore ThroatSometimesCommonCommonNo
Runny NoseRareCommonSometimesCommon
*Sometimes for Children
Sources: CDC, WHO,American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

How is it spread?

People can catch COVID-19 from others who have the virus. The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales.

These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets. This is why it is important to stay more than 6 feet (2 metres) away from any person who is sick.

The risk of catching COVID-19 from someone with no symptoms appears to be very low.

However, many people with COVID-19 experience only mild symptoms. This is particularly true at the early stages of the disease and it is therefore possible to catch COVID-19 from someone who has for example, just a mild cough and does not feel ill.

To date studies suggest that the Novel Coronavirus (2019 n-CoV) that causes COVID-19 is mainly transmitted through contact with respiratory droplets rather than through the air.

There’s a lot about this Novel Coronavirus (2019 n-CoV) that experts still don’t know, it is a kind of virus that has an envelope, which means that it’s more easily killed than some other viruses.

Sunlight and other environmental conditions can kill viruses like this, so it is probable that that is true for this new Novel Coronavirus (2019 n-CoV), as well.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is assessing ongoing research on the ways that COVID-19 is spread and will continue to share updated findings.

What does “social distancing” mean with respect to playing golf?

Generally, the key is to be more than 6 feet (2 metres) away from others.

As much as the scientists know for now, if you’re more than 6 feet (2 metres) from somebody, they’re not going to spread the virus to you.

But that is not set in concrete, if you can smell what someone had for lunch, garlic, curry, etc., you are inhaling what they are breathing out, including any virus in their breath.

So, within your Pairs, Three-ball or Four-ball, you must stay a little bit farther away than you might ordinarily do.

What you, as a golfer, need to remember is that the benefits of social distancing aren’t explicitly about protecting yourself as much as they are an effective means of controlling spread of the virus.

For an otherwise healthy 35-year-old, the odds are very high that, even if they did get sick, they would be fine.

The problems come with infecting more vulnerable members of the community, and of course, as you get older, your immune system doesn’t work as well and, of course, the average age of a UK golfer is older than 50, and in some Golf Clubs there’s a high percentage of players who are 70-plus.

Another point is that golfers need to be aware of what’s happening in their area.

If they are in a location where the disease has been shown to be spreading widely, I think people will start to want to stay home and not go out into crowded settings.

They should also be mindful of the demographics of their area, is there a high population of vulnerable people e.g. retirees and are there enough intensive care beds to cope with a large outbreak of cases.

Within the context of a round of golf and with respect to what social distancing means, a golf course rarely constitutes a crowded setting. Like any other public setting, golf facilities have busier times than others, so you run even less risk playing at times when fewer people are around.

More concerning might be indoor simulator facilities and golf-ranges that that have bar and catering facilities.

It would also seem wise to refrain from large golf outings or group clinics where golfers might be gathered for significant periods.

Also, extended face-to-face conversations during a delay on a tee box should be avoided because it poses the risk of an inadvertent cough or sneeze.

So, should the vulnerable or those over 70 curtail their time on the golf course?

Though the risk of playing golf is the same as for non-vulnerable and younger players, the results might be more dangerous, and observations indicate that there were significantly higher death rates in China for people older than 65 and those rates increased greatly in those older than 70 and particularly for those 80 and older.

What is not certain, in China, is whether there were other underlying conditions, but the scientists do know your immune system doesn’t work as well as you get older or suffer from certain medical conditions, so it is certainly something to consider if you are in those groups.

Senior golfers, just like all golfers, should be especially vigilant about the current Government, Public Health England and other organisations for Disease Control guidelines for vigorous handwashing. Since handwashing might not be a practical option out on the seventh tee, for example, hand sanitiser is an effective alternative and should be in every golfer’s bag. In terms of killing germs, a hand sanitizer works just as well as washing with soap and water.

The virus lingers on hard surfaces for long periods of time, such as a Buggy, Flagstick or Golf Ball?

Although golf is being considered a relatively safe activity in the current situation, there should be some changes in behaviour from how people currently enjoy the game.

Riding in a buggy with a friend, for instance, puts you within the 6-foot (2 metre) range, which is a reason to consider walking or taking your own buggy.

As for the flagstick, it’s probably best to leave the flagsticks untouched for the entire day.

That said, some important things to remember:

  • Under laboratory conditions the virus has been shown to stay contagious for two to three days on an inanimate object, in sunlight, as mentioned earlier, the odds are it could be a much shorter time.
  • Touching an infected surface does not give you COVID-19, the disease brought on by this new Novel Coronavirus (2019 n-CoV). Touching an infected surface and then immediately touching your face is the problem. The virus travels through the viral droplets from a sneeze or cough and gets in your cells through the nose, ears and mouth. But reports state that it definitely can be transmitted over time from an inanimate object. So, like in all aspects of life, restrict touching your face and wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer after you touch anything that isn’t yours.
  • That goes, as well, for handling someone else’s clubs. Though it might be a temporary seismic shift from the typical fellowship of a round of golf, when it comes to direct person-to-person contact, keeping to yourself and keeping your distance is still the correct way to go.
  • Of course, that means the 18th-green handshake needs to be abandoned, at least for now. “Start a new tradition—elbow bumps, shoe bumps or a thumbs-up for instance.

What about the 19th hole or the changing room before and after the round?

Experts agree on one thing with regard to Novel Coronavirus (2019 n-CoV):

These are unique times, and they quite simply require fundamental shifts in behaviour. “If you go to a crowded bar where you’re up one against another, that’s a lot different from going to a bar where you’re spread out. The bottom line is there’s no absolute indication not to go to bars and restaurants, but in practising good public health – which is a responsibility for everybody in the country, really think about how you can decrease those close contacts.

The traditional drinks at the bar after the round need to be rethought. The time before the round and what you do after the round might be where the risk is. When you have a drink after, you’re not going to sit 6 feet (2 metres) from a friend in the bar. Maybe for the time being, it’s best to say your goodbyes in the car park.

There’s a lot that the experts don’t know. But Social Distancing has been imposed before, it was introduced during the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918-20 and proved that in areas that strictly adhered to it, there were fewer cases and fewer deaths than in areas that didn’t.

There is, of course, the  mental aspect to all this, being indoors all the time can take its toll on some people.

Fighting the Novel Coronavirus (2019 n-CoV) is a communal effort, but from an individual basis, it also has much to do with our immune systems, and the fact is our immune systems do not work well when they are stressed. Golf, even for those of us who know the absolute outrage of a severe shank or the third three-putt in four holes, can and should be good for reliving stress, and that’s a good thing.

Social distancing doesn’t mean you’re going to have to live in total isolation. Relieving stress helps your immune system and it is known that physical activity boosts your immune system, so for both mental and physical health, it’s good to get activity however you can get it without putting yourself or others at risk. So, anything outside where you’re not putting yourself in close proximity to a lot of people can be good for you. Being at one with nature helps your mental health, as well.

Less stress, physical activity, being outdoors, taking in nature. Maybe hitting more practice balls on the range or even walking the course at some time with a club and a few balls., could be a good idea, but be careful out there.

So, what does all this mean in practical terms?

BIGGA, The PGA, and the GCMA, supported by the R&A, have collaborated on the guidelines which offer advice on the running of a golf club in the possible absence of key staff, planning for the longer term effects to the business and the importance of communication to staff and to members.

You can download a copy of each guideline by clicking on a download button below:

So, if golf clubs really want to encourage players and players want to play golf, what are the best procedures to follow.

Prior to the game

Video courtesy of the R&A

  • The older age profile of golf club memberships than of the general population must be borne in mind
  • Prioritise online services for entries, bookings, and scoring
  • Take payments using contactless means or online prior to the game
  • Players with any colds or coughs or any symptoms of Covid-19 should be asked not to play
  • Changing/Locker rooms and Toilets should be closed to avoid players being near each other. Allow the changing of shoes in the car park
  • Shotgun starts with people congregating before and after are discouraged for the time being; groups having close and prolonged contact should be avoided.
  • Children/Juniors should not be allowed to play. Children are very susceptible to respiratory infections and can carry viruses without necessarily showing any symptoms of infection. They easily shed viruses so spreading infection easily and also do not have the same level of hygiene as most adults.
  • The social aspect of golf clubs should be curtailed, including limiting the potential for various types of social interaction in accordance with the guidelines as issued today.
  • Prolonged near contact as may happen during Bridge nights, Committee Meetings and other clubhouse-based activities is to be avoided.
  • Visitors either require some form of screening or should be discouraged for the time being.
  • Golf buggies should be taken out of use or used by single individuals and cleaned afterwards
  • Airlines should be disconnected and kept out of use
  • Putting green closure should be considered for larger events.
  • Take flags out of the holes, again this is a shared surface environment. Or,
  • Leave Flagsticks in but raise the hole liner about an inch above the putting surface, any ball striking the liner will be considered to have been holed
  • Remove Flagsticks and locate all holes at the centre of the putting green, together with raising the hole liner if desired.
  • Think about drawing circles on the ground that players putt and chip towards rather than a cup that offers a hard surface for the virus to live on

Golf Clubs should also observe the need for the following:

  •  Increase social distancing through greater space between individual seating in the clubhouse
  • Availability of hand sanitisers
  • Regular changing of towels
  • Ask members not to come into the clubhouse with colds or any symptoms of COVID-19
  • Regular cleaning of surfaces including door handles – hourly in public places
  • Handling of scorecards in club competitions is a vulnerability – especially for Committee members tasked with finalising results (wearing gloves is strongly advisable in these circumstances). It should also be borne in mind that since the revision of the Rules of Golf in 2019, scorecards can now be in electronic form (via phone app etc) and the Committee can specify a method of electronic certification if this option is taken.
  • Society bookings where food and social interaction is involved afterwards should be limited in accordance with the latest guidance​
  • Common courtesies – handshakes and other embraces associated with the etiquette of the game – should be avoided and participants may bump elbows as an alternative.
  • Social meals for groups in the clubhouse, including at inter-club matches, should be avoided

 On the course

  • Insist on social distancing (2-metre rule) on tee-grounds, greens and throughout the rounds
  • Remove rakes and any other pieces of course furniture that golfers may touch – the greenkeeper team will prepare the course, and where possible, re-rake bunkers during the day. Golfers can and golfers can wipe their own golf balls on a towel
  • No divot bags provided
  • Drinking fonts and ball cleaners taken out of play
  • Air lines for cleaning shoes following the round should be closed
  • Golfers should only pick their own ball up
  • Do not share any equipment, such as golf clubs or rangefinders
  • Don’t shake hands before or after your game
  • Have hand sanitisers available as golfers leave the golf course
  • Skip the driving range and practice tee and other warm-up areas where it’s difficult to keep your distance from folks.
  • That extra space in your golf bag next to your tees or balls? Put your hand sanitizer there. And use it. Frequently.
  • Follow precautions that you normally wouldn’t have to, but I play under that guidance
  • If you’re feeling any of the symptoms, hold off for now and get back to the game at a later date. No one wants you to spread the infection or to put someone else at risk just to play the game.
  • Temporary changes to the Rules of golf have been issued by the R&A, 20 March 2020 during the Novel Coronavirus Crisis and these can be read by following the link below:

What other precautions should a player follow throughout the round?

  1. Hand-sanitising and hand washing should be as welcomed as hitting the fairway off the tee.

As you go through the game, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when you’re able to, or alternatively use hand sanitiser liberally. If you have contaminated hands, no one wants you touching your mouth or face. No one wants you to get the virus on your hands.

  1. On the tee, fairways and greens, practise “social distancing” even with groups outside your own – about 6 feet. Minimize that close contact. Minimize the risk of getting the virus.
  2. Golf Clubs –

Players should wipe down the parts of the club that touch a golf buggy, along with the parts of the bag.

Wipe down the edges of the bag, the handle of the club, the parts that touch a golf buggy,” Resist renting clubs. There are varying types of handles, but wipe down the handles. It’s just to reassure yourself that they are as clean as possible.”

  1. How should you handle your golf balls?

Use of hand sanitiser and hand washing should again be as welcomed as picking up your ball from the cup after a birdie. If you’re picking up random golf balls, don’t touch your mouth, perhaps leave it behind.

  1. How should you handle your golf glove?

Use a hand sanitiser for your glove, though not ideal, as it will create some slickness.

But if you’re willing to put it on your glove, use it, it’s the safest route to go down. Something to keep your glove clean is ideal.

  1. How should you handle the golf buggy?

Walking and using a golf trolley might be the way to go, but if you ride, you wipe.

Wipe the steering wheel and seat and minimise the risk of contamination from other people who have used the buggy, It’s something different, but doing that will give you a sense of security.

  1. How should you handle your Mobile Phone during the round?

Best to wait until you get home.

Keep it somewhere where it’s not put directly on the dashboard of a buggy.

If you have to carry a phone, try to keep it on one person. If you have a phone that can be wiped down, that’s good.

How should you handle the drinks buggy?

Get your drinks here, if possible, rather than the clubhouse.

Ask your club for drinks buggy workers to use gloves for everyone’s safety,

Getting drinks from the buggy may be safer than in a crowded clubhouse. Use hand sanitiser before drinking from the can. Avoid touching the mouth of any bottles or cans as best you can.

“Hand-sanitise before you pop that top.”

  1. How should you handle the clubhouse?

Get in, get out and keep your distance.

Social distancing is increasingly advised to slow the spread of infection, avoid time in crowded clubhouses. Sit outdoors with that 6-foot (2 metre) radius from others, if possible.

Again, wash your hands or use hand sanitiser after touching any high-touch areas like door handles, desks, etc.”

  1. How should you handle playing partners?

If you’re playing with friends and family, check that they’re feeling well. If you’re playing with strangers, keep your social distance. If you’re playing with the friendly types, words speak louder than actions this time.

In general, don’t shake hands and do something else, like an elbow bump, as elbows are not high-contaminated areas, Do welcome your playing partners just find different ways from a handshake to express gratitude.”

After the game

  •  Handling of scorecards is a vulnerability, especially for staff members tasked with checking cards and finalising results. Arrange for this to be done online where possible
  • Adjust your catering provision to reduce physical contact through greater space between seating in the clubhouse if possible
  • Use disposable plates and cups, have hand washing facilities available on every table
  • Hand sanitisers should be made available throughout the clubhouse
  • Regular changing of towels in bathrooms (advice recommends every hour) would be required and regular cleaning of surfaces including door handles
  • Society bookings where food and social interaction is involved afterwards should be limited in accordance with the latest guidance
  • Follow Government advice as mandatory closure of clubhouses may be introduced in the coming days.

Robert Maxfield, PGA chief executive, said: “We need to work together as an industry. By following positive but sensible set of guidelines which we can all adhere to and then communicating those to golfers, we can continue to enjoy the sport in the months to come. The game can offer a level of social interaction which will be vital for certain sections of the community.”

Phil Grice, GCMA chairman, added: “We are aware that these are very uncertain times for all businesses and their employees and golf clubs are no exception. This also follows a difficult winter where many clubs have already been severely impacted.

“The well-being of our teams, including catering, course and professional staff and their teams should be a priority for the operators of golf clubs and volunteer committees.

For the full document, visit the PGA’s Covid-19 hub. For up-to-date information about the coronavirus outbreak, visit the NHS website.

This is a very fluid situation and all clubs need to monitor the latest advice regularly.

Noting and acting upon the advice and guidance issued by the UK Government and various Health Organisations

It is important that we all work together, following the advice of experts, in controlling the spread of COVID-19 infection.

Are you planning to support your club by playing at the weekend? What measures are your club taking to reduce the coronavirus risk? Please let me know in the comments on this page.

Resources used:

BIGGA. British and International Greenkeepers Association

GCMA. Golf Club Managers’ association

PGA. Professional Golfers Association

Dr. Catherine Troisi, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Houston

Albert Ko, Epidemiology Department of the Yale School of Public Health

Public Health England

NHS England

Public Health England

WHO. World Health Organisation

Et al.