What does the 'new normal' look like on golf courses?

13 May 2020 COVID-19

Golf is back - but what should you expect out on the course?

You may be looking forward to your first round of golf in some time (when you finally find a free tee spot). But what should you expect to encounter when you arrive at the golf club?

We’ve been told to expect a ‘new normal’ in our daily lives, but what does that mean out on the fairways?

Firstly, who can you play with?

Under new government rules released on 11 May, the following groupings are permitted:

  • Individuals playing on their own
  • Two-balls comprising of individuals from different households
  • At the discretion of the golf club, members of the same household playing in two, three or four-balls.

Every golf course will have adapted its own set of regulations that you must adhere to if golf is to remain a safe sport to play. Check in with your golf club before you leave for your round to ask about any restrictions that may be in place. 

England Golf has produced a set of guidelines as part of its #PlaySafeStaySafe campaign that explains some of the things you’re likely to encounter out on the course.

While golf courses have been closed, greenkeepers have not been able to undertake many of the routine maintenance activities that they regularly would. It’s also likely that with no golf taking place, a large proportion of the greenkeeping staff – in addition to other golf facility staff – have been placed on furlough as part of the Government’s Job Retention Scheme. Golfers should anticipate that although some courses will ask their entire team to return now courses are reopen, the likelihood is that a phased return should be anticipated. Reducing staffing levels will mean the course doesn’t quite look how you have come to expect.

For example, when the lockdown was first introduced, greenkeepers were very limited in what they were able to do out on the course:

  • Greens could be mown to a maximum of three times per week
  • Tees, green surrounds and fairways could be mown once a week
  • Only roughs considered in direct play could be mown, once every two weeks
  • Height of cut for all areas was raised to aid plant health
  • The maintenance of bunkers, penalty areas, wider practice areas, aeration, topdressing and spraying were all not permitted.

As such, you can anticipate that the greenkeepers will be working hard to adjust from these conditions to that of presenting the golf course you have come to expect. 

When the Government announced that golf courses could reopen, these restrictions were lifted, providing safe working practices were put in place and all golf facilities implemented stringent measures to ensure staff members were not at risk.

The number of greenkeeping staff and the amount of time spent at work should be tailored to fit with safe working practices and so the entire team may not yet be able to return to work.

Safe working practices include but are not limited to:

  • Focus on hygiene and social distancing
  • Ensure staff members work separately
  • Allocate individual machinery to one worker only
  • If multiple staff are on site, stagger working hours and break times
  • Limit or prohibit the use of communal areas
  • Regularly disinfect any surface that is contacted, such as door handles, fuel pumps, communal machinery
  • Ensure there is a robust lone working policy
  • Ensure that golfers and greenkeepers are kept separate from each other and observe social distancing.

What does all that mean for the golf, eagerly waiting to tee up for the first time in months?

Well, it is likely that due to reduced maintenance it will take some time for the course to return to ‘normal’ condition. It is important to manage your expectations of what you’ll encounter out on the course and rest assured, the conditions you experience are the result of limitations imposed by safety measures, not through neglect.

Obvious issues will be:

  • Reduced pace of greens through higher cutting heights
  • Higher cutting heights in most maintained areas
  • Lengthier rough areas, particularly in ‘out of play’ areas
  • Untidy bunkers
  • Lack of golf course furniture, such as bunker rakes, bins, ball washers and benches

While some golfers may be disappointed with conditions, it’s a reminder of the fine balance between turf health, maintenance cost and presentation. Enjoy being out in a more natural and less-manicured environment.

In returning the course to a more ‘normal’ condition, you may expect the greenkeepers to immediately return greens to their original cutting heights. Instead, you should expect them to do this slowly, over a period of days or weeks, so as not to put undue stress on the plant, which can lead to disease or weed outbreaks. 

Some long-term projects that you expected to be completed this year may be postponed for the immediate future as there isn’t the resources to complete them.

One thing that we do ask during this period is that you pay additional care and attention to the activities of the greenkeeping team during this period. With reduced staffing levels and in their efforts to get the course back up to scratch, the chances are you’ll see them out and about the course more than you normally would. 

Remember, you may be eager to hit that first tee shot in months, but if your ball strikes a greenkeeper in their head or injures them, it could be the last time you play for some time and the damage done to them could be substantial.

To accommodate this, it is important that agreed times be set aside when greenkeepers have priority. Some things your course may consider are:

  • Golf to be prohibited before a given time each day
  • Limiting the number of starting points for golf
  • Scheduled course closures
  • Agree a pace of play schedule, so golfers don’t catch up with greenkeepers
  • Split greenkeeping shifts to maximise the time available for course maintenance during the day

Most of all, stay alert and enjoy yourself. Golf’s a fantastic game enjoyed by millions of people and if played correctly and sensibly, there’s no reason why it can’t be enjoyed safely to give some exercise and friendly competition through a difficult period for us all.

For more information about BIGGA and how we’ve supported our members throughout this crisis, head to our COVID-19 information hub.

Author

Karl Hansell
BIGGA | Communications Executive

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