Par three, 155 yards, uphill. The flag is visible from the tee, but the hole is not. Nine iron. Whoosh. The ball zooms in a high arch on a perfect line. On the green, it rests two feet away from the flag. It’s a bittersweet feeling. Most golfers have no complaints about a tap-in birdie, but this should have been the one. Because of social distancing guidelines, though, the ball didn’t have a chance. The cement lining of the hole is raised about six inches off the ground, so no one has to reach inside or touch the flag. It could have been the greatest shot of any golfer’s life. Instead, it’s only uncertainty and a two on the scorecard.
This is the unfortunate but necessary reality of golf in the COVID-19 era. Since the state of Connecticut deemed golf to be one of the few non-essential activities that is safe to participate in, despite New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and other nearby states not making this exception, courses have been forced to impose social distancing measures.
At Portland Golf Course West in Portland, Connecticut, course pro Gerry D’Amora can now only communicate with customers through an open window. Unlike some courses, there will be no uncertainty whether or not someone’s ball went in the hole at Portland West. “We put Styrofoam in the cups, so the ball doesn’t go all the way down,” said D’Amora. “It makes it easier to retrieve, so you don’t have to touch the flagstick or the bottom of the cup.” Although the USGA has decided that during the pandemic the ball does not have to go in the hole to count as holed, D’Amora prefers his course’s method to raising the cups. With the cups raised, “You can ram it at it, and it counts,” which he knows does not simulate a real holing of the ball.
Despite the precautions taken, D’Amora has noticed that people are less likely to get out and play. “Some people play, yeah, and it can be busy,” he said over the phone, “but a lot more people are staying away.” This has been especially noticeable with the course’s leagues. Two have already canceled their season, regardless of any upcoming medical breakthroughs. D’Amora believes the biggest reason for this is the lack of socializing allowed around the course. “The whole thing with golf is getting together with groups, hanging out around the putting green before, having a beer or soda after, or having something to eat,” he said. “Some of the leagues have started, and they have to come five minutes before their tee time. They go to the tee, then they’re asked to leave right away because of the social distancing.”
“The whole thing with golf is getting together with groups, hanging out around the putting green before, having a beer or soda after, or having something to eat.
Social distancing is not the only concern for golf courses, though. Golf carts, reused throughout the day, create a challenge that did not exist for courses before the pandemic. “We wash them and sanitize them at night, obviously, but after they come back, we sanitize them and then put them back out again.” In the rare moments D’Amora is at the course and not behind his pro shop window, he can be seen outside the garage underneath the shop, cleaning the carts himself. His khaki pants and black collared pullover would not look out of place on a normal day at the course, unlike his blue medical gloves and mask.
In addition to the need to clean them after every use, carts can now only be used by one person. “We prefer people walk, but there are people who ride, so we’ll have a foursome go out for eighteen, and they take four carts,” D’Amora said. This can create a jarring image for golfers not used to seeing four carts rumbling down the same fairway at the same time.
Up a steep incline a few miles away from Portland West is Quarry Ridge Golf Course, another of Portland’s three courses. Due to the hilly terrain surrounding the quarry that the course is built around, it is one of the few local courses that requires the use of a cart. But as only one person is allowed in each cart, they do not have enough to handle a full course. On an exceptionally busy day, a golfer offered to share a cart with his son, who lives in the same house as him. The course’s pro, John Lucas, was forced to deny them. “Let me put it this way,” he said, with hunched shoulders and baggy eyes, through the pro shop’s slightly opened window. “I had the Hartford chief of police here with his girlfriend, and they took separate carts. All it takes is one picture sent to Channel 3 and it’s over.”
In Massachusetts, courses wish their biggest problem was having to turn customers away because of a lack of carts. A stay-at-home order until May 18 did not list golf courses as essential, so golf cannot be used as an escape from quarantine for Bay Staters. According to Brent Amaral, pro at the Acoaxet Club in Westport, Massachusetts, there are efforts to lift the ban on golf. “The Massachusetts Golf Association and some of their allied organizations have written several letters to the governor trying to get golf to be considered an essential business so we can operate, but that’s been unsuccessful.” Despite the closure, Amaral managed to find some positive in the situation. “The course is probably in as good of shape as it can be this time of year. There won’t be any divots out there or ball marks or any of that evidence from normal play, so when we finally do get out there, we’ll be in pristine condition.”
While Massachusetts waits for permission to get back out on the course, the PGA Tour has announced their plans to get professional golf back on TV, without fans in attendance. Even though the year’s Open Championship (commonly known as the British Open) has been canceled, the sport’s three other majors, the Masters, U.S. Open, and PGA Championship, have all moved to later dates. The revised PGA Tour season will resume June 8 with the Charles Schwab Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas. Two weeks later, Cromwell, Connecticut, will host the Travelers Championship on its original dates, June 25 to 28. As the only American professional sport with concrete plans to resume, golf could see a popularity boom, as a lack of competition will give sports fans nothing else to watch, potentially inspiring them to go out and play.
“We’re not really making a lot of money, but we’re paying our bills and making our mortgage because of eBay.
Despite the potential increase in play, golf fans in Connecticut will not be able to buy golf equipment, as golf shops were not granted the same luxury as courses. Their doors are closed. One such store is Chris Cote’s Golf Shop, which is one of the top golf stores in New England, finding its way onto Golf Digest’s list of the top hundred club fitters in the country. Cote’s business has grown from humble beginnings selling clubs out of his garage on eBay, to a brick-and-mortar store in Portland, owning and operating the former Golf Quest shop and driving range in Southington, operating multiple clubhouses around the state, and a soon-to-be-open driving range.
Cote, a former member of CCSU’s now-defunct golf team, is oftentimes seen in locally-run commercials during tournaments like the Masters, wearing a name brand collared pullover and imploring golfers to buy their clubs at “Connecticut’s friendliest golf shop” this time of year–instead, he has had to return to his roots to stay afloat. “We call it ‘kicking the can,’” he said. “We’re not really making a lot of money, but we’re paying our bills and making our mortgage because of eBay.”
This has not come without struggles. Cote has had to limit his staff to only three in order to safely package his products. “They’re in the Portland store, and there are no customers coming in. They’re spread out, they’re just working on computers, they’re wiping stuff down, and they’re still shipping. UPS and Fed-Ex stuff has been coming daily, so that’s good.” The store on Route 66 features multiple entrances, a few back rooms, hitting bays for club fittings, and a separate building with electronic simulators, which allows everyone working to have more than enough space to socially distance.
While the range in Southington was able to reopen, for a stretch, online sales were the only source of revenue for Cote. Despite the struggle, he understands how lucky he was to have this club in his bag. “Thank god for [eBay], because that was my last line of defense, really, our last revenue source. Once the range closed down, that was it, just eBay, but that’s how I started, so we kind of fell back on it.”
At the end of May, Cote will have an additional source of revenue: his driving range at the intersection of Route 17 and Main Street in Portland. Like anything else, this new range will come with a new set of challenges. At Portland West’s range, for example, the ball dispensing machine is self-serve, with exact change required, as the course cannot give change. While the range at Portland West is outside, Cote’s range in Southington has to take extra precautions, keeping all doors open so no one has to touch handles and requiring the ball baskets to be put into barrels filled with bleach and water after they are used.
Despite these challenges, Cote remains optimistic about the future of the business and game he loves. “I actually think it’s good for the game of golf,” he said. “I know all the golf courses across the state were very busy today [April 19], and our range was very steady yesterday. It was cold and miserable yesterday, but today was really good.” Once this is over, Cote believes there will be a boom for golf. “I think once we get back to somewhat of a normal, which who knows when that’s going to be, golf’s going to do very well,” he said. “It’s a safe sport, it’s outside, and it could be better than normal.” That’s something golf enthusiasts and casual fans alike can hope for.
Connor Giveans is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine
Photos by Connor Giveans