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This is Golf’s Chance

Increased play during the pandemic is a new opportunity for the grand old game
Norty Ayrshire, Scotland

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Even my kids wanted to play. My two daughters, ages 7 and 10, had ignored their Christmas golf clubs for years, and likely resented golf as the reason Dad wasn’t home. Again. But when our course opened up after two months of kitchen schooling, eyes bleary from their iPads, my invitation to play a few holes was met with the joy and hope of the liberated. They found those clubs and waited for me in the driveway, and every Sunday since, we’ve become the little golfing family I once saw only in my dreams.

Our course outside Philadelphia, Waynesborough, previously averaged 20,000 rounds for a calendar year. In the seven weeks since the course reopened, 8,000 golfers have stepped off its first tee, and I’ve found myself setting an alarm to grab a slot on the tee sheet a week in advance. I see names there of people who haven’t tread a golf hole in years, pushed out onto the course as a pastime of last and lone resort, where they are finding fun and recalling why they joined a golf club in the first place. The same has happened at the public course where my father plays, where they have had to invent new tee times (we’ll slide you in between the 10:50 and 10:58 group) to squeeze in the regulars amid all the new faces. As so many things around us seem as if they couldn’t get any worse, in some ways, golf couldn’t be faring any better.

Gone are the omens of courses on the brink, replaced by fairways clogged with working-at-home golfers whose formerly merciless calendars have gone quiet. Covid has created a confluence of circumstances uniquely suited to golf’s resurgence: Its fresh-air, socially-distant attributes are conspicuous, but combine them with free time born of vanished commutes, with close-to-home proclivities, with renewed interest in being active and outdoors, and with a new appreciation for simple, time-passing diversions, golf’s former liabilities have become its draws. Most of us have slowed down a bit this year, and with less rush and fewer places to be, the refrain that has sunk so many potential rounds—sorry, too busy—has lost its bite. Quarantine presents new fears and challenges, and among them is the disquiet of empty hours. But there’s the grand old game, ready to welcome us back once we abandoned the lie that we’d finally enjoy jogging.

As golf is visited by new company, it has shown them its best side. The game has gotten quicker, at least in the rounds I’ve been playing. Walking only, no rakes, leave the pin—it has all trimmed 20 minutes and kept crowded courses moving along, and a round of golf feels more efficient now, more streamlined, more focused on the golf itself—in its new no-frills simplicity, it feels closer to its Scottish roots. I like changing my shoes in the parking lot without judgment. I like carrying my own bag. I like only being allowed 10 minutes at the range before teeing off (just enough time to loosen up before I’m tempted to rebuild my swing). I like paying beforehand and walking from my car to the first tee. I like using Venmo for my forecaddie. And I like getting home a little earlier—no pressure to mill about the grill room post-round—and have a full day left for the kids, or another 18, or a full afternoon of golf on TV. For all the kinks and concessions associated with the return of pro golf, ratings have been remarkable for regular, sans-Tiger Tour stops. The golfers and the watchers are back, but when the new normal blends with some of the old—and God-willing, may that happen soon—will the come-lately fans forget the game that was there for them when they needed it?

It’s up to those of us in golf to make sure they don’t. As new and former participants rekindle their connection, let’s remember what they came for, and make sure they can continue to get it: Fun. Simplicity. Ease of access. Escape. Exercise. Nobody returned to golf in the last three months because they missed driving golf carts. No one came back for ornate clubhouses and post-round massages. No one dusted off their clubs for committee meetings, or the glory of a landscape upon which every shirt was tucked. The courses aren’t crowded today because golfers want to show off their coveted memberships to their friends. We are playing golf right now for golf’s sake. For the walk, the conversation, the feeling in our fingertips of a clean clubface click. The pandemic has been a great decluttering, de-bullshitting force when it comes to our game, reminding us not just of its simple joys, but revealing how little else we need but grass ahead and a ball in our pocket. 

The distractions will return; the calendar reminders will be buzzing on our phones soon. And when that happens, golf will again be competing with school, the gym, the movies, the stadiums, and the inclination to spend a day on one’s ass. What do those competitors for our afternoons have in common? They’re easy and available and unintimidating ways to spend our time. As the world moves forth out from under its present shadow, may we not have to look back and miss those months when golf was once like that, too.