First Round Back: Social distancing is easy, please do it!

cherry hills golf course

Cherry Hills Golf Course was one of only a couple in the area open on Wisconsin's opening day, and it benefitted as a result.

Sean Zak

Ed. note: The economy is reawakening, and so is golf. As states begin to loosen restrictions on the game, tee sheets at America’s courses are filling up again. To help chronicle this process and illuminate how the coronavirus pandemic has changed the game in ways both large and small, we’ve tapped our fleet of writers and editors — who are spread out across the nation, from New York, to Arizona, to Texas, to California — to document their first rounds back.

Previous installments: James Colgan on Bethpage State Park, on Long Island; Josh Sens on Turkey Creek GC, in Northern California

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When Wisconsin governor Tony Evers instituted a “Safer at Home” order that closed down golf courses in his state, there was still plenty of snow on the ground and in the forecast. Golf felt far from essential. 

In a state where the coronavirus had not spread as expansively as the coasts, the call down was highly contested. “I’m not belittling golf,” Evers promised, but more than 67,000 digital signatures disagreed on the petition “Let Wisconsin Golf.” Weeks of pressure from lawmakers helped change his mind, too, and exactly one month after the initial order, Evers announced courses could reopen. Cherry Hills Golf Course, a simple public track in Sturgeon Bay, carried more intrigue than ever. As one of two dozen who teed it up there on opening day, here are six takeaways from my first round back.

1. The golf doesn’t matter

This was the best the attic had to offer. It worked quite well!

Sean Zak

Forty-eight hours prior to my round, Cherry Hills was blanketed by a light morning snowfall. The forecast called for temps in the 30s, and the clubs from the attic are as old as I am. (Two esoteric words: Bubble shaft.) As a proud handicapping practitioner, this round was just not gonna count. And that’s okay! Never has a front-nine 48 felt so good.

On the next tee box over, a father and two daughters repeatedly swiped at tee shots without making contact. They appeared properly fatigued when it was all over, but damn it beats staying home.

2. Social distancing is rather easy, so do it

As popular as golf courses will be right now, they are big, expansive properties with only a few shared checkpoints (tees, pin locations). Cherry Hills posted signs on its locked clubhouse and near the first tee:

– don’t touch the flagsticks (foam pool noodles elevate the ball from the base of the cup)

– smooth out your tracks in the bunkers (there are no rakes)

– keep a safe distance from others!

If we can’t follow these Kindergarten rules then we don’t deserve golf courses (and the good people who run them) at all. Lucky folks will tell you that there are no rakes at Pine Valley because there are no bunkers. There’s sand where there isn’t grass, and as a courtesy you smooth out your deepest tracks in the sand. That’s right, folks. Act like you’re playing PV!

3. Exercise might be the most essential part

The golf world knows a little too much about my preferred body weight, but staying indoors this spring hasn’t helped the waistline. Thankfully, part of Wisconsin’s orders is that no carts are allowed. Walking only. And as you may have inferred, Cherry Hills is hilly, but five miles and 12,000 steps is no joke when you’ve been quarantined for weeks. Embrace the walk.

Understandably, ‘No Carts’ isn’t a great clause for older golfers, but if anything it should teach us this sport doesn’t need to be 18 holes. Nine holes is plenty when you’re hoofin’ it. Start there.

4. Golf is a privilege now

The long Wisconsin winter transitioned so smoothly into a stay-at-home period that, according to Jon Martell, the general manager at Cherry Hills, “People are calling it double cabin fever.” They’re not wrong.

Most American golfers set their sticks aside for the winter not knowing their spring would be compromised. Petitions circled the internet as a result! Like an ex-lover, now that we know golf can be taken away from us, we’ll cherish it more than ever.

5. Playing puts people to work

Wrapping up the front nine, we were greeted by a lady taking out the trash. “Thanks so much for coming out,” she said, eagerly. The lady was Martell’s mother, and a sign of what life is like right now at Cherry. For the time-being, this course and many others are run on tinier maintenance budgets.

During the week prior to opening, Martell picked up brush, blew leaves off the course and even mowed the entire property by himself. While he intends to bring back his entire maintenance staff, it will be with limited hours to start. Golf courses are businesses, and some of them — like Cherry Hills — are smaller than you might think. While this might feel a bit like Sims Golf, more rounds = more revenue = more hours for employees. “It’s been great to see and hear the enthusiasm of people wanting to get back out golfing,” Martell said. “It’s that optimism and enthusiasm that’s going to keep us going strong.”

6. Long live the honesty box!

A closed clubhouse might as well be no clubhouse, so paying for emergency loops — like the 5-holer that felt necessary for us — seem tricky. They’re not! In an homage to the honesty box popular in Scotland, golfers who want to loop it after hours or who want to just keep playing should be urged to do so. Just make sure that confirmation email lands in the inbox first.

Golf.com

A senior editor for GOLF.com, Zak joined the staff GOLF staff three weeks after college graduation. He is the utility infielder of the brand, spanning digital, print and video. His main duty is as a host for various GOLF.com video properties and its award-winning podcasts. When the Masters comes around, be sure to tune in to hear him and fellow staffers recount the most memorable tournaments in Augusta National history on A Pod Unlike Any Other.