If you’re anything like me, recent golf course openings plus a run of good weather have sent me scrambling trying to figure out one of golf’s biggest current questions: Is golf safe?
It’s no secret that information surrounding the transmission and spread of the coronavirus has been fluid and filled with uncertainty. Finding a reliable source for advice and data can be difficult. But as research continues to come in, we are learning more about what it means to be outside. Several writers at The New York Times sifted through a variety of studies to put together the most coherent roundup of outdoor transmission I’ve seen yet (which you can read here) — and now I’ve sifted through that for you, the golfer!
What I’d love for you to take away from these takeaways is that this is not an all-or-nothing issue, that being outdoors is neither 100 percent safe nor unavoidably dangerous. When you’re headed to play golf, your actions can determine your safety.
Below is what I learned, split into five bits of cautionary news and five bits of encouraging news.
1. There’s one simple rule you should follow.
What the Times says: “Experts have a simple answer: Practice social distancing and wear a mask when that is not possible.”
What that means for golfers: Yeah, it gets more nuanced after this, but experts seem relatively aligned on this first protocol, which remains the best basic guideline for limiting transmission of — and exposure to — the coronavirus. So bring your mask to the course, where you’ll want to wear it in potentially crowded spaces before you spread out onto the holes themselves.
2. Don’t share!
What the Times says: “Don’t share food, utensils or beverages; keep your hands clean; and keep at least six feet from people who don’t live in your home.”
What that means for golfers: If it’s permitted by law, you and your golf buddies should each bring your own refreshments to the course, and resist the temptation to share said refreshments or other items like clubs, tees, balls and towels.
3. The risk of outdoor transmission does exist.
What the Times says: “The risk is lower outdoors, but it’s not zero… And I think the risk is higher if you have two people who are stationary next to each other for a long time, like on a beach blanket, rather than people who are walking and passing each other,” — Shan Soe-Lin, a lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.
What that means for golfers: While it’s important to get outside, relax and get some exercise, stay aware of social distancing and avoid prolonged conversations in close proximity to another player. There are documented cases of transmission that have come after outdoor conversations or large group gatherings; it’s certainly possible to transmit the virus while playing golf.
4. The greatest danger is before and after your round.
What the Times says: Columbia University Virologist Angela Rasmussen, talking about public pools: “The most concentrated sources of virus in such an environment will be the people hanging out at the pool, not the pool itself.”
What that means for golfers: Rasmussen’s point here is that while the swimming itself is relatively low-risk, swimmers face exposure when they’re around other people: in a locker room, on a dock, at the beach. Golfers take note: The greatest danger won’t come on the course but in the parking lot, grill room, locker room or pro shop. Get those masks ready!
As for a post-round burger and beer? A trip to the 19th hole is one of life’s great pleasures. But even outside, sitting and talking in close proximity is risky behavior. Prolonged exposure is a major factor in increased likelihood of transmission. The Times also cited a recent study showing that talking can launch thousands of droplets into the air that remain suspended there for 8-14 minutes. The risk of inhaling those droplets is lower outdoors, but extended conversations carry risk as the viral load potentially multiplies.
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5. Contaminated surfaces are still a real threat.
What the Times says: “The virus can last three days on hard surfaces like steel and plastic and about 24 hours on cardboard under laboratory conditions.”
What that means for golfers: Yes, even outside, there are still risks of getting the virus by touching a golf club, a flagstick, a bunker rake or the inside of a cup — any shared surfaces — and then touching your face. The virus won’t linger as long at a golf course as it will in a lab, but the risk of transmission still exists.
Okay, now let’s switch gears to the encouraging takeaways…
1. If you’re going to be in public, outdoors is better than indoors.
What the Times says: Epidemiologist and Harvard Med. School assistant prof. Julia L. Marcus: “I think going outside is important for health … we know that being outdoors is lower risk for coronavirus transmission than being indoors.
What that means for golfers: A green light! A yellow light, at least. It’s healthy to get outside with proper precautions, so if you feel you can stay a safe distance from others, you should feel free to head to the course.
2. Golf is likely safer than other forms of outdoor recreation.
What the Times says: “One challenge in dense cities is finding six feet to call your own on a running path or in a bicycle lane.”
What that means for golfers: Yes, there’s something strange about golf courses — which non-readers of this website might deem nonessential — being among the first businesses to open. But golf involves an unmatched amount of wide open space. Golf does not have the required proximity of a running path, a swimming pool or a basketball court. That’s good news for golfers.
3. The viral load matters.
What the Times says: Virginia Tech engineering professor and aerosol scientist Linsey Marr: “There’s so much dilution that happens outdoors. As long as you’re staying at least six feet apart, I think the risk is very low.”
Lehman College physicist Eugene Chudnovsky: “The virus load is important. A single virus will not make anyone sick; it will be immediately destroyed by the immune system. The belief is that one needs a few hundred to a few thousand of SARS-CoV-2 viruses to overwhelm the immune response.”
What that means for golfers: Staying six feet apart on the golf course is both difficult and easy. Muscle memory will incline you to lean over to your buddy and whisper something while another playing partner is preparing to hit his shot; we even saw that in the skins game played on Sunday. But if you’re cognizant of the six feet, it’s no problem at all.
Don’t chat closely on tee boxes, look over putts with your playing partner, celebrate with hugs or shake hands at the end of the round. Use that outdoor dilution as your ally; something as simple as a light breeze will help reduce that viral load tremendously.
4. Wind and sun are your friends.
What the Times says: “According to Dr. Chudnovsky, a sunny day is better than a cloudy day, because there’s more sunlight to kill the virus and more wind to dilute it.“
What this means for golfers: As if we needed another reason to love sunny days? All this really means for golfers is to appreciate the sun and breeze a little bit more — and to avoid going directly downwind of any groups of people, as an extra precaution.
5. The virus is unlikely to get transmitted in passing outdoors.
What the Times says: “Experts say that a person walking, jogging or cycling too close for a few seconds is not a big worry.”
What this means for golfers: This is good news for joggers but even better news for golfers, who can take some comfort in knowing that sharing a fairway is unlikely to put them at risk. Still, it’s worth remembering that this same batch of experts recommend wearing a mask or other face covering if you’re going to come in close contact with others.
That gets us back to the original point: This is not a black-and-white issue. Golf is not 100% safe, nor is it inevitably fraught with danger. But golfers’ actions can ensure a lower chance of transmission on and around the course, keeping everybody healthy and happy.
You can read that complete New York Times article here.