Should you feel comfortable picking up random golf balls and broken tees?

A golf ball in the trees.

We've always been quick to pick up golf balls we find. Should we still be OK doing that?

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The text below originated in last week’s The Etiquetteist column, in which Josh Sens talked to Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, to come up with five rules for playing golf safely. Today, we expand on one important topic that was mentioned. You can read the complete Etiquetteist with Dr. Schaffner’s recommendations here.

As a safety precaution, golf courses everywhere have been going to great lengths to eliminate potential touch points. Bye-bye ball-washers. So long drinking stations. Yet many familiar objects are still out there, most notably lost balls and broken tees, just the sort of things that golfers often handle.

And so the question: can picking up those items pose a hazard to your health? A lot remains unknown about how long the virus can survive on different surfaces, according to Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.


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“(The subject) has been studied,” he says. “But not carefully enough.”

In indoor laboratories, under controlled temperature and humidity, the virus has been shown to survive longer on cardboard than it does on certain hard materials, Dr. Schaffner notes. But that doesn’t tell us much about how it fares outdoors on a wooden peg or a dimpled ball. As with so much else these days, we are dealing with unknowns. The good news is, we aren’t helpless either. One solution, Dr. Schaffner says, is to carry hand sanitizing wipes in your golf bag. They’re small, lightweight and contain alcohol and other detergents that kill the virus quickly.

Tempted by a broken tee, or a shiny Titleist in the rough? One option is to simply ignore it. Another is to pick it up with a wipe, without touching the tee or ball directly. “Wipe it off,” Dr. Schaffner says, “you’ll be fine.”

Josh Sens Editor

A golf, food and travel writer, Josh Sens has been a GOLF Magazine contributor since 2004 and now contributes across all of GOLF’s platforms. His work has been anthologized in The Best American Sportswriting. He is also the co-author, with Sammy Hagar, of Are We Having Any Fun Yet: the Cooking and Partying Handbook.