High demand expected at East Bay golf courses upon reopening
By Lou Fancher
When Bay Area shelter-in-place orders loosen, golf is poised to have its moment to shine, as Alameda County golf course managers and pros say pent-up demand for the outdoor social-distance-friendly sport is unprecedented.
“People are chomping at the bit,” says Jay McDaniel, 58, Claremont Country Club’s director of golf who’s worked at the club on the Berkeley-Oakland border for 21 years.
Cliff Lee, 46, has been the manager since about 2000 at Montclair Golf, the nine-hole mom-and-pop public course owned by his parents, Pillim and Grace Lee.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve been here since the first day my dad purchased it as a partnership in 1981. People are eager to come back,” Lee says. “They decompress here, so they’re calling all the time. They miss our driving range. Just hitting balls, you let your brain drift, escape.”
Ray Robinson, the general manager at Lake Chabot Golf Course, says about the many phone calls and emails he’s received and the Oakland public course that “It’s a mix. People ask why we’re not open when other places outside the county are open. Other people ask about the precautions and the steps we absolutely intend to take.”
All three course managers in separate interviews say the precautionary steps to prevent spreading COVID-19 are many. Lee says all golf course resources must be marshaled, even at a pitch-and-put course like Montclair Golf that doesn’t offer golf carts.“Our staff will be out making sure people follow the rules,” Lee says.
In addition to maintaining 6 feet of separation and following other state- and county-ordered social distancing guidelines, golfers will be responsible for carrying and cleaning their own equipment. On the driving range, the stalls will be spaced 6 feet apart, and no sharing of balls, tees or clubs will be allowed.
“The number-one thing is that people will have to watch themselves. You play with other people, and normally you see people high-fiving. They can’t do that now. They’ll also have to use suction cups to pull balls out of the hole so you don’t touch it. Or aim for near the hole and make a game of that.”
At Lake Chabot, tee times will be booked by phone or online only. Prepayment by credit card makes the process entirely free of physical contact. Single rider carts or walking, with increased tee time intervals to spread groups out on the course, will be the new norm. Reservations for the driving range stalls spaced more than 6 feet apart and limitations of the number of people on the practice green or in the clubhouse are also mandated.
“We want people to stay at home until the order is lifted. But we’ll be here and ready to provide a good, safe, social activity when that happens,” Lake Chabot manager Robinson says.
Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, Claremont’s McDaniel played baseball and only “goofed around a little with playing golf in high school.” A year or two out of college, joining a friend for a casual game, everything changed.
“I just absolutely loved it. Not just the game; I got interested in the literature of golf, books, like Bobby Jones’s ‘Down the Fairway.’ There’ve been so many fantastic books and it has a great culture.”
A major part of golf culture makes it a near-perfect participatory sport during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Golfers tend to be a rule-abiding, respectful group,” says McDaniel. “It’s a game where you call penalties on yourself, after all.”
Even so, at the 18-hole private course near Oakland’s Rockridge district, outside crews will not touch the carts, and no caddies will be allowed. A strict protocol has one group on the first tee with the next group staged on the practice green and a third group waiting in their cars. Tee times will stop abruptly at 4:30 p.m. — that cutoff time is for people playing only nine holes — and all golfers must be off the course by 6:30 p.m., roughly three hours earlier than the usual summer wrap-up. As at Lake Chabot, Claremont will allow only one driver/person per cart.
“We’ll spray carts with sanitized solutions when they come back, and they’ll sit for 10 minutes,” says McDaniel. “Then we’ll clean carts entirely and they’ll sit in the cart barn until the next day. We hope most people will walk. It’s a great way to walk 6 miles or so for 18 holes.”
That last point underscores golf’s major health benefits: It’s a lifetime activity offering cardiovascular, balance, strength and stretch exercise and mental health fitness gained through discipline, resilience, social engagement and healthy competition. During the COVID-19 era, social distancing is achieved with minor, easily achieved and monitored safety adjustments. Lee says relatively low fees (averaging $10 to $27) at public Bay Area courses also mean golf is no longer exclusive to upper income people.
“You can play five hours and 18 holes, and it’s cheaper than going to the movies,” he says.
On a course, people learn life lessons.
“You can’t hide your personality on a golf course. My dad introduced me to the game, but I learned from my mom that I play better with her because she just wants to have a good time. My scores are always better because of her good aura. If I play with my brothers, I’m more competitive,” Lee says, adding that his parents taught him to play through adversity. “It’s playing through thick and thin. It’s a profession, but it’s a game about life. It’s a mirror of yourself.”
After completing a round of golf and “air-fiving” friends, there’s extended entertainment in books or broadcasts on television and mobile devices. Robinson predicts golf will be the first major professional sport to host a national event.
“It’s easier and safer for that to happen,” he says.
McDaniel draws a similar conclusion, saying about golf’s pending resurgence on local and national scales that “It’s the easiest sport to have a major league event. It’s fun to have a crowd at a big tournament, but even college golf is exciting to watch and there’s no big crowd there. It’s going to be incredibly busy.”
Last but not least, there is being outdoors, an experience profoundly appreciated these days by people otherwise confined to homes that to some feel paradoxically like safe havens and prisons at the same time.
Robinson sums it up: “Golf takes technical skills and athletic aspects of other sports and includes understanding nature. You can’t get that anywhere else. Before the virus, daily activities, school and work were all about staying inside, but with golf you blend athleticism with the adventure of being in nature.”