Golf courses aiming for 'touchless experience' as they begin to open across Canada

While many parts of our economy remain shuttered and other sports continue to wait for the go ahead to resume play, courses in all 10 provinces will soon be open for business.

Golf Canada CEO Laurence Applebaum believes recreational players will embrace new guidelines

Golf courses are adopting strict regulations in order to open for business. (Associated Press)

At Winnipeg's Assiniboine Golf Club, business is brisk. As brisk as it can be, with a lengthy list of rules ensuring social distancing rules are adhered to.

"We are as busy as we have ever been. It's been very encouraging. Hopefully it will stay this way," Glen Mills, the club's director of golf, said this week.

At a time when social distancing has become engrained in our lives, it seems the one sport that makes sense is golf.

While many parts of our economy remain shuttered and other sports continue to wait for the go ahead to resume play, courses in all 10 provinces will soon be open for business. In many provinces, golfers are already back on the links at one of Canada's nearly 2,500 courses.

Across the country, golf officials have worked together to answer public health official's questions, working proactively to create their own set of protocols as opposed to have guidelines prescribed from outside of the sport.

"I think that now people are starting to think, OK how can I get out safely? How can I get out in an environment where my health has been considered? What I see businesses doing everywhere from grocery to restaurants and is trying to make that experience free of anxiety or stress," Laurence Applebaum, Golf Canada's CEO, said.

Golf Canada CEO Laurence Applebaum says courses are aiming for an "almost touch-less experience" to combat COVID-19 risks. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
Appelbaum said, based on provincially developed guidelines, courses across the country are aiming for an "essentially almost touchless experience from the parking lot to the first tee.

"The list of protocols will be at varying levels depending on your golf course and depending on the footprint of the course," he said.

At Assiniboine, the rules are laid out in large print on the club's website and include staggered tee times, no more than four players per group and one person to a cart unless players live in the same house. And Assiniboine's clubhouse and restaurant are closed.

On the course, other changes include no bunker rakes or ball washers, one group only on the tee box and the flagstick never comes out of the hole.

"I was expecting to see people pushing the envelope a little but it's been good. People have been very respectful," Mills said. "I thought it would harder to monitor. Sometimes when it gets really busy, it's hard to keep people apart."

Applebaum said the early feedback from across the country has been that most golfers have embraced the new measures.

I was expecting to see people pushing the envelope a little but it's been good. People have been very respectful.- Glen Mills, Assiniboine Golf Club

"Golf is a sport that naturally that caters to rule followers. It's a rule based sport and it's a protocol based sport," he said.

Mills said the new safety protocols have actually improved the pace of play.

"You don't get the bunching with multiple groups waiting on holes. We haven't had that."

At the same time, he conceded that enforcing and monitoring all of the new rules have put a strain on his limited staff.

"Way more work for us," he said. "Usually we have two people up front and we could have used four. You have to have one person on the first tee box making sure it doesn't get congested. We have to make sure everybody is spacing inside the clubhouse.

"And everything is getting sanitized, whether it's a pull cart or gas cart, the doors. You could basically hire an extra person just to do all of that."

A worker sprays disinfectant on a golf cart. (Associated Press)

Being one of the first sports to get back into action also affords golf a unique opportunity. Applebaum said the lifting of restrictions comes at a time when people are desperate to get outside of their home and be active and socially engaged.

"We're taking this as an opportunity to broaden the game and bring more people in. But at the same time do it in a way that people feel really considered and safe for people," he said.

With limited recreational options, Applebaum said courses also hope to attract many lapsed golfers who may have tucked their clubs away and sworn they would never play again.

Mills said he's noticed a number of new faces. "We've gotten a lot more junior memberships because they can't play the other sports they usually play."

There also may be one other welcome change for golfers. A familiar sign at almost all courses is a stern sign reminding players that no outside food or drink can be brought on the course.

Applebaum said even that could be relaxed.

"I think people are open to some flexibility. I think course are going to be open to how they manage themselves," he said. "I think there's a bunch of different new recommendations that are going to help people when it comes to food and drink."

At Assiniboine, Mills said alcohol from home still won't be tolerated but if players want to bring or order food, they can.

"We are not going through everybody's bag. If people bring their own sandwiches I don't have a problem with that. With our restaurant closed, people are allowed to sit on the patio and if they want to order takeout, that's fine. Our main focus is the golf right now."


Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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