Is it safe to play golf during the coronavirus pandemic?

is it safe to golf at places like Augusta National's famed 12th hole during the pandemic?
Photo via Nickel Lietzau/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)
  • This story is regularly updated for relevance. Last updated: May 26, 2021

As COVID-19 cases continues into the winter of 2020/21, golf courses remain open throughout the country. Like many other social activities, players might be trying to answer this simple question: Is it safe to play golf right now? 

America’s most famous golfers have taken widely different approaches to returning to the greens. For example, President Donald Trump returned to the golf course on May 23, 2020 (and he certainly didn’t stop going back to the course in the months afterward—it also definitely didn’t hurt his golf courses during the pandemic).

The PGA Tour resumed its schedule with hardly anybody around to watch it in person—and the best golfers in the world signed fewer autographs because of it—and stressed college golf coaches prepared for their seasons to begin in early 2021.

On Oct. 13, the PGA Tour announced that Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, had tested positive for the coronavirus, and later that month, top 20 player Tony Finau talked about his experiences contracting COVID-19. By April 2021, the PGA Tour was encouraging players and caddies to get vaccinated.

The European Tour bubble system, though, has been praised for making it safe to play golf on at least one pro tour, and it seems to really be testing its limits in 2021 with an idea to hold three European Tour tournaments in Florida in April.

By March 2021, some fans were returning to PGA Tour events, and they were expected to be masked up to watch the proceedings. For the 2021 Masters, reportedly only about one-fourth of the normal amount of fans were allowed into Augusta National to watch the proceedings.

In late May, though, a somewhat scary scene unfolded in the final moments of the PGA Championship when a large, mostly maskless crowd surrounded Phil Mickelson as he walked toward the 18th green to finish off his victory.

But experts say if players follow guidelines correctly, golf is one of the safest activities people can partake in during the pandemic. Perhaps that’s why California golf courses can remain open despite the fact much of the state is shut down (though it took until March 2021 before English golfers could return to the course, and in mid-May, golf courses in Ontario, Canada had to shut down because of a coronavirus surge).

MLive asked four health experts to rank 36 activities on how likely participants were to contract COVID-19 while doing them. Golf was given a risk level of 3, making it riskier than going for a walk, getting gas or takeout, and playing tennis. The experts considered it equally as dangerous as visiting a library or museum, staying at a hotel, buying groceries, and camping

“Golfing has a low risk, among the recreational activities, because it’s outdoors, is a non-contact sport, and has small groups of people,” the experts said. “It starts to become an issue when people start mingling, sharing golf carts, and getting within 6 feet of each other.” 

Dr. Nasir Husain, the Henry Ford Macomb medical director for infection prevention, stressed the importance of social distancing while golfing. 

“Just play golf, say hi and bye, and go on your merry way,” Husain said. “Don’t come close to each other.”

The PGA created a Back2Golf guide that lays out its three-phase approach to reopening courses. In phase 1, PGA says gatherings cap at ten people with strict social distancing, single cart riders, and clubhouses and other amenities closed. 

By phase 3—also called the “new normal”—there are no restrictions for capacity, clubhouse amenities, or golf operations. Still, players must social distance, and comprehensive sanitization procedures must be in place. 

Golf Magazine created a nine-point checklist for playing golf safely during the pandemic. The list says golfers should bring a mask for when they are near the clubhouse, bring their own water and cleaning supplies, avoid borrowing supplies from other golfers, and be aware that many communal tools like bunker racks may not be available. 

Additionally, Golf suggests players “condition [themselves] to the new conditions” and be open to the fact that the courses may not be as nice as before the pandemic, since many have had to cut back on expenses. 

“Take a deep breath and consider that Augusta-pure course setups are a modern invention, not the way conditions were always meant to be,” the author said. “In that sense, recent changes represent a reset. They’re also a reminder of what really matters. You’re playing golf again, which, as long as you’re going about it safely, is a whole lot better than sheltering in place.”

Disney World is also trying to keep its golfing patrons safe, instituting new policies for how to stay as contact-less as possible with required face coverings for everybody who uses the clubhouse and restrooms. And a few dozen South Korean natives traveled to Thailand in February to participate in a golf quarantine program that could help Thailand’s tourism trade during the pandemic.

But no system is perfect, and in October, a number of new coronavirus cases in Vermont were linked to a golf tournament that 80 people attended.

Either way, people seem to be hitting the links in larger numbers. According to Forbes, play in June 2020 had increased by about 14% nationally from a year earlier, and a National Golf Foundation saw a 20% increase in rounds played in August. The Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club in California increased its budget by $500,000 because there are so many golfers on the course, and even the Washington Post wrote in September that golf “had its best summer in decades.”

Millions of more rounds of golf were played in 2020 than in years prio. Wrote Forbes, “Experienced golfers flocked to the courses, but so did a new group of players, in search of an outdoor activity during stay-at-home and social distancing orders.”

Either way, the golf world is in a better place than in March 2020 when the PGA Tour abruptly canceled the final three rounds of The Players Championship in a world that was growing murkier by the day.

After you get the vaccine, is it safe to …

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, MLive, PGA, Golf Magazine

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