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Washington State Allows Golfers To Get Back To The Courses

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As communities begin to emerge from COVID-19 shutdowns, so do recreational opportunities. Golf seems to be a natural choice for these times with its built-in social distancing. Still, as courses around the country reopen, there are many new restrictions. The state of Washington ended its golf shutdown this week, hoping golfers comply with the new rules whether they like them or not, as NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Reopening day was near perfect at Three Rivers Golf Course in Kelso, Wash. - blue sky, just an occasional puff of wind, manicured fairways and greens, the kind of day that had golfers pining for their sport since it was shut down in March as part of Washington's stay-at-home order. But amidst the classic conditions, there was a new kind of problem.

LANCE SATCHER: Hey, Joe, Matt and Pat. You guys can't be out there on the putting green.

GOLDMAN: Looking out the pro shop window, course general manager Lance Satcher admonished the three on a microphone he normally uses to call players to the first tee. The trio left the practice screen. Satcher, wearing a light blue face mask, noticed they didn't look too happy.

SATCHER: See; and they're going to get upset about it. But that's just - that's the rules. They don't want people congregating around here.

GOLDMAN: Golf is known for its rules, perhaps too many and arcane, but now there's a whole new layer of regulation with much more serious intent. Washington's governor sent out a list of around 20 reopening restrictions and guidelines for all the state's golf courses. Satcher is fully on board.

SATCHER: I think what's going on is a real thing. I mean, I don't know if people are taking this as serious as what it is, but people are dying. I mean, I know that sounds cliche, but it's the truth. People are dying, and I don't want to be a part of that.

GOLDMAN: At Three Rivers, if people from different households want to play together, they can only go out in groups of two. It's one person per golf cart. Flag sticks stay in the hole, and golfers are told not to touch. The holes themselves are altered so the ball doesn't drop all the way down as a way to prevent touching the cup. The course has removed other high-touch items like rakes in sand traps, ball washers and benches. Some restrictions are mandated. Others are up to the course operator. Usually, there's one marshal roaming the grounds in a golf cart. Three Rivers added a second stationed on the first tee with a clipboard.

MATT BRADLEY: I need to get some contact information. What's your name?

JOHN FOWLER: John Fowler.

BRADLEY: What's your phone number, John?

GOLDMAN: Matt Bradley logs every golfer's info for potential contact tracing if someone tests positive for the virus. All these elements of new golf seem strange, but when it's time to pull out a club, the sport still is the same in all its glory and agony.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLF CLUB PUTTING)

DAVE MANSIUS: Well, not very far, not very straight, but it'll play.

GOLDMAN: As Dave Mansius and his playing partner began their round, Cathy Dibblee was finishing hers on the nearby 18th green.

CATHY DIBBLEE: The lady I was golfing with, we never really got super-close or anything - no high-fives, none of that. We were just socializing as far as just talking, which was nice because you don't get to see these people very often.

GOLDMAN: And having been without golf made following the rules that much easier.

DIBBLEE: So we don't want to be that rebel and just do what we want to do and then all of the sudden, well, because people broke the rules, now we don't get to play again.

GOLDMAN: Lance Satcher certainly welcomes that attitude as he tries to bring his business back. Before this week, Three Rivers hadn't made any money since mid-March. He had to lay off about a dozen employees. The pandemic forced several Washington courses to close for good. The rest are trying to keep that number low one socially distancing twosome at a time.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Kelso, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.