WORCESTER, Mass – Happy anniversary, Bay State golfers!
Friday marks the one-year anniversary of Gov. Charlie Baker allowing golf courses in the state to reopen after he ordered them to close for six weeks because of the pandemic.
On May 7, 2020, Massachusetts became the last state in the country to announce a return to golf, which according to a study commissioned by Mass Golf in 2014 is a $2.7 billion economy including over 25,000 jobs.
Cara Cullen, who owns Wachusett Country Club in West Boylston and Kettle Brook Golf Club in Paxton with her brothers, believes she helped convince Baker to make the right decision.
The weekend before Baker allowed courses to reopen, Cullen met via Zoom with representatives from the Alliance of Massachusetts Golf Organizations and the Governor’s Reopening Advisory Board. When golf courses didn’t reopen by the following Monday May 4, she announced that Wachusett and Kettle Brook GC would open in defiance of the governor’s order to remain closed.
“I felt I needed to advocate for golf because I didn’t think the alliance was advocating enough,” she said at the time.
Neither club did open in defiance, but she believed her threat helped convince the governor to change his mind three days later. Forty-seven of the 50 states had reopened for play already, while the Bay State joined Vermont and Maryland in reopening courses on Thursday May 7.
Cullen said she understood that golf courses accounted for only a small fraction of the businesses that the governor and the advisory board had to consider whether to reopen, but she wished the board had known more about golf. Cullen said a member of the advisory board asked the alliance to explain what a greens fee was, but no one asked the alliance about carts.
“So I put my livelihood in the hands of 17 people,” she said last year, “that didn’t know what a greens fee was.”
Cullen’s family has owned Wachusett since 1939 and she said they knew how to make golf safe. The director of operations for Sterling Golf Management said his company lost $500,000 in April alone compared to the same month in 2019.
Golf courses were allowed to reopen on May 7, 2020, but golf carts, caddies and bunker rakes were banned, driving ranges and practice greens remained closed, flagsticks couldn’t be removed from the cups, hand sanitizer had to be available and masks had to be worn when social distancing wasn’t possible.
Golfers also had to remain in their cars until 15 minutes before their tee times and couldn’t congregate in the parking lot.
Golfers unable to walk courses complained that banning carts violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. So the governor soon allowed singles to ride carts and he eventually allowed two people to ride together.
Despite being closed for six weeks in the spring, most golf courses in the state hosted more rounds than ever last year because golf was one of the safest activities available. It’s played outdoors and social distancing is easily attained.
Even though golf courses have been busy with golfers, they still lost out last year on canceled weddings, functions and outings. Of the 16 states that forced golf courses to close, Massachusetts was the last one to allow them to reopen, according to Boston’s NPR station, WBUR. For example, New York — the state hit hardest by the pandemic — allowed courses to reopen in mid-April.
Last year, Wachusett and Kettle Brook purchased E-Z Lyft touch-less golf ball retrieval systems that enabled golfers to lift the ball out of the cup with the putter without handling the flag stick.
These days, courses are open, carts are available, flag sticks can be removed and some courses recently began providing bunker rakes. Ball washers still aren’t as plentiful as they once were, however.
But golfers are happy because they didn’t have to stop playing for six weeks like they did last spring.