We’re all familiar with the vocabulary of the golf course, which ranges from the congratulatory to the scatological and often profane. But this year, the most common utterance may be one seldom heard before on the links: “Oops!”
Today, that’s the go-too word every time we forget – or hopefully, almost forget but remember just in time – the new pandemic golf protocols that let us play our old familiar game that just isn’t familiar, any more. Reach out to shake hands… “Oops!” Touch the flagstick. “Oops!” Get in the wrong cart by accident. “Oops!” Walk into the men’s room and find one, just one, other guy in there. “Oops,” said while backing out apologetically.
The feeling that we’ve entered another, slightly off-kilter dimension starts upon arrival at our course. We proceed directly to the clubhouse, carefully distancing ourselves from anyone also on that same mission. We don’t bring our clubs – they stay in the trunk – we don’t shake hands or give the ol’ shoulder-chuck to anyone. We stand on designated spots, replete with posted warnings, awaiting our turn to check in.
Once checked in, then and only then, are we allowed to access our golf cart – and I use the “our” in its royal sense, where “our” means “my”. Because generally, there is no sharing. Unless you live in the same household.
So in my Monday morning men’s group, the line-up at the first tee looks a little like the line-ups at McDonalds drive-throughs, these days, one cart per golfer, so usually about eight little carts all in a row.
At some courses, people who share a home are allowed to share a cart, a small blessing. At some, two non-life-partners can also share a cart, provided there is a plastic sheet down the middle, which feels a little like trying to camp out in a tent that’s just too darned small.
I drive my newly disinfected cart back to the parking lot, where I load in my golf bag, towel, water bottle, wrapped muffin, and bug spray. The muffin, because there is seldom if ever cart service on the course. And then, I join that stationary convoy at the first tee.
That’s the easy part. The hard part – it’s working, but it’s hard – is not acting like golfers, once we get out on the course. No high-fives. No picking up someone else’s club as an act of courtesy. No jostling. No hand-to-hand combat – oh, is your men’s group not like that, after someone snorts while you are putting? I digress.
The game itself feels pretty familiar – unless you wind up in a bunker, or on the green, and come to think of it, landing on the green hopefully happens somewhere near 18 times per game.
The pandemic bunker rule, at the courses I’ve been playing, has evolved because there are no rakes – a change instituted to eliminate high touch surfaces. So we can play the ball from the ill-kept bunkers (and some do… masochists to the core), or move the ball back to the grass away from the green (which I do because, well, bunkers).
There are also, of course, no ball cleaners – another concession to the no-touch mentality. So you can use some of the precious ice water you brought from home, or you can play with dirty balls. Sorry.
I find it effective to hit my drive into the bushes, and while looking for my ball, I usually find two or three others in very fine shape, thus eliminating the need to clean my original ball – which remains lost, anyway.
The greens prevent the biggest challenges. You have to admit that COVID 19 has solved the question of whether to leave the flagstick in – yep, high-touch-surface rules apply, so you don’t touch the stick. I wonder, if this crisis ever ends, if we’ll just keep on playing that way. The pros aren’t, by and large, I notice.
And then there are those sundry ways courses are adjusting the cups to decrease touch there, too. The little plastic sleeves that keep the ball at ground level, even when it is in the cup, for instance. A buddy of mine made a hole in one a week ago (at least, he says he did, and golfers being golfers, I’d give it at least a 75% chance of veracity), but the whole thing confused him because the ball never disappeared from view. But when he got to the green, there it was, nestled slightly down on the apparatus, clearly in the cup.
(A pandemic side benefit – there were almost no people on the sparsely furnished patio when he finished his round, so his celebratory drinks cost him about three beers and a water).
There are also courses that are using a wire contraption that allows you to pull the ball out of the cup, using your club. On one course like that, I gave two putts to my playing partner because the ball bounced off – not the pin, but the coat hanger-thing attached to the pin. That seemed to call for a certain amount of mercy. Speaking of which, generous gimme’s are encouraged, even when we know there is no chance Fred would have made that putt. Three-putts are almost unknown, except in our men’s quota game, where the organizer threatens dire consequences for not finishing our putts.
Then there are the courses that are using sections of swimming pool noodles around the bottom of the flagstick, in the cups. We saw the downside of this on a green that obviously needed some drainage work. The green was fine, but the noodle bit did what it was originally designed to do – it floated on a couple of inches of water in the cup, so all we could do was bounce our ball off the bit above ground, and call it a completed putt.
The end of the round brings its own complications. No high fives – we now touch putters, which somehow seems slightly kinky, for some obscure reason. Maybe that’s just me.
And then, maybe, off to an open patio for a socially-distanced drink, if there are any socially-distanced seats left (“DO NOT MOVE THE FURNITURE” is the universal command). Most golfers, I notice, are deciding the drink is not worth the trouble. On the other hand, there are those getting take-out beers and celebrating in the parking lot. I heard this week of a group that took it one step further, breaking out lawn chairs and beers in a shaded corner of the parking lot – but they got kicked out.
Finally, of course, while we know that golfers are moral and upright people who would never gamble, but if there happened to be things called “quota games”, they have brought a whole new set of challenges to the sport. One high end club I know still has their quota game, but it’s all calculated on a volunteer’s smart phone, and the players will get their winnings or pay their losses at the end of the year, by e-transfer. Darn, it’s hard to effectively trash talk your losing buddy during an e-transfer. Maybe you could choose a security password like “Loser” or “Choker,” but it still wouldn’t be the same as a well-crafted, in-person insult.
In our game, we still chip in five bucks a week, but the winnings will only be awarded at season-end – and I’m told our coordinator disinfects all the money as soon as he gets home. Personally, I’m in little danger of collecting any of that money, clean or dirty.
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