The beautiful sound of a golf ball finding the bottom of the cup is gone, for now. The fond feeling of a drive placed down the middle of a fairway, an approach shot finding the perfect spot on the green or a well executed sand wedge out of the bunker remain.
Hillcrest Golf Club in Durango opened Tuesday, while Dalton Ranch Golf Club reopened on April 2. Golf is now one of the few sporting activities available during a statewide stay-at-homer order through at least April 26 in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s wonderful we are able to open,” said Dalton Ranch PGA Head Golf Professional Pete Wolke. “What we are hearing from our membership and public players is that this is a great outlet for them to be able to get outside in a safe manner. It’s important people have a way to get out of the house in these crazy times.”
Dalton Ranch and Hillcrest opened while other courses around the Four Corners remain empty. Conquistador Golf Course in Cortez closed March 27 after a March 1 opening because of COVID-19. Hillcrest’s general manager and director of golf Michael McCloskey said he has corresponded with Micah Rudosky at Conquistador but noted the differences Conquistador faces as a fully city owned and operated course.
Famed Piñon Hills Golf Course in Farmington closed March 24 because of an order from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. The same holds true for Riverview Golf Course in Kirtland and Valley Aztec Municipal Golf Course, formerly known as Hidden Valley Golf Course, in Aztec.
“Piñon Hills is closed, and all I want to do is walk a round of 18 on one of these nice sunny days,” said Farmington’s Tyler Vaughn.
Dalton Ranch and Hillcrest are open with plenty of precautions in place to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Course managers worked with San Juan Basin Public Health to draft guidelines that would allow operation while adhering to social distancing mandates.
Players have not shied away. All of Wednesday’s tee times at Hillcrest were taken by early morning. It is rare to find a tee time at Hillcrest earlier than 3:15 p.m. any time in the next week.
McCloskey said roughly 70% of visitors the first two days were Hillcrest members with the other 30% daily-fee players. He is unsure of what portion of that 30% visited from outside the Durango area.
Hillcrest normally sees 280 golfers per day. Now, it’s limit is set at 160 with no tee times before 10 a.m. and times spaced out by 15 minutes. The 15-minute intervals also space out check-in times. Only one customer at a time is permitted to approach the check-in station, and six feet of distance is to be kept between customer and staff.
“That makes it easier to manage and better for our current situation,” McCloskey said. “It feels a lot more safe. It is hard to get a tee time right now, and that is good and bad. We want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Restricting times to 15-minute intervals spreads everybody out on the course and supports better distancing and crowd control. With that in place, the tee sheet does fill out fast.”
Reservations can be made seven days in advance. Savvy golfers know they can claim a morning tee time if they book online at midnight seven days early.
Course officials are out enforcing distancing rules. Walking is encouraged. Players who wish to use a cart may do so but must ride one player per cart with the only exception in the case of a player not being old enough to operate the cart. Carts are power washed and sanitized after each use.
Clubhouses are closed along with all other locker room facilities, and no food or beverage services are provided.
“These first two days, I am really happy with what I have seen from the public,” McCloskey said. “They are making sure to keep social distancing, and more than half of the public have shown up with cloth face coverings. It’s a good image, and all of our employees are wearing masks and trying to lead by example in that way.”
All ball washers have temporarily been removed and replaced with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Golfers are not to remove pin flags at any time. Bunker rakes also have been removed, and players are asked to do what they can to smooth over bunker surfaces with their feet after playing their shot.
Perhaps the biggest play-changing move has been to flip cups upside down in their holes. Instead of the ball dropping the customary four inches to the bottom of the cup after a made putt or, if one is so lucky, a hole-in from off the green, the ball will come to rest roughly a quarter of an inch below where the hole is cut so that golfers are not reaching into the cup to retrieve their ball. Similarly, all practice area cups have been modified.
“The ball barely goes into the cup, and then nobody has to touch or pull the flagstick at all. You grab your ball and move on,” McCloskey said. “The bunkers are kind of funny with no rakes. But, at this point, people are more concerned about getting the chance to play golf than a bad lie in a bunker, a putt lipping out or going for a course record.
“It’s a little awkward with the way everything is manipulated to make sure we are complying. The rules of golf are normally so strict and stringent. Who knows, maybe this will be a way to ease up on some rules moving forward.”
Driving range baskets and range balls are being sanitized after each use. The spacing of range mats is expanded to more than six feet.
On-course restrooms are open, and Wolke said those are sanitized once every 15 minutes, which means they are sanitized after each group passes.
No cash is being accepted. Payment to play must be done in advance online or via telephone. No walk-in reservations are accepted at this time, and singles will not be able to call in about day-of availability.
The USGA is accepting the posting of scores, but the use of each course’s handicap computer is suspended. Handicapping procedures can be done on a player’s personal phone or computer.
While there may be no high fives after a great shot or the customary shaking of hands after a completed round, the chance to get outside surrounded by beautiful scenery on a spring day is a welcome opportunity for many.
“We understand some people are not going to understand why we are open or think we should not be open,” McCloskey said. “But we want to make sure those people are aware of all the crazy precautions we are taking. Those precautions are the only reason why we are open. We feel like we are providing a really safe outdoor activity for the community. Based on the numbers we have had the last two days, we can see people think that’s a good thing.
“As the weather has gotten better and our trails in town have become busier, it’s good to have something else as a safe outdoor activity to do during these times. It’s a frame of normalcy for some folks in this moment.”