Wisconsin residents can not only play golf now; in many places they can finally practice as well.
A number of driving ranges across the state opened for business Thursday, one day after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Tony Evers safer-at-home order that had kept such businesses closed.
“Yes it is,” said Laura Sullivan, when asked if her Storm’s Golf Range in Brookfield, which bills itself as southeastern Wisconsin’s largest practice facility, was open.
“Long time waiting,” she added, noting the range had been open for just two weeks before the first stay-at-home order was issued in March.
Golfers apparently had been waiting as well, she said, because “the phone has been ringing off the hook.”
But while the ruling by the court’s conservative majority lifted statewide mandates that had closed many such businesses, some range owners remained confused over what is allowed and what is still prohibited as a number of counties and municipalities have issued their own stay-at-home orders.
Robbie Burns, whose father Bob runs Bob Burns Golf Learning Center in Appleton, said Thursday morning that the range was still closed while he attempted to clarify what the ruling means.
“We’re still closed,” he said. “We plan on opening but we haven’t gotten any word from our county. I’m hoping later today the department of health … issues their interpretation. It’s very, very tough because now (golfers) are just showing up with their clubs, walking around the building because they want to hit.”
He then got the bad news Thursday afternoon that Outagamie County is still prohibiting driving ranges from opening.
Robbie Burns said the business is fully prepared to operate safely. They have installed a plexiglass window at the point of purchase area, put tape in the golf shop to emphasize social distancing, use bleach when washing range balls to better sanitize them and use pyramid stackers for range balls instead of buckets to reduce contact.
“We want to be in full compliance because if I get written up we’ll never get open,” Robbie said.
In Madison, another large practice range was open despite a local stay-at-home order. Joel Weitz, owner of Vitense Golfland, said the stationary tee golf course, which includes heated, year-round hitting bays, is open for the 65th consecutive year. Weitz said his interpretation is that hitting from the mats is compliant with earlier rulings that allowed golf courses to open.
“We just don’t complete the rest of the hole,” he said, adding the bays are 10 feet apart so social distancing is a given. “The conditions are exactly the same (as on a golf course). In certain respects, I think a facility like ours is even safer.”
Moorland Road Golf Center in New Berlin was closed Thursday to take care of final details before opening its range on Friday, said general manager Mike Vance. He expects to be busy; “Our phones are ringing off the hook, which is good.”
The expected safety procedures are in place, he said. Employees will wear masks, a plexiglass shield has been installed, a no-touch credit card system is available and chairs have been removed to discourage congregating. Even before the forced closing in March, the golf center had begun using a waiting list to eliminate lines during busy periods. People waiting for a bay to open were told to stay in their cars until space was available for them to hit, Vance said, and that system could be used again if needed.
“It’s very confusing,” he said of the patchwork of local stay-at-home orders left after the statewide order was struck down, but added, “We feel if we do things as safely as possible it can be done. The message in everyone I’m talking to (at other ranges) is being extremely safe.
“Our message to our customers is one complaint and we could be shut down again.”
A few golf ranges were open even before Wednesday's court decision. Gastrau's Golf Center in Oak Creek opened last week following its own interpretation of the governor's relaxing of his earlier all-encompassing rules. And Baehmann Golf Center in Cedarburg has been offering play on both its par 3 course and at its driving range, according to an employee who answered the phone Thursday. The driving range opened recently with the approval of local officials. The center is enforcing strict social distancing, accepts only credit cards and wipes them before and after swiping and allows no one to enter the shop.
“Today’s a little slow because of the weather but the last couple of days were quite busy,” he said.
Across the state, a number of golf courses were also opening their driving ranges Thursday, including Whispering Springs Golf Course, Rolling Meadows Golf Course and the Golf Course at Camelot, all in Fond du Lac County, as well as RiverEdge Golf Course in Marshfield.
Not all of the practice facilities newly reopening are outdoors, either. Three of the four Wisconsin GolfTec centers were opening for instruction on Thursday, with new safety guidelines due brought on by COVID-19.
Under the new guidelines at GolfTec centers, both students and instructors will wear masks, appointments must be booked in advance, there will be limits on the number of people who can enter at any one time and they will implement a “no-touch student experience” which will limit the amount of motion measurement technology that can be used.
As if more was needed, the concept of “no-touch” golf instruction shows the brave new world we’re facing.
“Even though there’s courses open,” as Vitense’s Joel Weitz put it, “it’s a crazy time for golf, isn’t it?”