Tom Halla, manager of Naga-Waukee War Memorial Golf Course in Pewaukee, spoke for course owners, operators and golfers from Kenosha to Superior upon learning that Wisconsin courses will be able to reopen April 24.
“It’s about as good a news as we can expect,” Halla said. “All the lobbying has paid off. The petition (signed by nearly 67,000 on change.org). The groundswell. And it was done appropriately.”
Under action Gov. Tony Evers took Thursday, public and private golf courses may open at 8 a.m. April 24, with the following restrictions:
• The use of golf carts is prohibited.
• Social distancing requirements must be observed, unless the players reside in the same household.
• All tee times and payments must be made in advance online or by phone.
• Clubhouses and pro shops must remain closed.
• Tee times must be spaced to avoid multiple foursomes from clustering or gathering on the course.
• Driving ranges must remain closed.
The order remains in effect until May 26. Courses had been closed since March 24 under Evers’ safer at home order.
“We’re excited to have golf back and appreciative of the governor and the new order allowing for courses to open on April 24,” said Rob Jansen, executive director of the Wisconsin State Golf Association. “There are guidelines for how courses can operate. We fully support all of them and think it’s a great step for courses to get back open and provide opportunities for people to enjoy outdoor recreation.”
The WSGA and Wisconsin PGA Section hired high-profile lobbyist Eric Petersen earlier this week, but it was unclear whether Petersen had met with anyone on Gov. Evers’ staff to advocate for golf.
Matt McIntee of Chicago, the CEO of Green Golf Partners, which manages 19 courses including six in Wisconsin, said the announcement “made my day.”
“I’m excited about it,” McIntee said. “I haven’t changed my position one bit. I think golf is the ultimate form of social distancing because of the way courses are routed and people are spread out. We will maintain strict discipline and maintain or exceed all of the CDC guidelines.
“My other opinion is that people are getting stir crazy. People are starting to get more and more upset. I think this is going to be good for people, get them outside. It’s great for owners, great for employees. I’m grateful to Gov. Evers for recognizing we can provide safe outdoor space for people.
“This is big. It’s really big.”
Joe Stadler, executive director of the WPGA, said the reopening of golf courses was a “great first step,” even given the restrictions.
“We’re happy with the result because the governor had talked about opening things in stages and this is stage one to opening the game,” he said. “Additional stages will come in the opening of clubhouses and (use of) carts. But this is a great first step.”
Halla had a full tee sheet at Naga-Waukee on March 24 and had to close the gates that morning and turn people away when Gov. Evers’ order went into effect.
“Everybody abided by the rules,” Halla said. “A few people found their way onto the course and they understood when I removed them.”
Since then, golf courses have been able to do essential maintenance and most of them will be in good shape when they reopen.
But the last few weeks have been tough on courses in southern Wisconsin, because grass needed to be cut and employees paid with little to no revenue coming in. Had Gov. Evers extended the closure another month, the result would have been devastating.
“Another month would have done so many operators in,” Halla said. “It would have been a death knell.”
Said McIntee, “Every day that goes by, I hear more and more stories that haunt me at night. Friends are losing jobs. Every level of the golf industry, it doesn’t matter where you’re at – owner, starter, executive – the impact is being felt at every level across the entire industry.”
In the northern part of the state, courses typically don’t open until later in April, and recent heavy snowfalls might have pushed the opening for some into late April or early May.
Meanwhile, golf courses in Milwaukee County likely will remain closed even after the governor's statewide ban is lifted April 24. County Executive Chris Abele told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the 14 golf courses in the County Parks System won't reopen "until it is 100 percent safe to do so."
“I would love to have the revenue. I’d love to have the revenue that we get from the beer gardens, but the issue here is about safety and that is always the top priority and it absolutely has come at a cost,” Abele said.
In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz announced Friday that he'll allow golf courses and driving ranges to reopen at 5 a.m. Saturday.