Golfer at sunrise

Wisconsin’s golf courses emerge from hibernation Friday — some after a one-month hiatus, others from a break much, much longer — but their owners have been anything but inactive.

They have combed social media. They have called one another. They have listened to golf’s governing bodies. They have pored over restrictions set forth in Gov. Tony Evers’ safer-at-home extension allowing them to open. They have tried to envision what Friday will look like.

After sifting through mixed messages, differing practices and strong opinions from their counterparts throughout the state, many golf course owners will wake up Friday full of equal parts anticipation and anxiety knowing that the business of playing golf again in Wisconsin is predicated on one goal: Not screwing it up.

Most golf course operators — and golfers, for that matter — have dutifully waited out the governor's order in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — and the longest month in the history of Wisconsin golf that went with it. For them, the anticipation of Friday’s 8 a.m. restart of the golf season is unlike any other start to a business day.

For golf course owners and operators in other parts of the state, it might seem more like business as usual.

Those would be the ones who took advantage of local law enforcement and health department officials willing to look the other way and have let golfers tee it up for days, even weeks now. One sheriff in southern Wisconsin made the suggestion to a course owner himself, believing no harm could come from having member-only play with restrictions. (For the record, that owner told me the gesture may have well saved his business.)

Unfortunately, as Washington County administrator Josh Schoemann illustrated last week in allowing golf courses in his county to join the list of those opening before the rest of the state, golf has also been used as a pawn in a much larger game.

Seven restrictions to reopening courses were outlined in Gov. Evers’ safer-at-home extension a week ago. There is too much at stake to take liberties with any one of them.

Friday should not deteriorate into a battle of the haves vs. the have-nots when it comes to doing business with a conscience.

It should be a celebration of golfers doing the right thing in this socially critical coronavirus era — even on courses so far off the beaten path they are not likely to draw attention or despite the urging of the handful of owners who seem all too eager to take a foot-wedge to these rules that seem very black-and-white to us.

So, please, golfers, take notice:

1. Use of golf carts is prohibited.

We know. We know. There are courses in Wisconsin whose local authorities have given them permission to hand out keys to their fleet of Club Cars (and are "broadcasting it all over" Facebook and Twitter).

Let's count as a victory Thursday's news that courses were successful in getting the 11th-hour green light to rent carts to golfers with a handicap. According to a tweet from the Wisconsin State Golf Association, use is limited to one golfer per cart with a handicap placard or flag displayed.

Let’s hope the first item on Evers’ list is to undergo further revision and give more golfers the option to rent (again, one to a cart). We are thinking of those golfers who might not have a qualifying handicap but nonetheless cannot walk demanding layouts that sit on the changing elevations of glaciers created centuries ago.

It has worked in states that have maintained golf or restored it, such as Minnesota, which has allowed carts since reopening last Friday. Cart rental will also add a much-needed revenue stream, particularly for financially strapped mom-and-pop operations that are adhering to terms of the initial guidelines.

In the meantime, let’s look at the bright side. With the provision leading to a temporary ban on caddies at Whistling Straits in Haven, 18 holes on The Straits Course between now and May 7 is going for $185 — about half what it will be in a month and a serious bargain on the Ryder Cup course during what is still a Ryder Cup year.

2. Social distancing must be observed.

Show of hands. Is your phone like ours, full of selfies of you cozied up to your golf buddies at many of the golf courses all over Wisconsin?

Thought so.

Let’s commemorate this occasion in the spirit of social distancing, with a wide-angled selfie of golfers staying 6 feet apart. After capturing the moment on the first tee, we are confident that it will be easy for golfers to keep their social distance the rest of the walk.

3. Tee times, payment in advance.

Parking lot. Starter. Tee box. 

They say the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Taking care of, y'know, business before you get to the course allows you to beat a path right to the first tee. 

Sure, it's always been financially noble to whip out a Benjamin in the pro shop and pay for your round with cold, hard cash. Take our advice and save it for the side game.

4. Clubhouses, pro shops remain closed.

This is the one that has quite a few golf course owners at odds.

Golf facilities that double as restaurants and supper clubs have spent the last month executing terms of Evers' safer-at-home guidelines by offering carryout orders. Food and beverage can be purchased at the course, but must be consumed off-premises.

So why would there be any expectation of that changing now? No idea.

We also can't imagine a relaxation of the time-honored law prohibiting carry-in alcohol, although it does state "different laws may apply to golf courses owned by counties or municipalities." In fact, we were enlightened this week when we read that one golf course in River Falls is a "licensed off-sale liquor retailer" and, therefore, is telling golfers it can sell cans of beer and soda that can be taken onto the course.

Still, we combed the Facebook pages and websites of more than 300 courses in Wisconsin to determine which will be opening Friday and most of them made it quite clear: The clubhouse will be closed and there will be no on-course beverage options, either.

Oh, could you imagine?! Humor me with this hypothetical: Gov. Evers needs to head into the office Friday and, on his way out of the mansion in Maple Bluff, decides to take a spin past the local country club and sees a beverage cart making its way down No. 2.

It took one stroke of the pen to open courses Friday; it would take one stroke of the pen to close them Saturday. Would you want to be that course?

5. Tee times spaced to avoid clustering.

Twelve-minute intervals between starting times seems to be par for most tee sheets in Wisconsin, although we did see one course spreading them 15 minutes apart.

Either way, revenue potential for course owners is going to be significantly less in the "new norm" than it was during the normal we left at the end of the 2019 season. One owner told us a full tee sheet with 12-minute intervals goes from 300 rounds to 190. 

We challenge you to look at your receipt after you book online and do the math. A $25 greens fee multiplied by 110 lost rounds comes out to $2,750 in lost earnings each day. Multiply that out over seven days and it's just shy of $20,000 for the week.

Trust us when we say you'll be paying for more than a round of golf Friday. A lot more.

6. Basic maintenance can continue.

Fortunately for everyone hitting the links Friday, this has been a part of Evers' safer-at-home order since Day 1.

We suspect golfers will notice the efforts of maintenance staff, not to mention golf professionals and even golf writers re-trained to keep courses looking good over the last month. If the photos we are seeing on social media are any indication, courses appear lush.

With the way the golf business has gone over the last decade or so, it's been a long time since any of us have played a brand new course. Friday might be as close as we come for awhile.

7. Driving ranges must remain closed.

This goes for miniature golf courses and practice greens, too.

Folks, the message seems fairly clear to us. Courses aren't reopening so we can practice our golf skills; they're reopening so we can practice our social skills and the lost art of doing the right thing, even when — we think — no one is watching.

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