As cabin fever rises, a popular leisure sport has remained an option for many in the Chattanooga area to get out of the house while safely practicing social distancing.
Local golf courses are operating on a day-to-day basis during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced them to make changes to regular business practices to create safe environments for patrons.
The Lookout Mountain Club is limiting its clubhouses to employees only for the time being, but the Georgia course experienced an increase in action this past week on the practice range, where employees have gone from simply collecting balls to be reused to cleaning them with a solution of 99% alcohol before they go back into a basket for the next golfer.
Most local courses have removed the bunker rakes used to restore sand and have recommended that golfers do not touch the flagsticks either. Other alterations have changed the rules altogether for what constitutes completing a hole.
Signal Mountain Golf and Country Club has raised cup liners in each hole an inch above the putting surface so golfers only have to bounce the ball off the cup liner, which negates the need to reach in to retrieve a ball — and possibly make direct contact with a surface someone else has touched. Black Creek Club has inverted its cups so the ball can still roll into the holes but be elevated.
Some putting greens don't even have holes now, with golfers shooting at the stick instead.
Courses are encouraging golfers to walk as much as possible and recommending only one person to a cart, with carts stocked with sanitizing wipes and cleaned instantly upon return. Ball washers on courses have been removed and some restrooms are closed.
"We are following all the guidelines of the city and the state," Black Creek Club general manager and director of golf Sean Rice said. "We have seen a spike in players who came out this Thursday and Sunday, and it's nice to see. Golf allows you to take your mind off things and is an escape for many."
Of those courses researched by the Times Free Press, few were shut down, with two Georgia public courses among the exceptions. Nob North, which is located in northern Whitfield County and operated by the Dalton Parks and Recreation Department, plans to open this Saturday with its Spring Fling event, according to its website.
LaFayette Golf Course, which plans to reopen in early April, is suspended along with all of the city's recreation programs "in parallel with the school system," according to the Walker County government's website.
The Honors Course in Ooltewah, which recently learned it will host a trio of United States Golf Association events in the next 11 years, is not yet open for 2020, with preparations ongoing to reopen after the club's winter break.
Many clubhouse workers are being required to wear gloves and even pick up what the customer wants off the shelf. In-house dining is suspended at all Tennessee courses — Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order Sunday prohibiting on-site consumption of food or drinks at restaurants, bars or similar establishments — but many are still allowing curbside carry-out orders.
In addition, golf pros for area clubs have joined GroupMe text messaging chats so they can share ideas with each other of what is working at their courses.
While most league play has halted, Brown Acres Golf Course is on track to host a new league, Spark Golf, at 5:30 p.m. each Thursday beginning April 2. Now located in six different cities, Spark Golf is a nine-hole recreational league that is free to join and has its own mobile app. Players can keep score in the app and set up tee times in advance. Two-person teams play a net better-ball format, earning points during each league round.
With the PGA Tour having canceled weeks of tournaments and even the year's first major postponed, golf fans are being forced to entertain themselves when it comes to the sport.
With hopes for more sunlight in the days to come, golf courses could be a popular attraction for the near future.
"We are all trying to get away from thinking about the coronavirus," Signal Mountain head pro Paul Helle said during a radio interview Friday on "Press Row" on ESPN 105.1 FM. "We are all crossing our fingers and holding our breath. Our goal is to keep making our course as safe as possible for people to come out and play."