Planet Golf — 13 May 2020 by Bob Sherwin
Golf is back; not a full swing yet

Among the first steps in bringing Washingtonians out of their self-imposed isolation, is the restricted return of golf (as well as hunting, fishing and hiking). Washington Gov. Jay Inslee gave his approval of a limited plan for the game’s return on April 27.

Inslee said the Golf Alliance of Washington came up with a plan that he approved. Golf resumed May 5 while setting limits on playing partners (mostly twosomes), spacing out golfers with tee times and allowing no clubhouse entry, just takeout food and beverage service.

Golferswest.com writers/editors Bob Sherwin and Jim Street played golf three times last week to see how the plan works. Sherwin is a member of Aldarra Golf Club in Fall City, east of Seattle. Street belongs to the venerable Sand Point Golf Club in Seattle, above Lake Washington. We then both played Chambers Bay, the No. 1 public course in the state and host of the 2015 U.S. Open.

Here’s our reactions to the new normal golf play in the state:

ALDARRA

There is no question that the Aldarra board and the staff have taken this coronavirus seriously. The club has incorporated all the Golf Alliance recommendations and added several of its own. The goal is the minimize any close interactions with fellow golfers or staff.

The biggest change, for the club, is tee times. That has never been the policy in the club’s 19-year history. You show up, you get on a list and you get out in quick fashion. But that doesn’t work in today’s new rules. It can’t work. Without tee times, there is nothing to prevent congregating.

As you head out on the first tee at Aldarra, you get your walking rules

The club set up a new system for call-in tee times, trying to give everyone a chance for at least two rounds per week. More would be available if not taken. This way just a handful of players show up at specific times – no sooner than 30 minutes before their tee time. At any point, there may be four players on the range, a couple on the practice green and another twosome teeing off. Socialization of the membership is greatly reduced but so is the potential for spread.

Every member of the staff wears a facemask, all the time. A handful of member/players also wear masks, at least when they show up. The vast majority of members eschew masks.

Members are reminded to stay six feet apart, no guests allowed, no locker room access and no dining room access. There are two small public bathrooms open just inside the clubhouse but the two restrooms on the course are locked because there is no way to keep them sanitized after each use.

If you had your clubs and shoes stored at the club, they can be retrieved. But nothing can be returned. Everything goes home with you. No towels are provided. Masked caddies are there to work the clubhouse area but not carry clubs or clean them.

The masked man, off No. 11 at Aldarra

You must use your own tees, ball marks, pencils and, of course, equipment (no borrowing) during the round. Sanitized scorecards and bottles of water are provided (water stations around the course have been removed).

Electric carts are available, one cart/per person, but push/pull carts are not available. Food can be ordered to takeout/take home. There are no tables or chairs available to sit and eat.

With all the changes and restrictions, you wondered if the golf experience would still be the same. It was. I welcomed the tee times because you could plan exactly when to show up, how long you needed to warm up and exactly when you start off (I actually stretched and hit a couple balls before heading to the course so I was physically better prepared).

There are not many folks around when you show up so it was easy to create distance. Merchandise sales can be difficult because the members aren’t supposed to handle any of the items and once it’s out the door, it can’t come back.

Your twosome is off before you know it and it is golf as usual. But the overriding issue is to prevent touching anything not in your possession. That includes the flag stick. The first round I played, the club used a three-inch Styrofoam form around the pole in the hole that prevented the ball from dropping to the bottom. You could just pick it up without touching the stick but there was at least one putt that seemed to bounce out after dropping in.

The next time I played the club installed something much more effective. I saw them on the internet. It’s a disk at the bottom of the hole that is pulled up with your club on a fish-hook type device. It works. Legit.

The rakes have been removed from all the traps to keep from touching things. You level the sand with your feet. As the directive said, think Pine Valley. This is cumbersome. You frequently land in uneven places. But if it’s too penalizing, we’ve have been given the option of dropping in a clean spot. Not so legit but reasonable.

From a competitive standpoint, according to the USGA the changes and restrictions do not make much difference. You can post as ‘acceptable score.”

What you can’t do, as one of my partners lamented, is sit around in the dining room, have a cocktail, a good meal and pleasant conversation. That had been as much as part of a round of golf as the anything.

When you are finished, you can order food to take home, but congregating is not even allowed in the parking lot. You need to find other creative ways to socialize, as one member invites buddies over to spaces around his yard to imbibe and view the water.

There will be a time when we can get back to foursomes, food and fun but it’s not yet on the horizon. – B.S.

Sand Point CC, which opened in 1927, is going through changes amid the change


SAND POINT CC

Socializing and golf have gone hand-in-hand forever it seems. Every round ends with a doff-of-the-cap and a handshake, followed by a round of drinks and eats at the 19th hole.

But these days it’s a whole new game, with new rules of do’s and don’ts.

Ninety-three-year-old Sand Point Country Club had been closed since last September for a major makeover. The front 9 was supposed to re-open in mid-March and all 18 holes were supposed to be playable by mid-April. But the deadly pandemic put just about everything on hold, including golf.

But finally a green (or was it yellow?) light was given by Gov. Jay Inslee to re-open Washington golf courses, public and private, on May 5. The same rules applied to everyone, as spelled out via email to the SPCC golfers:

*The club set up a new system for call-in tee times, trying to give everyone a chance for a maximum of four rounds per week with twosome tee times spaced by seven minute intervals from 8 a.m. to noon. Afternoon tee times were reserved for threesomes and foursomes from the same household.

*Members are to arrive not more than 15 minutes before their scheduled tee time and will access the pro shop area from the lower parking lot. 

*You will need to check in with the Pro Shop team member upon arrival, they will be stationed at the base of the ramp leading up to Cascade Grill Deck from the lower parking lot. They will indicate when it is time for you to proceed to the practice putting green, approximately 10 minutes before your scheduled tee time.  Please note that masks are required for access to the practice putting green and must be worn until you are on the tee box.  Those without masks will be turned away, so please come prepared.

*
Strict adherence to these protocols is mandatory and noncompliance could result in a temporary loss of golf privileges.  Upon putting out on the 9th green, members must put on their masks, proceed directly to the parking lot, and head home. 

Original design wooden flagsticks are part of the renovation, but don’t touch yet

With masks off and hopes high, the re-opening featured several nuances, like the wooden flagsticks, harking back to the course opening in 1927. Several additional bunkers with high clumps of grass lurking above and below the hazards made the course more difficult, but also more picturesque.

We thought hitting balls into the high grass would cause longer rounds. But the pace was superb. We covered the front 9 in 1:43 and easily maintained the six foot social distancing rule. Touching of flags was a no-no. And we had to retrieve our own ball from the cup, when they miraculously went in.

Blind tee shots on No. 2 and No. 8 had periscopes to make sure the previous group was out of range. They have been replaced by a stop light system that glows “red” for don’t hit and “green” when the coast is clear. Very clever indeed.

Several holes have had major changes, including the par-3 7th — the only hole I ever aced. The green was moved far to the right and surrounded by bunkers. The nasty barranca between the tee and green still remains.

Overall, the weather, the improved playing conditions after such a long layoff, and the to die-for views of Lake Washington, Mt. Baker and the Cascades to the east made it a special outing. J.S.

CHAMBERS BAY

When you are paying a higher premium for your golf experience, such as a country club, you naturally expect a higher response. That’s why we wanted to measure the difference for folks on public courses, such as Chambers. I have to say, it wasn’t as satisfying.

Chambers did make some significant changes to address the coronavirus guidelines. As golfers who have played the course remember, a small bus takes you from the check-in office down to the first tee complex. That small-space, bag-mixing vehicle doesn’t work anymore in this new golf order. So, once you pay, you drive down to the lower parking lot, walk parallel to the 18th hole and over to the first-tee starter. Nice improvement.

But unlike a private course, you need to pay on the spot. The two staffers behind the check-in counter both wore masks, although one was loosely over his nose and the other had it his under his chin. It is tough to keep them on properly all day but it should be up when customers step inside.

You handle your own credit card and receipt and it seems anyone can handle any of the merchandise, which seemed a bit untidy. A better practice might be to pay by credit card ahead of time, print a receipt at home (or on your cell phone) and take it directly to the first tee.

The starter was without a mask, which I believe should have been necessary, if only by example. I wore a mask initially as did Jim for a short time (taking it down once we spaced out) but we were the only two. No other golfer wore one. I could see other players gesturing and pointing toward me, as if I had two heads. Masks are definitely being resisted at this stage.

The practice range was open, although I didn’t have time to use it. The practice green was available but there were no holes and no posts to target. I didn’t know if that was to prevent touching but couldn’t get a good feel for putting.

Once we took off, the beauty of Chambers showed up. It’s such a wonderful, wide-open experience, especially when it’s just twosomes. Such a feeling of special isolation, like hiking, a welcoming departure from our stay-at-home quarantining.

The lone tree behind No. 15 at Chambers Bay. The course is coming alive again.

Again, the course prevents you from touching anything but your own equipment. There generally aren’t rakes for the waste areas and never saw any around. There was also a different kind of hole device. The holes were filled up to about an half inch below the cup line with an artificial turf surface. Not real effective. Twice – one time for each of us – our balls ran through it, and out, for what should have been hole-outs. We both agree they would had dropped but it’s not a debate that should happen. That could use a revision because it puts into some question of ‘acceptable scores’’ for posting.

One of the biggest concerns for all golfers for any gender is what to do when nature calls. You are out there for four or five hours with a lot of movement, inside and out. When it comes to No. 1, no matter what course you are on, private or public, folks find a bush and you go. It’s a little more difficult in wide-open, mostly treeless Chambers, but there are places.

Where it becomes a problem is the No. 2. Bushes won’t do and bathrooms can be petri dishes for anything, especially what’s going around now. That’s why Aldarra closed its on-course restrooms, keeping just two small bathrooms open at the clubhouse. But in the back of your head, you’re thinking, what if nature suddenly called and I’m way out on the back nine.

Fortunately, I had no problems on either course. But I did notice that the doors for all the Chambers restrooms, particularly the ones adjacent to the No. 12 tee – were open. I think I would have felt a bit unsafe using them. But what option does a public course have?

The course was in good shape and the new greens, as we have detailed previously, are terrific. They are true, consistent putting surfaces now and a pleasure to play. It’s a great experience to play the course and such an asset to this region. Hopefully, we can all live by the rules, stay safe and not falter so as not to lose our privilege to play again. – B.S. and J.S.

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 49th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 15 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur the 2015 U.S. Open and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. Despite (or perhaps because) of his 14 handicap, he won the 'Super Senior'' (65 and older) championship in 2017. He has a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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