Canadian golf courses aware of responsibility accompanying re-opening

Grounds crew do maintenance as they prepare the opening up of Piper's Heath Golf Club during the COVID-19 pandemic in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, May 13, 2020. (Nathan Denett/CP)

As the news that the government of Ontario would be allowing golf courses to open on May 16 began to pick up steam on social media Wednesday, Brenden Parsons’ phone started ringing off the hook. All told he got about 50 calls, and so many emails that he stopped checking them.

Parsons is the director of golf at Listowel Golf Club, about two hours northwest of Toronto and the childhood course of PGA Tour winner Corey Conners. His course, like all others across Ontario, had been in a holding pattern for the last couple of weeks as it waited for Ontario Premier Doug Ford to give the official word that courses could open.

While COVID-19 has had an unprecedented health and economic impact on the world at large, including Canada, Ford began the slow process of re-opening the economy with an announcement Thursday that included golf courses.

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With that announcement courses can officially open Saturday, and those in the golf industry in this province have a keen eye on the opportunity in front of them — and not messing it up.

"The overwhelming statement is: we’re all doing this together," says Parsons. "We’re all doing it the same way and the right way so we don’t get open, have a problem, and get shut down again. Everyone is trying to do this the right way."

Ford preached responsibility as his main message when asked about the golf industry by Sportsnet.

"We’ve talked to so many different golf courses across the province … and they’re responsible. They want to be the leaders and the gold standard in making sure they’re responsible when people go out and go golfing," he says. "You have to use your best judgment."

Nova Scotia is the only province without a formal announcement with respect to re-opening courses. Quebec’s premier made an announcement on Wednesday that the province is allowing golf again on May 20, while Saskatchewan’s courses open May 15.

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Brian Decker is the director of marketing and communications at TPC Toronto at Osprey Valley, which has three 18-hole courses on the property and will have a phased opening. Decker says the key thing his facility will have to do is to set the expectation that things are going to be different.

"We’re going against years of habit here, for what people are used to doing [when they play golf]," says Decker. "It’s about accurate information and very obvious steps for how to proceed once they arrive on site. It’s really about providing clear expectations early on and making things abundantly clear to our golfers."

The ownership group at TPC Toronto has donated $350,000 to local charities since the impact of COVID-19 began to be felt across Canada, and being a beacon for hope in their communities is something most golf courses in the province feel is important.

But with that opportunity comes a heightened responsibility for safety, according to Josh Greenberg, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and an expert on health risk communication with a focus on outbreaks of infectious disease.

Greenberg says while there is a pent-up interest and desire to return things to some normality, there is equally high concern it is going to happen too quickly.

Across Canada, there have been at least 72,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday evening, with nearly 30 per cent of them in Ontario, according to an official count maintained by the federal government. And although recent numbers do show there are blips of the virus slowing down nationwide — May 13 was the lowest reported number of new cases since mid-April — that downward trend came amidst strict social distancing policies.

Golfers will be going to play, but then returning to garden centres, grocery stores and other places within their communities. Since there is an increase in potential chains of transmissions, Greenberg says, and since we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, there is a significant level of community responsibility needed.

"That’s something that is going to be a struggle for all businesses and for public health and politicians generally: ‘Yes, we’re re-opening, but it’s under an entirely different set of operating circumstances and principles,’" he says.

Greenberg says golf course owners have an opportunity to demonstrate business and public health leadership, and Kevin Thistle, the CEO of the PGA of Canada – a cross-country industry association with 3,600 members – says he has never seen the industry come together like it has over the last two months.

He says courses across Canada, and especially in British Columbia (where golf has been allowed for almost the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic), have been providing best practices, along with courses in the U.S.

In B.C., Brian Mossop, the general manager at Shaughnessy Golf and Country Club (where the 2020 CP Women’s Open is set to be played) says he’s been sharing his club’s best practices with any and all courses across Canada that have asked. The club voluntarily closed for about a month starting in mid-March to re-evaluate its services.

"We believe it is our responsibility to assist not only the golf industry but also the community," says Mossop, "and do our part in the fight against COVID-19."

Scott Dickson, the general manager at The Royal Montreal Golf Club, says since his club can open on May 20, he’s been able to ask colleagues from across the country about what they’ve done so far – given the fact that he has a bit more of a runway for opening.

He admits it "would be nice" if there was one set of rules that spanned the country, but provincial regulations all operate separately, so it’s difficult to have one blanket protocol for all.

"There has been no playbook on COVID-19," says Dickson, "so we have all been learning from each other as we go."

And while the economic opportunity is undeniable – golf courses are, after all, small businesses – Parsons says his colleagues have recognized they are in a unique situation: they can open. Many other businesses cannot.

He admits there is frustration there wasn’t a clearer outline of the rules prior to being told the date they could open, a bit of sticking point for all operators as it relates to the government’s announcement, but he says the overwhelming point is that health and safety is the top priority.

"It’s not about dollars and cents," says Parsons. "It’s about making sure we’re safe."

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