Kevin Wilmouth hasn’t had a problem filling vacant tee times at Colonial Hills Golf Club. In fact, the course’s PGA professional recently began implementing scheduling weekday tee times for the first time as golfers throughout the Lynchburg area flocked to venues like Colonial Hills for a respite from Virginia’s stay-at-home order and the lifestyle changes that are a result from the coronavirus pandemic.
The spacious layouts are ideal for maintaining social distancing, a major factor in Gov. Ralph Northam’s decision to allow golf courses to remain open as safe places so people can get outside and exercise. Many indoor facilities remain closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Wilmouth said play at Colonial Hills was “up a good 50%, if not more” in March, and he added April is projected to deliver similar numbers at the Forest golf course. Faber Jamerson, the PGA professional at Falling River Country Club in Appomattox, sees surges in weekend play, while the numbers dip during the week as some senior golfers opt to stay home.
“There are a ton of people that are really grateful that [Northam has] allowed golf courses to remain open because there are very few things that they can do,” Wilmouth said. “To that end, play has spiked with about as much play as a golf course can handle on most days.”
Under Northam’s March 30 stay-at-home order, clubhouses must remain closed to prevent gatherings of more than 10 people.
“If we can get them from their car to their golf cart and then back in their car with limited interaction with others other than the buddies they’re with, it’s a good day for everybody,” Wilmouth said. “It’s a good day for staff, it’s a good day for golfers.”
Eddie Moran, the head golf professional at London Downs Golf Club, added golfers now are securing tee times a week in advance in order to guarantee time on the course.
The course also is not accepting large groups for rounds.
Typically, a group of 50 senior golfers arrive on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to play a round together. Now, they can’t do that.
“We’ve cut all that stuff out. There’s no organized play as far as groups,” Moran said. “Everybody makes their own tee time for one, two, three or four players.”
Colonial Hills, like Ivy Hill and other courses in the area, is limiting one person per cart to maintain social distancing. A trio of courses — Falling River, Mariners Landing Golf Course in Huddleston and Poplar Grove Golf Club in Amherst — are allowing two people in the same cart if they are immediate family members who have daily contact with each other.
At courses like Colonial, spaced-out tee times assure each player has the option of renting a cart for use.
“I think all the golf courses, from what I’m hearing, are pretty much maxed with rounds because our rounds are somewhat limited because of available carts,” Wilmouth said. “When you’re sending out four guys in two carts that’s one thing; when you’re sending out four guys in four carts, that’s a whole ’nother deal. It doesn’t take as long to run out of carts, which is why there’s spacing with our tee times to accommodate that.”
Ivy Hill, Colonial Hills, Mariners Landing and London Downs have 20 minutes in between tee times.
“A lot of people are interested in playing golf, for sure,” Moran said, “but we’re turning a lot of people away because we are making sure we have plenty of room to get everybody out there and keep plenty of distance and everybody have their own cart.”
Falling River, which typically doesn’t utilize tee times, has instituted 10-minute gaps between groups.
Poplar Grove hasn’t expanded its 10-minute gap between tee times yet. Jacob Mast, the course’s head golf professional, said there has been a small uptick in rounds thanks to more locals playing at the nine-hole course.
“We’re definitely seeing more rounds, more new faces, people calling in and asking about our golf course,” he said.
Boonsboro has eliminated every third tee time.
“It spaces out the golf course so people aren’t around each other,” Aaron Marks, the PGA professional at Boonsboro, said.
Falling River only is allowing member play during the pandemic. The course has closed its pro shop and its snack bar to limit interaction as much as possible, and members are encouraged to bring their own food and drink for their rounds.
London Downs, Boonsboro and Colonial Hills offer to-go orders for players who want something to eat either during or after their rounds, and the hours for those on-course facilities have been altered because of the pandemic. Poplar Grove has a food trailer available for golfers to get food during rounds.
“We’ve blocked everything off except for the entrances,” Moran said. “There’s no place to sit down or eat inside or outside.”
Ivy Hill’s menu is limited to premade sandwiches and prepackaged snacks.
“It’s basically chips and candies and crackers and snacks,” general manager and head golf professional Tracy Newman said. “Nothing hot and prepared like that right now. The company that I work for [Runk & Pratt] is a healthcare based organization, and I think they just feel better doing that. That’s kind of what we’ve done. It’s hurt my food and beverage. For the safety of the folks, we feel it’s probably better not to be cooking at all. They’ve taken it out.”
Ivy Hill and Mariners Landing also have taken precautions by raising the cup out of the hole so the ball doesn’t physically go in. That prevents multiple players from putting their hands in the same hole throughout the day.
Marks said the course has added PVC piping inside the cup so most of the ball is sitting above the hole. Colonial Hills and London Downs have put Styrofoam in the cup to produce the same result.
Falling River, though, has done something completely different.
“We took a pool noodle and extended it about three inches above the surface of the cup,” Jamerson explained. “The reason behind that — and I got a little pushback on it but once I explained it to people, they were very understanding and actually very thankful for it — 90% of golfers lick their golf ball or clean their golf ball with spit on a towel or whatnot. As soon as you putt that ball in the hole, then somebody else is going in right behind them and doing that, regardless of whether the ball goes down halfway or not or if it just kind of sits there.”
“So what we did was extend the pool noodle about three inches above the top of the cup, so now when it hits it, it just deflects it. So you know if you made the putt or not because of actually hitting the noodle. Then you never have to worry about picking it up after somebody else has been in the same place.”
Jamerson has kept his maintenance staff working during the pandemic. He added he brought in a full staff in the middle of March, when typically the staff would be full in late April or early May.
Moran said the same number of staff is being kept on to maintain Colonial Hills, while Newman has added staff in order to sanitize the carts after each use.
“We’ve definitely had to get our cart staff here sooner in the morning” to sanitize the carts before play, Mast said.
Rakes, ball washers and other high-touch objects have been removed from the courses.
Newman said he’s noticed more younger players on the course during the pandemic. Most senior golfers, who traditionally take advantage of sun-splashed mornings and early afternoons when the courses aren’t as crowded, are opting to stay at home amid concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Anyone who is in that age range with underlying conditions has decided it’s not worth the risk to go out, even with all the steps that we’re taking, all the things that we’re doing,” Marks said. “They just don’t feel like it’s worth the risk, and that’s completely fine and understandable.”
While courses in the area have seen tee times frequently fill up during the week, tournaments and large groups have been affected because of the executive order.
The pandemic already has affected one major area tournament — the Fox Puss Invitational at Boonsboro Country Club. The three-day event is usually held the first weekend in May, but has been moved to Oct. 2 through 4.
The Donna Andrews Invitational, a tournament for amateur women golfers of all ages, still is set for late June at Boonsboro, but a decision on that event could come later this month.
Newman said five to six of his spring tournaments have been postponed to August and September, ranging from events hosted by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Children’s Miracle Network and Lynchburg Rotary Club.
“At least I’m hoping to get that revenue later on in the year that I wouldn’t have gotten [in the spring], so hopefully that will help offset what we’ve lost,” Newman said.
He added three tournaments hosted by the University of Lynchburg, Liberty University’s law school and Randolph- Macon’s baseball team have been canceled.
“It has cut into some of the revenue,” Newman said, “but the people who are coming out have been very happy that they have a place to come to get outside and get some exercise and some fresh air and some sun. I think the people that are coming are very happy that they have a place to go.”
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.