Golf courses across Wisconsin came to a standstill despite weather soaring into the high 60s last week.
While local course owners and golf professionals agree that Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” order, which took effect March 25 and closed all nonessential businesses, may have been needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, they contend the game could go on with safety restrictions.
“I’m disappointed in the decision, but I know why he (Evers) made it,” said Jack Gaudion, owner of The Legend at Bergamont in Oregon. “It’s safe to say everyone is losing.”
Whether lawmakers open golf courses in the future is a safety decision.
Gaudion, who also owns The Legend at Merrill Hills in Waukesha, The Legend at Brandybrook in Wales and The Legend of Bristlecone in Hartland, understands what’s at stake and doesn’t want the virus to spread. He knows there are bigger problems, but golf could be an outlet to help improve the mental health of many Wisconsinites.
Gaudion has a clear message he wants to relay to state lawmakers.
“It’s not about poor golfers who don’t get to play,” he said. “It’s about poor workers who don’t get to work. This is way bigger than golf. I want to get people back to work.”
The Wisconsin PGA, Wisconsin Golf Association and other organizations have spoken with state representatives about allowing golf courses to open. A petition on change.org requesting courses to be open had more than 60,000 signatures as of Tuesday, April 7.
Brook Schmitt, owner of Foxboro Golf Club in Oregon, is a proponent of having courses open with safety restrictions.
“I feel like if the parks are open for walking, bike paths are open, and multiple states have golf, I don’t see why we can’t have some people get outside, enjoy the outdoors and get some exercise with some restrictions.”
Schmitt has been in the golf business for 36 years and been a PGA member for 31 years. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for getting back on the course is the uncertainty of when COVID-19 will reach its peak.
“If I had to close for two months to end it (coronavirus), I would,” Schmitt said. “We have to maintain the golf course with no money coming in and we don’t know when it will end.”
Essential activities allowed in Evers’ order are visiting state and public parks, walking, biking, running and disc golf.
Gaudion said golf by its nature is a game of social distancing.
“There are so many ways to keep it safe in our minds,” Gaudion said. “Golf can be physically and psychologically positive.”
Some safety measures are pulling the cup liner out of the hole so golfers never have to reach into the hole or touch the pin, removing ball washers, rakes and flags, ensuring non-members can pay for a round of golf on the phone or online, limiting golf carts and closing clubhouses.
“No one can run a business with just carry-outs forever,” Gaudion said.
Another potential safeguard Schmitt said courses could implement is an automatic two-putt rule to eliminate any touching while putting. Each time a golfer reaches the green, it could be an automatic two-putt.
“I’m sure 99 percent of the people who signed that petition would be OK with that,” he said.
Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker originally announced golf courses in the state would be open, but changed his ruling to close courses. There are 13 states that have shut down golf courses, including Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan.
All four of Gaudion’s courses host weddings, but any ceremonies that were reserved for the clubs during this time have been canceled.
“I’m not sure when I will get to host a wedding again with 150 or 250 people,” he said.
Foxboro did not open for golf before Evers’ order. Schmitt has not hired all of the seasonal employees, but he’s still paying the superintendent to maintain the course.
All of Foxboro’s golf leagues are suspended for the time being, including a junior league that has 70 children enrolled.
Golf courses across the state are still required to maintain the courses. Mowing the fairways and greens, continued fertilization and chemical application plans are essential.
“Golf courses are not like your yard,” Schmitt said. “You can’t just wait until it gets long and mow them. If you neglect a golf course for a month, it becomes a mess.”
Small business loans from the state are an option for public golf owners. A new option is the Paycheck Promotion Program, a federally-backed loan program for certain payroll expenses through June 30, with up to eight weeks of forgiveness for small businesses, certain non-profits and self-employed individuals. The PPP loan was part of the $2.2 trillion CARES Act approved on April 2, which allows golf courses to continue payroll operations. It marks the largest financial support deal in U.S. history.
The PPP loan is forgivable if employers retain employees at comparable salary levels prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. The loan also waives all SBA fees and provides deferral on loan repayments for a minimum of six months and up to a maximum of one year.
However, Schmitt is skeptical of the program because owners may only be able to use certain banks to apply and many are still setting up the application process.
“It’s not like if you apply at your bank you will get a check in the mail in two or three days,” he said. “There will be thousands to tens of thousands of applicants. They are still trying to get the stimulus checks sent out.”