With Precautions, Golf Is Back. So Are Scoring Squabbles.

With Precautions, Golf Is Back. So Are Scoring Squabbles.

The culture of golf is swathed in a code of honor, with players compelled to call penalties on themselves. Golf during a pandemic, however, has introduced quirks to test the game’s noble protocols.

New safety regulations, adopted by golf courses to adhere to coronavirus guidelines, have altered certain game fundamentals and left some golfers quibbling over artificially low scores — which can in turn upend the hierarchy, and gambling outcomes, of a regular golfing foursome. Even the hole in one, golf’s holy grail, is prompting disputes over what constitutes a holed tee shot.

“There’s definitely been a little change in attitudes,” Howie Friday, the head golf professional at the Stanley Golf Course in New Britain, Conn., said with a chuckle last week. In April, Friday had grown accustomed to scores of golfers thanking him for the opportunity to play.

“A month ago, it was nurses, doctors and golf pros and we couldn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “Not so much anymore — back to normal.”

The principal source of consternation, a concern shared mostly by serious not casual golfers, is new health guidelines that have affected the golf hole itself. In an effort to reduce high-touch surfaces from golfers reaching into holes to retrieve their balls or removing the flagstick, course operators have tried various solutions, including raising the white liner cup, which is normally inserted in the hole, to about two inches above the green surface. An approaching ball bounces off the cup liner instead of falling into the hole.

The United States Golf Association, a national governing body, issued a temporary rule amendment in March that qualified such a situation as a holed shot — with caveats (more on that later).

Other golf courses have instead inserted into the hole a small piece of foam, similar to noodle-shaped flotation devices used in swimming pools. It allows the ball to descend into the hole, but only slightly, so a player can easily retrieve it without touching anything else.

Golfers, however, have universally found that aiming at the raised hole liner is easier than putting in normal conditions, in part because sometimes the ball barely skims its edge. The same shot, without the modification, would likely lip out or scoot past the hole. Golfers have also appeared to putt more confidently, knowing that an overly aggressive putt would just bang into the cup liner and still be counted as a holed shot.

The pool-noodle option has its complexities, too, since some well-struck putts seem to descend into the hole only to rebound and keep going.

“Every day, we have that question over and over,” Friday said. “Was this putt in or was it out?”

Credit…Michael Hanson for The New York Times

Since many golfers like to wager a few dollars, or much more, on matches, deciding the outcome of a putt or several putts by four players across 18 holes can lead to squabbles with financial implications.

Dominic Namnath, who routinely plays with a group of 12 golfers at the Santa Barbara Golf Club in California, said such arguments are settled with common sense.

“If it hits the cup, it hits the cup. That’s it,” Namnath said.

But George Young, the longtime owner of the Bluffton Golf Club in Ohio, said golfers there have suspended their big money golf games for now.

“I don’t want to gamble a lot if someone doesn’t have to worry about the break of a putt and can just ram it in there and then say, ‘Well, I hit the hole,’” Young, a P.G.A. golf professional for 47 years, said. “That’s a big advantage.”

Counting those putts as holed has unquestionably lowered the scores of thousands of golfers in the past few months, according to dozens of course operators and golfers interviewed last week. Lower scores might seem like a good thing, but in golf, there is always a consequence. When recent scores are recorded to calculate a golfer’s handicap, the approximation of a golfer’s average score over par, the handicap number will drop, which could give a false impression of the golfer’s ability.

But that can only happen if a golfer enters those recent, lower scores. This spring, many golfers, cognizant or disapproving of the changed hole conditions, are declining to enter their scores. Their handicaps have not dropped. Golfers are expected to record virtually every round played to keep competitions, or regular foursome matches, fair. Golfers who do not post good scores are called “sandbaggers,” which sounds nicer than “cheater” but carries much the same connotation.

“I was a 16 handicap a year ago, now I’m down to a nine,” said Wes Campbell, who plays four to five matches weekly at the Riverside Golf Course in Fresno, Calif. “When your number is going down and you’re playing for a couple dollars and you know other people aren’t posting scores, there are discussions on the first tee.

“The sandbag thing is thrown in there.”


Credit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

Meanwhile, somewhat easier scoring conditions are viewed as an attraction to casual golfers, who make up most players and led to a significant surge in golf participation last month. Tom Bugbee, the chief operating officer of CourseCo, a golf management company with 38 golf facilities in six states, said his firm is weighing ways to continue using modified holes at various times even after coronavirus restrictions are lifted.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 2, 2020

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.