Courses acknowledge crisis but also say you can golf with social distancing

Western New York

AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) — As Tim Fries can attest, owning a golf course in Buffalo is a challenging endeavor, even in the best of circumstances. But two years ago, he decided it was time to realize a lifelong dream and give it a shot.

Fries had been a force in the sport for years, as a player and instructor. He was head pro at Transit Valley from 2000-2018 a former member of the PGA’s national board, a seven-time Western New York PGA champ who had played in the 2016 PGA Championship. 

Two years or so ago, he bought Glen Oak, a public course in Amherst regarded by many local players as one of the best tracks in the area. It was a labor of love, and a significant investment for him and his wife, Karen.

“It’s my mortgage and it’s my retirement,” Fries said Tuesday morning. “My 401K, I’m cutting the grass on it.”

The first two seasons were rough. This isn’t Texas or Florida, after all. The season is short to begin with up here. The spring weather can be brutal, taking chunks of playing time away. The rain in 2019 was especially bad, turning local courses into virtual swamps. 

But Fries, a genial, optimistic soul by nature, was looking forward to the 2020 season at Glen Oak. The forecast was favorable. This year, he could get ahead of the game and start making back some of the money he’d lost earlier. 

“We’ve had two slow springs and I was looking forward to a good one,” he said.

Fries was scheduled to open Monday, one week after St. Patrick’s Day. Then came the coronavirus crisis, and mounting dread. On Sunday, just hours before Glen Oak was slated to open, Gov. Cuomo issued his order for all non-essential state businesses to close down as of 8 pm.

So Fries was tossed into limbo, along with countless other golf owners, workers and competitors around the county, state and nation. Clearly, golf is not an essential enterprise. It’s a frivolous pursuit at a time when thousands of people in the state have fallen sick and the governor is pleading with the feds for more assistance.

Golf is at a virtual standstill, like most sports. The Masters and PGA Championship have been postponed. Last week, the women’s Porter Cup, scheduled for June at the Niagara  Falls Country Club, was canceled. Courses throughout the state, which were bustling with activity as recently as a week ago, have shut down since Cuomo’s edict on Sunday.

Still, the golf community is a bit confused and conflicted, and looking for more direction from above. The sport isn’t essential, but neither are liquor stores. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has urged residents to use the county parks, while exercise proper social distancing. 

People need exercise. So if they can go to parks, why not golf courses? The state hasn’t specifically forbidden it. Why not allow golfers to play under revised conditions to protect against the spread of the virus — which is being done in many areas of the country right now? 

“I just want to know,” said Rob Milbrand, who owns Holland Hills Golf Course. “People can walk in the parks. Why can’t you walk on my golf course and keep a distance? I call the governor’s hotline and get put on hold. 

“I don’t want to act like I’m grubbing for money, but this is my livelihood,” Milbrand said. “You don’t want people to get sick. But no one’s saying what we can and can’t do.”

Dan Meyer, deputy press secretary for the county, said the two county courses (Grover Cleveland and Elma Meadows) wouldn’t open until mid-April in any event. He said they’re in a holding pattern as far as golf is concerned. 

“Obviously, the focus on a pandemic and a nationwide health crisis takes priority,” Meyer said. “It’s a fluid situation, a hot topic. Realistically, I don’t think there will be anything close to a decision, unless there was a state-wide call that said no access to public facilities and parks.

“As a golfer himself, Mark recognizes and understands the importance of recreation, the importance of fresh air and exercise. He will do everything in his power to get those golf courses up running and open.”

That doesn’t address the question of the other courses, like Glen Oak and Holland Hill and the various private clubs. For now, most are taking a conservative approach and shutting down. It’s hard to keep a course going without employees to take care of the greens and fairways.

But there’s confusion, to be sure. Danielle Rotundo, whose family owns Terry Hills in Batavia — site of Jim Kelly’s annual tournament in May — was uneasy about discussing the situation two days before Cuomo’s edict.

“I want to make sure what I say is the correct thing and I don’t really know what’s going on,” Rotundo said. “We’ve been told the rules on non-essential employees, which we completely understand. That’s why we’re down to just the owners and our family here. And there’s nothing that’s been specifically said, ‘Golf courses need to close.

Gary Occhino, the golf pro at Orchard Park County Club, said last Friday that the course had been shut down. They took out and pins and flags and sent members a letter saying no one was allowed on the course. 

“But we haven’t stopped anybody if they’re playing out of their trunk and not expecting any services,” Occhino said. “We’ve probably had four to seven rounds a day, just people walking on their own.

“They can’t have a policeman out here, if you know what I mean. They tried to say no, but that being said, a few people played out of their trunk.”

Fries said it’s not in him to do something that’s not right. He has a reputation in town. He doesn’t want to be seen as someone who was out for a cheap buck. He considered opening Glen Oak to families who wanted to go for walks.

But on Monday, he went on the site for Bethpage, a renowned course on Long Island that has hosted golf majors. Bethpage — part of a state park — was open. The reservation system was operating, advising players that “procedures have been adjusted for golf at Bethpage State Park in an effort to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Granted, the situation is fluid. Still, it appeared the state was making separate accommodations for its state parks that weren’t being offered elsewhere. 

“Why them and not us?” Fries said. “Put something out that’s official and says what you guys are already doing, and then I feel better.”

Like a lot of golf enthusiasts, Fries believes the sport is ideal for social distancing, a healthy outlet for folks looking for diversion in a crisis. John Burns, a member at Niagara Falls CC and a member of the executive committee of the Buffalo District Golf Association, concurs. 

“You can go out with a couple of guys and walk and play and be fine,” Burns said, “with social distancing. It’s kind of like you’re walking in the park, just holding on to your clubs and hitting balls. There’s not much difference to me. So I would hope the golf courses would stay open with some new rules and standards.”

Fries said in an ideal setting, golfers would pay for their greens fees online. There would be no exchange of money. The golf shop would be closed, of course. He could direct them to the tee, make sure the players maintained distance. The driving range would be closed. 

Last week, the USGA released a list of recommendations for golf during the coronavirus crisis. That included not taking out the pin, not touching other players’ clubs, no handshakes, limiting cart use or prohibiting them altogether, and turning the cup upside down so players don’t have to retrieve their ball after putting. A putt that caroms off the upturned cup counts as good.

The USGA said scores would be legitimate for handicap purposes. That’s good news for golfers. Now, they’re eagerly awaiting the time when they can get out and play without being afraid of running afoul of the state during the COVID-19 crisis.

For now, Fries works on the course — “maintaining the asset” is allowed during the crisis — and waits for some positive word from a higher authority. On Tuesday, the weather was in the low 40s, but he said there “absolutely” would have been golfers on the course at Glen Oak if it was permitted.

This would have been a great year to get started in late March. The forecast calls for sunny and temperatures in the 50s the rest of the week. 

“Tomorrow looks nice, tomorrow looks good,” said Burns, a good friend of Fries. “Just got to find a place that’s open.”

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