One month into event season, players find safety and enjoyment at NJSGA tournaments, MGD's
At the outset of World War II, an urgent situation facing the nation, the immortal Bobby Jones noted of his fellow Americans that “The best way for them to get exercise, fresh air and mental relaxation at the same time is to play golf.”
Some eight decades later, the country is facing another immense crisis, and Jones’s thinking can easily be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past month, the NJSGA has stepped up and has provided all of those elements mentioned by Jones, and more, and New Jersey golfers are thankful for the opportunity to play in NJSGA events such as competitions and Member Golf Days.
Since June 22, the NJSGA has conducted four one-day qualifiers for its 100th Open Championship and five qualifiers for its 119th Amateur Championship, as well as two Member Golf Days.
The qualifying events averaged about 100 golfers per event, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NJSGA is adhering to the Back2Golf plan set by organizations such as the USGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour, LPGA Tour and Golf Course Superintendents Association of America that establishes protocols and best practices for more than 16,000 facilities in the United States.
Those protocols include strict social distancing, removal of ball washers and rakes from the golf course, the requirement of flagstick remaining in holes and plastic liners in cups for easy ball removal, among other precautions.
It also includes restricted use of locker rooms with most facilities closed, option to purchase lunch outside, no leaderboards, no spectators, and reporting of scores following each hole through a Golf Genius “app”. The NJSGA insists on minimal contact between players and staff.
Players were once again happy to be playing the sport they love under competitive conditions and were fine in the adjustments they have been asked to make.
“I really felt comfortable at the Open qualifier at Navesink from a player’s perspective,” said Conor Casey of Somerset Hills. “The conditions in managing the pandemic were safe and my group did a good job of keeping our social distancing. The size of the golf course allowed us to easily be six feet apart.
“It wasn’t even close with the social distancing. I wasn’t surprised, because the NJSGA always does a great job, managing their events whatever the situation is. Now that we’re three or four months into the pandemic, strange things seem normal, things like not shaking hands, not grabbing a scorecard and a pencil, and touching things on the golf course.”
Casey, 31, who lives in Hoboken, said he was fine being able to take a drop in a bunker due for relief unnatural damage, but was against placing a ball in a bunker.
“By now, I’m used to leaving the flagstick in, although it’s not my preferred way to play. But it is the rule for now, and I’ll follow safety guidelines. I’d prefer it to be an option,” Casey said.
Tom Collins of Essex County, like Casey, also qualified at Navesink.
“We’re fortunate that golf is one of the games that is solitary, and the NJSGA is checking all the boxes for safety. You can put 100 guys on the course and be extraordinarily safe because of the spacing. You can properly stay away from each other,” Collins said. “There is nothing to deter you from playing this game if you take precautions. We can get through this. Maybe there will be a new normal. There are still a lot of moving parts about this.”
The NJSGA is celebrating its 10th season of its popular Member Golf Days. Begun a four-event trial in 2011, MGDs expanded to as many as a dozen in recent years and 10 are being offered this year.
“Due to the pandemic, we were definitely hoping we wouldn’t have to cancel Member Golf Days. Eventually, we knew we could still conduct them, but we’d have to alter several aspects. There would be no more post-golf receptions and we had to move to a tee-time structure (instead of shotgun start) – which made these events special – but we had to act accordingly,” said Rich Kennedy, NJSGA Director of Handicapping and Membership Services.
“We had to see if the participation level was still there. I talked to some of our host PGA pros like Mike LaBrutto of Cobblestone Creek, Tony Santillo of Spring Brook and Paul Poandl of Bedens Brook and they came up with some good ideas to make these days happen,” Kennedy said. “And, despite tee times instead of shotgun starts, and smaller fields, the response has been great. The real draws are the golf courses. Golfers are very happy the Member Golf Days have returned.”
At the MGDs, the NJSGA has implemented other aspects in areas of safety for the golfers. Masks are worn by NJSGA and players when social distancing is impracticable. Participants have the option of riding in single carts, and even when there are two people in a cart, they can alternate between one riding and one walking on different holes.
Another key change has been the aforementioned live scoring, which will be used in all events this year, including the Open Championship, which begins Monday, July 20, at Knickerbocker Country Club.
As a rule, golfers are happy that Member Golf Days are available to them this season.
“At one point, I had my doubts that golf would be coming back, so I’m thrilled that Member Golf Days have returned,” said Kathy LaPier of Watchung, a regular MGD participant for seven years. “They give you the opportunity to play some beautiful golf courses for a reasonable amount of money ($130). I will miss the camaraderie from the post-golf reception, but hopefully that will come back next year.”
Said LaPier’s playing partner, Marcy Rodriguez, the co-chair of the Somerset County Women’s Golf Tournament: “I have played in many Member Golf Days over the years and have signed up for another at Ridge at Back Brook. I’ve never played here at Cobblestone Creek and I love the format of a two-person team with Stableford scoring.”
“For what’s going on with the pandemic, the golf course is the best place to be,” said Rocco Marotti of Toms River.
Steven Boyd of Baltusrol, is a former president of Metropolitan Golf Association who also won the 2019 NJSGA Mixed Pinehurst Championship with Kelsey Solan. He competed in the recent Open qualifier at Shackamaxon Country Club in Shackmaxon.
“There is no playbook for this. Let’s just keep communicating and see where it goes. I don't see how the NJSGA could have done it any better,” said Boyd, 68. “Everybody is trying to keep their distance and do the right thing. I think keeping the scoring on the cell phone is beneficial to see where you stand. It's easy for the golfer and for the leaderboards. Golf Genius has got it figured out.”
Deal’s John Browndorf was medalist at the Navesink qualifier.
“The NJSGA did a great job in a variety of ways, such as not allowing people in the clubhouse; having any sort of catered lunch inside, and keeping people outside as much as possible. I read the NJSGA email sent to competitors and they hit it on the nose with the precautions they set forth,” Browndorf noted.
“I thought everyone did a good job at the course, of respecting everyone’s space and of adhering to the social distancing guidelines. The closest we came to congregating was probably after the round to check the scorecards, and even so, we kept six feet apart from each other. Even after the round there were no handshakes, and no hugs,” he added.
“Typically, I am interested in watching scores. I’m a leaderboard watcher. I like to see where I stand, so doing live scoring on the cell phone was great. If it’s to be used in an actual tournament, I’m all for it,” Browndorf, 42, commented.
Like Browndorf, Kevin Sarlo of Little Mill, the medalist at the Amateur qualifier at Burlington, paid close attention to the competitor’s email forwarded by the NJSGA.
“After reading the NJSGA email, I was prepared coming into the event and felt pretty safe out there. When I’m playing. I’m in my own world out there. I didn’t think about the new rules too much, but I was definitely being cautious. Because the flagstick is in the cup at every hole, you have a constant reminder to be safe. Overall, I did not feel at all threatened for my health,” said Sarlo, 26.
Joe Bush, 52, is in his eighth year as Director of Instruction at Shackamaxon, where he competed in the Open qualifier two weeks ago.
“The spacing is smart. I didn't think there was one time, other than a golfer conferring with his caddie, that we weren't six feet apart. A golf course is an enormous piece of property. We are erring on the side of caution from not touching the buckets on the driving range and not touching the flagsticks. All of the rules made sense. I think getting here 15 minutes before tee time makes a lot of sense,” Bush said.
“Myself as a golf instructor, I will wear a mask if I'm asked to. I do that with a couple of medical professionals I teach. But while I'm teaching, I keep my distance. I realize it's a different dynamic, but I feel more comfortable out here at work than I do going to the supermarket.
“Golf is one of the safest sports. The members and people I've played with, including today at the NJSGA Open qualifier, have all been wonderful about keeping their distance. Everyone is going about it the right way,” Bush said.
Kevin Campana of Ash Brook won the 2019 NJSGA Four-Ball Championship last summer with former Rutgers teammate Ryan Macdonald of NJSGA E-Club. He qualified for the Amateur at Burlington.
“I didn’t have any problem with the guidelines set by the NJSGA. Coming in, personally, I had no concerns. We’re not on top of each other out there and spectators are not allowed.
“I like the idea of online scoring after each hole, although I still kept my score on a scorecard. Online scoring was good in checking where you stood on the leaderboard. The NJSGA didn’t require a paper scorecard, but at the end we double checked with scores the NJSGA had in the computer,” said Campana, 40, an elementary school teacher in North Brunswick.
“The starter was good with his explanations. I had a picture of the pin sheet on my cell phone. For the most part we can use range finders, as far as locating where pin the is. It was annoying to take the phone out on every hole, but I had option of printing a sheet of paper with pin placements on it and I could have brought that with me.
Just another example of players, and the NJSGA, safely – and smartly – adjusting to our “new” normal.