A Test of the “New Normal”

Social Distancing upon return to the golf course


April 2020

BY JERRY HUFFMAN

It’s a silly picture but one for the scrapbook. A golf pal, Darren Kittleson, and me marking a tongue-firmly-in-cheek moment—a “safe” distance apart for golfing.

Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers gave tens of thousands of Wisconsin golfers the green light to resume play on April 24, but with restrictions. Ignore the rules and the courses might easily close again.

As one of the first businesses to be reopened, golf became a litmus test to see where we are as a society in dealing with the pandemic. Follow the rules and other businesses could open. Blow it and we’re back to square one.

Oddly, for us, our foursome came separately to The Oaks Golf Course in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin—instead of carpooling. The first thing I noticed was the parking lot. Instead of everyone parking close to the clubhouse, more parked as far away as possible. Score one for social distancing.

Darren Kittleson and Jerry Huffman practice safe golfing. (Photo by Christel Boeck)

 

Instead of the usual lap through the clubhouse to check out what was on television, or to scope the new shirts in the pro shop, we were expected to stay in our car until 15 minutes before tee time. We could get something to go from the clubhouse restaurant, but the goal was to eliminate groups of people standing around.

The one saving grace? Restrooms were still open. Every middle-aged golfer in Wisconsin breathed a sigh of relief.

Yet forget rolling putts or hitting balls as a warm-up. Practice areas were closed until further notice.

This “New Normal” is going to take a while to get used to.

In fact, there are still some golf courses convinced that the rules only apply to others. One western Wisconsin course is sending out a beverage cart, a big-time no-no. Another has ignored the initial closing order altogether and stayed open.

A third opened a week early. I called and asked why people were playing if they were supposed to be closed. “What do you want me to do, tell people they can’t play,” said the person answering the phone.

Actually, yes.

If we’re ever going to emerge from the shutdowns controlling our own lives, we must show society that we’re ready for the responsibility.

For most of my life, the first round of golf every season has always been about more than golfing. It involves rekindling friendships after a winter apart. The conversations usually start slowly but a few holes in and we’re back in a groove of bad and not-so-bad shots—and the joy of being together on the golf course again.

But not this year. No one has escaped Covid-19. One friend is awaiting word on whether his wife has Covid or a late season flu. Another is nearly overwhelmed by the stress at work since the pandemic hit. “This job is going to kill me before Covid,” he said.

In addition to Kittleson, who’s a real estate broker, my golfing pals on this day included Christel Boeck, a training coordinator for the Madison Police Department, and Bob Schmitt, a friend with whom and I’ve golfed for decades.

First up, I nailed a perfect drive into the creek just in front of the tee. Midseason form already! The other three split the fairway. We were back on a golf course. Life, in that moment, was good.

At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking of people facing real problems connected to Covid. While some folks needed help getting food for supper, my biggest decision for the afternoon was whether to hit an 8-iron or 9-iron. I was a schmuck.

Keeping our distance wasn’t difficult. First round of the year was mostly from opposite sides of the fairway. On the tees, we simply stepped a little farther apart.

Boeck had a unique take on our New Normal. “When this is over,” said the former cop, “I hope people are still nice.”

“Every day I see people being friendly,” she continued.  “You hear ‘Take care, be safe.’” After 21 years in police work, Boeck is touched by those who take a moment to wish someone well or lend a hand. “I call it calm kindness,” Boeck said, “and we can’t lose what we’ve gained by going through this.”

Upon their return to the course, golfing pals Christel Boeck, Bob Schmitt, Darren Kittleson and Jerry Huffman inched a bit closer for this group photo–but they insist they otherwise kept their distance. 

 

At one point, Boeck lived in China for five years. While some here want to blame the Chinese for Covid, she says she’s convinced the vast majority of her friends there—as they are here—are more interested in fixing the problem than fixing the blame.

Our scores didn’t matter. We were four friends who could forget the pandemic for a couple of hours. We thrived in the sunshine, the golf, (sort of) and most of all, the laughing.

In the end, putting up with a few rules just wasn’t a big deal. We were on the course again for our Sunday ritual. A second chance we did not take lightly.

 

Jerry Huffman is an Emmy Award-winning journalist. His golfing claim to fame is having once caddied for actor Bill Murray during a PGA event. Jerry can be reached at jerhuff@hotmail.com

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