Course knowledge: These doctors say it’s safe to play golf

I never would have dreamed that playing golf would be considered a danger to others. Until the last month, the only time I ever endangered anyone on the links, including myself, was when I tried to hit an impossible shot around a tree.

But here we are, smack in the middle of a debate over whether it is safe to play our great game. I’ve seen people tsk-tsking golfers on Facebook. I’ve seen numerous articles questioning whether walking around a golf course violates moral as well as practical principles at a time like this.

The overriding message, sometimes from people whose opinions I normally respect: This is not a time to go outside and have fun.

I respectfully disagree.

When the stay-at-home guidelines first were issued, I decided to make this as positive an experience as possible. I figured that since I never will experience something like this ever again (at least I hope not), I wanted to attack it with a combination of adventure and common sense.

You can have adventure in your own home. We all have tackled projects we never had time for in our previous, go-go-go lives. We have cleaned and cleaned until there was nothing left to clean. Catching up on old movies has become standard fare. And if people can find safe ways to have fun at home, more power to them.

But if it was considered safe to venture outside – and the authorities have consistently advised us to do that – I was going to take them up on their offer as often as possible in safe environments.

And in most places, the golf course qualifies as safe. If they’re going to let me play golf, I’m going to do that as long as I can follow the social-distancing rules – which has not been a problem at all.

Still, the naysayers have persisted. That’s why I felt a combination of vindication and relief when I read a Golf Digest article titled, “Flagsticks, handshakes and masks: Infectious disease experts clarify coronavirus risks, say golf ranks as one of ‘safest sports.’”

It is filled with common sense. For example, there was this passage about touching the flagstick or a rake, something we’ve been warned not to do. The response is from Dr. Charles G. Prober, a professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases) and of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University:

Prober calls flagsticks “an extraordinarily ineffective way to get the disease,” because infection depends on a rare confluence of circumstances: someone sick contaminating the flagstick, the virus persisting on the flagstick despite exposure to ultraviolet light (which is believed to reduce the viability of the virus on a surface), then you touching the exact same part of the flagstick and ultimately your face. So in other words a lot has to happen, and the same can be said for rakes. But again, there’s always a chance. “Any type of touched surface has the potential for transmission,” Adalja said, which is why he said, the same rules apply: If you touch something someone else touched, better to wash your hands and not touch your face.

Just being in the same vicinity of people at the golf course, as long as you socially distance, shouldn’t be a concern, either. This time, the response is from Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Senior Scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, and Dr. J. Trees Ritter, DO, Fellow of the Infectious Disease Society of America:

This you shouldn’t sweat. Though the virus’ main form of transmission is through person-to-person contact, all three experts emphasized just walking by other players on the course or in the parking lot was not a significant risk. “The virus doesn’t teleport from one person to another. It has to have some mechanism to get there,” Adalja said. Yes, an infected golfer could emit respiratory droplets by sneezing or coughing in your direction, but that’s why the doctors all cited the now-standard practice of maintaining a six-foot gap as a precaution. “More is better, but these respiratory droplets really don’t spread much more than spitting distance,” Ritter said. “When you’re outside, the risk is even lower.” Of course, the most important advice in this context is to tell anyone who is sick or symptomatic to stay home.

Some of the new practices on the course, such as the raised flagstick and no ball washers or rakes, are going to be around for a while – maybe a long while. We might as well get used to them.

But at no time in the last few weeks have I felt unsafe or irresponsible on the golf course. These doctors made it clear – be smart about it, but go play.

And, by all means, have fun.  

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