A truism: once government decides on something — even if it’s a very small thing — a concerted effort is required to reverse that decision.

A decision’s underlying assumptions may be proven incorrect after-the-fact, but that won’t always lead to a reversal. Unless someone “takes the bull by the horns”, as the cliché goes.

Last spring when golf was shut down for a few days due to COVID-19, a series of rules were put into place to get the game back open. Most of the rules published by the State of Ohio and groups like We Are Golf (a collaboration between the USGA, PGA of America, Golf Course Owners Association, the various pro Tours, etc.) focused on clubhouse operations and social distancing.

But a few of the rules actually changed how the game itself was played:

– “flagsticks must remain in the hole untouched”;

– “a noodle will be placed in the hole or the cup turned upside down to aid removing the ball”; and

– “no bunker rakes allowed”.

These decisions were made for ‘safety’ under the assumption that limited touches to these surfaces would lessen the spread of the virus. Far-fetched, but at least the concepts had a bit of underlying logic. Until they didn’t.

Over the course of 2020, various peer-reviewed scientific studies concluded that the COVID-19 virus does not survive long on outdoor surfaces [Journal of Infectious Diseases, May 2020]; and that asymptomatic spread of COVID-19 is unlikely [Journal of the Association of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Disease Canada, Dec 2020].

In fact, the surfaces test was done by placing live virus directly onto materials in conditions simulating the outdoors to see how long it might live. The answer is not very long; it dies within minutes.

So even if a golfer with clearly active COVID symptoms (remember, low chance of spread from asymptomatic persons) comes out to play and coughs/sneezes/spits onto flagsticks/cups/rakes (another low-chance circumstance), any live virus that might exist in that bodily fluid will likely not survive long enough on that surface to infect another person.

Now, is infection on the golf course possible? Sure, anything with a 0.001% chance of happening is still ‘possible’. But is infection from touching a golf flagstick/cup/rake likely to happen? No.

And even in the highly unlikely event that pulling a flagstick does infect a person with COVID-19, statistically that infected person has a 99.5% chance of full recovery.

(SMARTER SAFETY MEASURES: concerned high-risk persons can leave the flagstick and rake touching to another player in the group; superintendents can sanitize flagsticks with a quick Clorox wipe whenever the hole location is changed.)

Given these facts, it is time for golf to eliminate its COVID flagstick/cup/rake rules. These rules should be rescinded before the start of the 2021 golf season because they are factually illogical, as proven by science.

But so far, these rules have not been rescinded for 2021 because no one in charge in the game of golf has spoken up definitively on the subject.

Last spring, our region’s local public health agencies followed the lead of Governor Mike DeWine and the Ohio Health Department as they issued mandates on everything. They based many of those mandates on recommendations from various organizing bodies in specific sectors and sports. For golf, the state of Ohio still has posted to its webservers a PDF of COVID Rules for Golf Course Operators that has not been revised since July. But the Responsible Restart Ohio website, which covers all things COVID for the state and was updated just a few days ago, no longer links to this PDF in any way. So are these rules for golf still in place or not?

We Are Golf maintains a Back2Golf section on its website covering golf and COVID-19. But according to a PR guy for the group, “The COVID plan from We Are Golf is only a suggestion, not a rule or a mandate.”

So neither Ohio’s Department of Health nor We Are Golf are fully clear about the flagstick/cup/rake rules heading into 2021.

If there was no real science underpinning the original rules, and there are no longer mandates from either the State of Ohio or We Are Golf, then shouldn’t all of the flagstick/cup/rake rules simply go away? Yes they should, but they won’t on their own.

Business owners have been burned on dictates like this before. Unless there is a clear declaration by someone “in charge”, some lesser-willed golf course owners might continue to follow the old rules simply because they don’t to want to be accused of not caring by a local health department employee who randomly sees an issue.

That’s why the We Are Golf collaborative needs to state publicly and definitively that there is no risk of COVID spread from flagsticks/cups/rakes. They should put it in writing that it’s okay for state health departments to remove all such rules from their guidelines for 2021, and back up those statements with the available science.

Personally, in 2021 I want to play to a hole without a flagstick or a piece of foam jammed inside the cup.

I prefer to never see another putt bounce off the stick or careen off a noodle or upside-down cup and stay out, especially when that putt clearly should have settled to the bottom. (Even more so when it costs me a couple side bets.)

I would love to play from bunkers that aren’t filled with deep, giant footprints. Removing rakes from the golf course seems to give license to many golfers to not even try the super-simple foot-rake thing.

So this is a call to all of golf’s governing bodies: can we please get a little help here before spring 2021? Revoking pointless, ineffective rules is your job. The task is in your hands. Science says it’s okay. And golfers everywhere will thank you.

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1 Comment

  1. January 27, 2021

    Excellent points… I completely agree.

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