By Gabriela Carroll
While Long Island is still shut down from the NY Pause order, one important aspect of life on the East End has reopened: golf.
Local golfers like John Kernell started up golfing again quickly after the courses re-opened.
“I’m probably in the best shape I’ve been in 15 years,” Kernell, 60, said. “I’m kind of getting addicted to the endorphin rush. Normally, I’m a two times a week guy. Now, I’m up to three, and on a really nice week, if the weather’s great, I might even get in four rounds.”
Kernell goes golfing most frequently at the Montauk Downs State Park course, but has also recently played courses at The Woods in Riverhead and at other public courses in the area. He said though many courses continue to block the usage of golf carts in their coronavirus protections, public courses recently began to allow the use of golf carts.
The Bridge Golf Club in Bridgehampton has installed Golf Ball E-Z-Lifts at every hole, which allow for players to lift their ball out of the cup by using the blade of their putter to pull up the hook along the flag line. Founder Robert Rubin said the no-touch system provides players an extra level of comfort and protection from the virus.
Kernell said the main restrictions he’s seen are that tee times have been cut in half, and interaction with employees is at a minimum due to digital payment and tee time systems. Kernell said his enjoyment of golf hasn’t been affected by the new restrictions, and that in many ways having more space between one group and the next makes a round easier.
Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, which hosted the 2018 U.S. Open Championship, is only a seasonal club, so it wasn’t open when the stay-at-home orders came down. Though Shinnecock was supposed to open at the beginning of May, only the golf course is currently open, and they are waiting until restrictions are lifted to sell concessions or open the clubhouse or pro shop.
Nicholas Conlin, general manager of the famed Shinnecock Hills, mentioned that the club installed a tee time system for the first time in the club’s history to help regulate social distancing. Conlin said the club aimed with the system to eliminate clusters in parking lots and at the first and last tee, and to block overcrowding.
“We’ve never had a tee time system before, we never had tee times at all before,” Conlin said. “That was one of the special things about being able to play at Shinnecock. But we knew we had to put something in place to ensure social distancing. So we implemented a tee time system, and it’s worked flawlessly.”
Conlin said at Shinnecock, they’ve instituted a voluntary green fee, so members can choose to donate to Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. The club raised over $17,000 in their first donation, and is continuing to collect donations for the hospital. Conlin said the club’s turnout has been “fantastic,” during the pandemic, and members were extremely excited to return.
At The Bridge, Rubin said overcrowding isn’t a big issue because of the small number of members at the club, but that activity on the course is much higher than a typical April or May. Rubin expects the high traffic will continue, since most members won’t be commuting in from New York City on weekends.
Golf, as one of the only athletic activities that has resumed during the pandemic, has become more popular than usual during this time of year. Kernell said finding tee times, especially on weekends, is a big challenge, and if he isn’t online right when they become available, he won’t be able to get one.
Kernell said he believes the seasonal residents that have returned to the East End have made it more difficult to find weekend tee times, but since most are working remotely during the week, finding tee times midweek is not a struggle. Though he said he is worried people are traveling out to golf, he hopes that most have been quarantined for long enough that the risk is low.
Conlin says the pandemic has helped him truly appreciate the Shinnecock family in a way he hadn’t before. His friends in other areas of the hospitality industry have been laid off or faced critical pay cuts, and though the club hasn’t been able to fully reopen, Shinnecock gave its employees a lot of support, and Conlin said he is extremely grateful to work there.
As New York begins to work toward reopening businesses, Kernell feels conflicted about lifting golf course restrictions.
“I think there’s an inherent risk with reopening,” Kernell said. “I would prefer them to keep things where they are now. I get that there’s people’s livelihoods that depend on it, for example, the guy who runs the pro shop in Montauk, he’s not making any money because he can’t sell anything. I want those guys to be working who bring out the carts and wipe down the carts and clean our clubs, but you know it’s just more interaction. So there’s some risk there.”
But, for Kernell and many others, the benefits golf provides them during this time far outweigh the potential risks. Because golf can be played individually, it’s easy to social distance while playing, and spending four hours outside on the green is extremely appealing after spending so much time inside, Kernell said.
“Obama had this famous expression: golf is a game of inches, the most important are the six inches between your ears,” Conlin said. “I think for some people, it’s a mental serenity. For some, it’s competition. For some, it’s a pastime. For some, it’s excellence, and an exercise.
“For everyone that plays golf, it’s four hours of complete escapism, from everything that’s going on in real life. It’s sort of four hours to be safe with friends in the sunshine, the fresh air surrounded by nature, peace and beauty, and especially at a time like this. That’s, that’s medicine for all that’s what a lot of people are looking for right now and it just does wonders for the soul.”