IMPORTANT UPDATE: During her April 30 news conference, the governor allowed state golf courses to reopen on May 1.
Enchantment Sports will have a detailed update of new policies and information by midnight May 1.
On the 15th of May, in the Jungle of Nool, In the heat of the day, in the cool of the pool, He was splashing… enjoying the jungle’s great joys… When Horton the elephant heard a small noise.
— Dr. Seuss, from “Horton Hears a Who”
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
Hey Michelle, “We are here! We are here!”
Can you hear us?
You’ll have to forgive some New Mexico golfers — actually, likely close to all of them — who might not be as fond of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as Dr. Seuss these days.
They could easily add another verse to to the Seuss classic, “Horton Hears a Who.”
The 15th of May?
Come on, Michelle, no way!
How about some golf, and how about it today?
As we head to the start of May, instead of swinging their sticks on the lush spring grass, golfers feel like they’re living on a tiny clover.
A clover that’s being treated like an insignificant dust-peck.
And many are at a boiling point.
“It’s ridiculous,” said one New Mexico golf pro who didn’t want to his name used for this story, but who said he is getting inundated by calls from angry golfers because the state’s courses remain shuttered.
“Nearly the entire country is open but us. We get it. We know it won’t be easy, but it’s time to open. We need to open.”
Then again, Lujan Grisham is a Democrat, and Horton is an elephant, right?
This week the Sun Country Golf Association emailed its members, requesting they email the governor requests to open courses.
“That’s a pretty big voting block,” another golf pro said. “There are 15,000 Sun Country Section amateur golfers, and you would think she would be listening to them. I don’t know what’s holding everything up.”
Two professionals said they didn’t want their names used for this story because the subject is so controversial.
Enchantment Sports emailed the governor’s office this morning to ask if she has received emails from golfers and what her plans are to open.
As of this posting at 1:30 p.m., the office has yet to respond.
Like the Whos of Whoville, golfers don’t feel that their “We are here” chants are being heard by the governor, no matter how many are banding together to scream at the top of their lungs.
“Some people are understanding, some people are losing patience and some are just freaking out,” Dana Lehner, executive director of the Sun Country Professional Golf Association, says of the golf community. “I hear from a lot of golfers, and also from people in the industry worried about their careers and just trying to keep their lights on at home. But it’s a very delicate issue.
“We’ve been communicating through our lobbyist and talking with as many leaders as will talk to us. We want to be socially responsible so courses will be open in as safe a manner as possible when they are allowed to operate.”
As for when that will be, Lehner said he hasn’t heard a word.
It will unquestionably be sooner rather than later, and golfers could find out as early as today. The governor has a news conference scheduled for 3 p.m.
But as for now, she has kept all of the state’s non-essential businesses closed until May 15.
Golf is non-essential, and few could argue otherwise.
Missing out on missing a 3-footer can’t be compared to the devastation COVID-19 has caused.
But a person is a person, no matter how small the group, and should be heard, right Horton?
And right now, Land of Enchantment golfers are in an amazingly small group.
As of Wednesday, New Mexico was one of just six states in the entire nation whose links remain shuttered.
And one of just two outside of the northeast’s hot bed of coronavirus.
Many courses in those open states are still closed, but that figure is also dropping daily. Roughly 50 percent of all courses nationwide have been reopened.
However the only other five states with a total lock-down are Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, Vermont and Nevada – the latter being the only one within nearly 2,000 miles of New Mexico.
Really, New York? Open?
New Jersey? Open.
“Most of us in the industry really do understand all sides of reopening,” Bill Harvey, director of golf at Albuquerque’s Ladera Golf Course, told Enchantment Sports. “There are a lot of details to take care of, and I’m concerned how we will handle it when we do open the doors.
“When I started seeing the protests around the country a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking, ‘Oh man, I hope we don’t get overrun.’ I reached out to the governor’s office by email with a list of things we can do to practice safe procedures and slowly open.
“We need to open, but we need to open slowly.”
The Sun Country Section, by the way, isn’t entirely closed.
El Paso is actually part of the section, and all but one of its courses opened on Tuesday when Texas started to reopen.
And sources told Enchantment Sports that Black Mesa Golf Club in Española opened on Thursday. When contacted to ask if that was true, an employee with the course said he couldn’t comment, but would pass on the question to management.
Black Mesa’s management hasn’t returned the call.
The bulk of the section, which includes all of New Mexico, is waiting to join El Paso — and maybe Black Mesa — and Lehner said he feels confident the state will be ready.
He said the Sun Country’s PGA, amateur association, junior golf association and the Rio Grande Golf Course Superintendent’s Association all teamed up to create a 24-page document that was submitted to the state’s economic recovery council with proposed policies for the golf courses to follow.
Lehner said the council acknowledged receiving the document, but hasn’t provided any feedback.
“We just really wanted to emphasize that we are hoping to be a good partner, and when the governor allows us to open we will be ready to play ball,” he said.
Some of those changes include:
- The cups on the green will be filled, so players don’t have to reach into them to retrieve a ball.
- Flagsticks will not be allowed to be removed from cups.
- Rakes will be removed from sand traps.
- Carts will be sanitized after each round and only one rider is allowed in each cart.
- Ball washers will be removed from courses.
- Trash cans will only be permitted on the No. 1 and No. 10 tee boxes.
- All players must have tee times, and will only be allowed to check in at a time to be determined; likely 10 minutes or 15 minutes before the round.
Some courses are also discussing closing pro shops to customers to help with social distancing, and having golfers pay for their round through a window.
“That’s one of the the things our course is looking into,” says Colby Reddoch, director of golf at Albuquerque’s Los Altos Golf Course. “Golfers can come to the window, hand us their credit card, get in their disinfected cart and be on their way.”
Lehner said that courses are also waiting to hear if the state will require personal protective equipment for golf course personal and/or players, and “that’s also on our list of things that could be done. Obviously, we’ll have to play that by ear because PPE masks and gloves need to be prioritized for health workers.”
Harvey got ahead of the PPE curve before the courses were closed in March.
“I had already purchased supplies, and made it mandatory for all my employees in the pro shop to wear masks and gloves and I added sanitizer stations all over the course,” Harvey said.
“Golfers ignored the sanitizer stations the first week we had them up, but most were using them after that right up until the day we closed.”
Harvey said he has also proposed a limit to the number of golfers who are allowed on the course so all groups — possibly twosomes — will be socially distanced.
“It’s going to be a slow process, and I hope people respect that,” Harvey said. “As members of the PGA, we have been abiding by rules our whole life, and we will enforce rules to make it as safe as possible.
“We’ll slowly see how it goes, and down the road we might allow players to sit and have a beer after the round and eventually we hope to start serving food again. But it’s going to be a process.”
A big concern Reddoch, Harvey and other owner-operators have is whether players will be allowed to rent carts at all.
As city-owned courses, Ladera, Los Altos, Arroyo del Oso and Puerto del Sol have to turn over 100 percent of the greens fees to the city, but keep the bulk of money from cart rentals and pro shop items.
But those running the pro shops, not the city, hire and paying their staff.
If the shops are closed and carts aren’t allowed, the concessionaires will be operating at a loss.
“We’ll be paying our employees to check people in to get the city’s greens fees,” Reddoch said. “If that happens, I’m sure we would have to come up with something with the city to make arrangements.
“Right now, everything is so fluid and we’re all waiting to hear what might happen.”
It should also be pointed out, that many golfers already choose to walk when playing municipal courses – which is another selling point for reopening.
Lehner and Harvey each said that another selling point is how tennis courts and parks are already open.
“There’s nobody to enforce social distancing rules for tennis or parks, but there will be for golf,” Harvey said.
Lehner said “We can definitely make golf courses as safe as a city park, and even safer than tennis courts, where players touch the same ball.”
Will the governor agree?
Reddoch said he hopes she will have some good news for the industry today, and “we could be ready to roll in just three or four days once we get the go-ahead.”
Lehner said most, if not all state courses, could be ready to reopen along that timeline.
But when they do reopen, that doesn’t mean there will be a closure of nasty comments aimed his direction.
And probably not the governor’s as well.
Much like Horton, Lehner is hearing voices.
“It’s been a no-win situation,” he said. “A lot of people are calling me an idiot because we can’t get the courses open. But I get plenty of others saying, ‘How can you try to open golf courses with what’s going on? You’re an idiot.’
“We just really want to let the state know that we are their partner and we will do whatever is deemed necessary to open as safely as possible.”
Hopefully, it won’t take until the 15th of May.
Hear: Mark Smith interview with ESPN 101.7 The Team on April 30, during the “Team Up With New Mexico” show.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for more than four decades, and is one of the most decorated sports journalists in state history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio and has been honored nationally for investigative reporting. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.