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NORTON, Massachusetts – Representatives from the Alliance of Massachusetts Golf Organizations (AMGO) on Wednesday sat down for an exclusive Town Hall interview, moderated by Boston 25 News anchor Butch Stearns.
These individuals fielded multiple questions based on the feedback from members of the Massachusetts golf community. They addressed everything from AMGO’s initial response to golf being shut down due to COVID-19 to the current guidelines that have been implemented since May 7 to allow golf courses to open.
The AMGO representatives in this interview were:
“This was an excellent opportunity for AMGO’s representatives to discuss all the work that has been done to re-open golf in Massachusetts,” said Catherine Carmignani, Mass Golf’s Director of Communications and Marketing. “We have a passionate golf community here in Massachusetts and we want them to recognize that we have been listening and we share their concerns.
“We would also like to thank Butch Stearns for moderating this Town Hall and for continuing to provide excellent coverage of golf in Massachusetts, especially during the COVID-19 era. He is a true professional and an avid golfer that wanted answers to these questions just as much as anyone else out there.”
Below are some highlighted moments from the Town Hall Meeting. Some answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Butch Stearns: Why was Massachusetts the last state to announce it was re-opening golf courses?
Jesse Menachem: It’s very clear to say that Massachusetts was a hotbed for COVID-19. The governor has come out and has been clear on that for the last 6-8 weeks. Cases were extreme, hospitalizations were extreme and unfortunately, it took a long time for the governor and his administration to consider any easing of the executive order or any easing of safe and recreational activities. Ultimately, we felt we needed to be responsible and respectful in their decision-making process.
For a long time now, we’re still not an essential business. We’re a safe recreational activity. I think it’s important to stress that they gave us some clearance just last week. Ultimately, there’s a way to go in this state to get our economy in place, and we should be pleased that we’re ahead of the game and ahead of the May 18 executive order.
Butch Stearns: Let’s talk a little about AMGO, its role in all of this. Why weren’t the leaders in the industry more vocal from the start to have courses re-open?
Mike Higgins: From the beginning, our industry was really focusing on listening to the experts.
We knew our sport, our game could be safe and if proper precautions were taken and guidelines were in place as follows, we knew golf could be played when we were given the all clear from the state.
From Day 1, we knew our industry needed a voice. The golf organizations in Massachusetts, we’ve worked together in the past under that collaborative group, AMGO, and we knew when the pandemic hit, we had to align, we had to get together and we had to be a voice for our industry.
We first met via conference call on March 15. We had the leaders with other associations, in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island and Connecticut, because we were all going through this together. Four days later, all of our groups developed resource webpages for the golf industry in New England.
On March 20, AMGO sent out our first communication to the Governor’s Office requesting to keep golf courses open. We didn’t receive a response, and at that time, the state of Massachusetts was completely shut down, and that’s where the uncertainty in our industry really set in.
On March 24, AMGO sent a letter to the Governor’s Office requesting consideration for golf course maintenance to remain open during the shutdown. It initially was not allowed, but a quick response and quick education showed that course maintenance is essential, and if courses weren’t allowed to maintain their product, many of these facilities weren’t going to be able to recover through this pandemic.
Over the next four weeks, our regional allies, we’d meet weekly to provide updates. During this period, which may have seemed like a quiet period to many people, we communicated multiple times with state house representatives and the Lt. Governor. Our friends at the Golf Course Owners Association secured a lobbyist to help with our efforts. We did receive communication from the state leadership that golf could be considered safe, but at the same time, we were reminded that golf wasn’t being singled out. Every business in Massachusetts was shut down. We were encouraged to produce a plan to help reintroduce golf.
Fast forward to April 20, we delivered a packet to the Governor’s Office requesting to view golf as an acceptable recreational activity.
We then produced a multi-phased plan to help safely reintroduce golf to Massachusetts. On May 2, everybody here in this Town Hall presented to the Re-Opening Advisory board.
Jesse Menachem: For the last eight weeks, a ton of work and a ton of time has been spent. I am really proud of the industry, the alliance that we have to be able to work together, to align as one, to work as one and to really formulate a plan. It’s hard to get six different states together to discuss the different nuances and components that we have to work through. At certain times, our governors in these six states felt we should be doing this regionally. We were one step ahead. And then over time, things did get more individualized by state, so we did have to break off and work within our borders.
Mike finished off there by relaying that we had the chance to present Mass Golf’s formulated presentation to the Re-Opening Advisory Board. We felt extremely confident with that plan. We felt prepared, and we laid out from A-Z how we could open golf in an initial phase, and we also further explained the benefits from a health and wellness standpoint of golf, physical, mental and public, and what it does for the economy in Massachusetts.
The questions that came about from the 17-person advisory board were solid, but we were equipped to answer them. I think we were able to hit each sector of the industry and represented it extremely well.
Butch Stearns: In the middle of all this, originally carts were not permitted and then it came out [Sunday] that they were allowed for anybody with a documented disability. What are the next phases with carts?
Jesse Menachem: We were pleased that the amendment was offered to allow for ADA carts. That is an absolute necessity, and we want to make sure all who can play can enjoy the game and have that great experience. That was a great modification this past weekend.
We did basically present that we wanted to encourage walking but that we respectfully requested single-rider cart use or riders from the same household to share a cart. We know across the country, even our neighboring states, are allowing for that very successfully. They’re able to manage it, monitor it and sanitize accordingly. That’s our next step. We’d like to see that amended in the very short term, it’s a huge component for facility operators. It’s a huge revenue stream. But it also adds to that experience because for those golfers that may not have a handicap who can’t walk a course, there are thousands of them out there and we want to make sure that they’re able to have this experience, this safe recreational activity.
Butch Stearns: When carts are allowed back, it’s not going to jump back to normal, is it?
Jesse Menachem: No, it’s not, and that’s going to speak to the phases. We’re hoping to get the single rider or the dual rider from the same household model. But it’s going to take a couple weeks beyond that to get us back to two riders in a golf cart. There are some new products out there that are coming to the market, such as a windshield dividers that can be placed between the two seats [and] keep players’ equipment separated. Those types of things are out there, and it can definitely be part of our plan once we’re able to vet it a little bit more.
Butch Stearns: One thing we saw was golf maintenance was deemed essential. Can you talk about why that was so important at the time?
Don Hearn: We were fortunate enough to get the approval to maintain the courses, and thankfully so. Because we were able to maintain the golf courses, generally speaking, we were ready to have the courses open for play when the state said that that would be allowed.
If we weren’t allowed to maintain — maintenance is having irrigation systems charged up, having turf mowed — if it was left to go on its own accord, then we would have a lot of trouble getting it down to playable lengths. Even if courses were open, if they weren’t maintained, people were going to take up tennis or pickleball because courses would’ve been unplayable.
Butch Stearns: Jennifer, as an owner by the golf course, I’m sure you’re going by these guidelines, but in your opinion, is there room for interpretation?
Jennifer Webster O’Connor: With regards to interpretation, I’ll be very honest, I’m an operator and an owner, and of course, I would love to have our [driving] range open. I would love to have single-use carts. I would love to have shorter tee time intervals. But this is what was released. These were the guidelines, and we don’t have the ability to be vague about it. We don’t have the ability to interpret what’s best for our individual facilities. We all have to live by them and continue to show that we can operate golf in a safe manner, both for our staff and for our customers, and continue to have the conversations with the Governor’s Office to let them know we’re able to do this so that they can continue to ease up on the restrictions.
Butch Stearns: When it comes to the guidelines, why aren’t we seeing these guidelines being put out by Mass Golf? Are you making up these guidelines?
Jesse Menachem: We are not. These guidelines are coming directly from the Governor’s Administration. I want to make it clear that in a lot of ways what we presented to the Re-Opening Advisory Board is not what we’re currently operating under. For those that have seen what other states are doing, you can take a look at our guidelines and New York state, and they look almost identical. I think it’s safe to say, our administration felt comfortable with the model in New York, but it’s our job and it’s our opportunity to say we are a very different state, we have different opportunities to adjust these guidelines and amend these guidelines under the safe recreational activities concept.
Until we get past May 18, and we can ease back into what will be those new normal operations, as Mass Golf we feel we have an obligation to extend this information and be a facilitator to our Member Clubs. We have 360 Members Clubs, and our golfers, we have 90,000 golfers on the roster. My colleagues here, the rest of the colleagues within the alliance, we all have an obligation to relay this information to our respective memberships.
Butch Stearns: How are these changes affecting how you can post a score?
Jesse Menachem: As of April 1, we’re in active score posting season in Massachusetts. But obviously we’ve only been playing golf for about a week right now. Under the current guidelines by way of the governor, the cups are supposed to be raised above ground.
By way of the Rules of Handicapping and Rules of Golf, the USGA has eased on some of their restrictions, so scores can be posted. We’re under the rule of Most Likely Score. If you hit your ball against the raised cup and you and your playing partners believe that ball would’ve been holed, that ball is holed. If you hit it at a speed that it ricochets beyond five feet, I think it’s safe to say that ball would not have been holed, so you add a stroke to that.
Butch Stearns: We saw many golfers going across state lines to Connecticut and other states to play. Did that have any effect on the re-opening dates here in Massachusetts?
Mike Higgins: We all wanted golf open sooner. We felt golf would be safe, we were constantly in contact with our allies so we knew where Massachusetts residents were going to play their golf.
We urged Massachusetts golfers to be patient through this process. This pandemic has affected millions of lives in the U.S., and our job as golf administrators is to make sure our members, in my case PGA Professionals, staff and club members were not at an increased risk for contracting COVID-19. They wanted to make sure the numbers were down before allowing any non-essential businesses to resume their operations.
Butch Stearns: Can players from other states come and play in Massachusetts?
Mike Higgins: Sure, Massachusetts is allowing non-residents to come into our state to play.
Butch Stearns: How are you handling restrooms?
Jennifer Webster O’Connor: It really relies back on common sense and touchpoints. Here at Holly Ridge, we’re sanitizing every hour. We’ve eliminated every touchpoint that’s possible. If it can’t be eliminated, i.e. a door handle, we put a sanitizing unit on the other side of that door. We have plenty of hand soap, towels, and only one person in at a time. Continuing to reinforce those habits is really what we’re doing.
Butch Stearns: What do you say to people who run these leagues or charity events? What advice do you have?
Jennifer Webster O’Connor: As much of a planner I am, unfortunately, we’re in a holding pattern until we know what the guidelines are going to be. For many of them, we felt safe to give them events late in the summer and early into the fall, but you only have so many of those dates that you give because you’ve already booked those dates out.
Butch Stearns: Jesse, are you guys in a holding pattern with the events that you run?
Jesse Menachem: Similar to the New England PGA, we run over 100 events throughout the season from May through October. We are very much in a holding pattern, but we’re working on what those contingencies could look like when we put on a more formal event. Right now, shotgun starts do not seem like a realistic option for the near future.
Our respective national organizations have also been collaborating, and they’ve worked on a program called Back to Golf. It’s really a three-phased approach that they’ve been getting approval from the CDC where at a certain time, given your state, given your situation, we’ll be able to relax some of these formal guidelines we’ve seeing.
When we get to the point of having a state championship or an outing, it’s going to look a lot different. We’re going to have to be in tee time intervals. And our numbers are going to look a lot different. Capacity is going to have to change from your 144 events, maybe down to 120 or 78. But it’s all going to be dictated by the CDC, what’s happening nationally and then what’s happening statewide.
You got to think outside the box. We’re not going to be able to have our pregame or our postgame socials after these competitions. You may have to go virtual … to conduct your award ceremony or acknowledge those who have supported you. It all needs to be considered.
Butch Stearns: Going forward, what’s your message for people who are watching this?
Mike Higgins: This is a minor setback that’s positioning us for a major comeback. I think we’ve seen with golf being reintroduced in the New England states how popular it is [and] how safe it can be, so I think we’re poised for a major comeback.
Don Hearn: I hope that people will be appreciative of the efforts that each facility has gone through to make golf available to them and to recognize, to some extent, the superintendents who have done, in my opinion, a wonderful job to make the courses playable.
Jennifer Webster O’Connor: The last six days have been a reminder to me now that we’ve been open, our customers are great, and we are in the people business. The reactions that we’ve had from their customers from just the past six days were about how thankful they are to us, and how excited they are to be back on our property and appreciative of all of our efforts, reminds us why we’re in this business every single day.
Jesse Menachem: I think there’s an opportunity to get some more golfers interested in the game. This is one of the first activities that we can consider. Some of your other sports leagues and activities are going to take some time to open up. So, let’s spread the word. Let’s get more people engaged and do it in a safe manner.
I really want to ask our golfers and our facilities and operators to do this the right way. We’ve been given an opportunity to open before any [non-essential] industry, before any business. Let’s follow the guidelines, let’s be respectful and responsible for each other, and let’s do it right.
ABOUT MASS GOLF
Mass Golf is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that is dedicated to advancing golf in Massachusetts by promoting its competitive spirit and camaraderie. With a community made up of over 85,000 golf enthusiasts and over 360 member clubs,
Mass Golf is the seventh-largest state golf association in the country. Members enjoy the benefits of handicapping, course rating and scoring services along with the opportunity to compete in an array of events for golfers of all ages and abilities. At the forefront of junior development, Mass Golf is proud to offer programming to youth in the state through The First Tee of Massachusetts and subsidized rounds of golf by way of Youth on Course.