Tier Fore – The case for keeping golf open during lockdowns

Tier Fore – The case for keeping golf open during lockdowns

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For Irish and Welsh golfers it looks set to be a winter of discontent. From Friday 23rd October, the estimated 200 golf courses in Wales will be forced to shut their doors for 17 days as part of the country’s ‘firebreak’ lockdown. In Ireland, under new Tier 5 rules, essential course maintenance now becomes the only golf activity permitted. Those restrictions are due to linger for six weeks.


It is a cruel blow for a sport that has thrived since the initial national lockdown, with surging rounds played across Great Britain as golfers take advantage of the game’s many benefits including exercise, fresh air, and a safe, enjoyable way to socialise. It is also, in the view of Sports Marketing Surveys, an unnecessary blow to strike.


All the evidence SMS has seen suggests that golf carries a very low risk. Person to person transmission of Coronavirus is limited outdoors, especially when players can remain safely apart at a distance well in excess of the 1m+ policy. When it was tasked by the UK Government with proving that golf could be played safely and within restrictions, the industry answered promptly and efficiently. New signage at golf courses and facilities is allowing for successful spacing of players. Removing rakes from bunkers has prevented the most likely source of on-course transmission. There are now no other surfaces on the golf course that players need to touch. Provided golfers leave the flag in and do not pick up each other’s golf balls the game can be played entirely at a distance from players and communal surfaces.


In part because of this proactive work to make golf courses safe, evidence of transmission at golf facilities is extremely hard to find. Figures for Ireland up to the 17th October show just 19 total cases under the banner of “sporting activity / fitness”. Outbreaks are not assigned to golf specifically.

Table from HPSC, part of the Irish Health Service Executive.

Tests by health experts point to the same conclusions. Golf routinely ranks as a low risk activity. A Texas Medical Association chart rated golf as a risk of 3/10, the same as grocery shopping or going for a walk, run or bike ride with others. Only tennis ranks safer among sports.

When SMS polled golfers earlier this summer to see if perceived safety matched the science, the news was positive. Players in the UK felt that golf represented an extremely safe way of socialising. 76% of golfers rated the safety of playing within social distancing guidelines as 9 or 10 out of 10. This was not a case of respondents being blasé about the virus situation. For context, only 3% felt the same about going to the gym and only 5% felt the same about dining out. Reflecting on what missing golf during the initial lockdown had meant to them, respondents pointed to the important social side of golf, while female and younger golfers were among the groups more likely to miss the opportunity to be in the fresh air that golf provides.


As for the industry and economy, SMS knows first-hand the impact that shutting golf courses will have on Wales. The data agency worked with Visit Wales between 2004-2015 to analyse the economic impact of golf tourism, a process which also involved monitoring the value of Welsh and English day trippers visiting courses across the country.


Even if public health advice does show (and I am certain the golf industry would be keen to see it if it does) that infections are spreading between households at golf facilities, there are less drastic measures that would further minimise the risk while allowing play to continue in certain formats. Limiting the number of players per group; insisting on household only play; restricting use of golf carts; taking bookings and payments online; closing indoor spaces like clubhouses / bars and pro shops; all these measures were successfully introduced during the initial weeks of golf’s return and could, with relative ease, be reintroduced by facility operators. Each and every one of these are tools that would allow golf to continue to boost the physical and mental health of its participants.


It is important to say at this point that SMS acknowledges that no activity is entirely risk free. Coronavirus is a serious condition, and one that has had and continues to have a devastating impact on individuals and businesses. Neither SMS, nor the golfers it samples, are public health experts and golf, like every other pastime brings some risk of transmission of the virus. That risk is increased if people fail to follow the rules put in place for their own and others’ safety.


However, there are also risks to not exercising and to stripping away the activities that make people happier and healthier. For many golfers, the sport is one of few forms of exercise that is either possible or appealing.


In fact, the benefits of golf, for both mental and physical health, are both enormous and increasingly well documented. The R&A continues to study this in detail, including commissioning robust research from a range of leading providers. Scientific evidence drawn from 5,000 studies on golf and health, found that playing golf can increase life expectancy, reduce the risk of major diseases, and improve mental health.


A study for SMS on behalf of the R&A backed this up, confirming that golfers feel less lonely than the average population, feel more engaged with their local communities, feel less stressed and are generally happier in their everyday lives.


More broadly, the scientific community is in agreement that reducing obesity and improving cardiovascular fitness are both important in tackling the pandemic by increasing the body’s resilience to the virus and improving outcomes among those infected. Vitamin D, which golf provides in spades thanks to exposure to sunlight, is also believed by many, although currently unverified, to help improve immune reactions to Coronavirus. Even if evidence eventually refutes the claim, vitamin D does have proven value in strengthening bones, enhancing sleep, mood and recovery from other illnesses that have not gone away during the pandemic. The UK Government, acknowledging this, already recommends a general programme of vitamin D supplements for the entire UK population.


Is it not therefore short-sighted to ban an activity that, it appears, has the potential to do more good than harm?

The benefits of golf, for both mental and physical health, are enormous and increasingly well documented

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